A LITTLE MORE THAN A YEAR AGO, my family and I picked up and moved from Manhattan to the Seattle area. It was a big change—new house, new jobs, new schools, new friends, new lives. During the first months, we wondered when the rain would end. But then we learned that if we drove east over the Cascades, the clouds that shroud our city would almost immediately disappear, and there would be the dry, wide-open stretches and pale-blue skies of eastern Washington, like a big-screen western. We discovered that our new neighbors were as likely to spend the weekend sailing in the San Juans as camping in the North Cascades. And soon we joined the common mission to find the best places to hike, camp, climb, bike, ski, raft, kayak, and just sit around. Herewith, the ultimate itinerary for a family with 10 days to spend in our new backyard. See you there.
A small, friendly city, Seattle makes a great family destination—in fact, we occasionally check into a hotel Friday night just so we can wake up in town and get an early start. Our strategy is to book an apartment at Plaza Park Suite [Now known as Summerfield Suites], (1011 Pike St.; 206/682-8282) a hotel consisting primarily of suites (most of which have kitchens), with an outdoor pool and a dynamite downtown location. Ask whether special rates are available; on our last visit we were upgraded to a Skyline suite with a Space Needle view the Jetsons would have envied. It had a master bedroom, a family room with a pullout couch, a fireplace, a dining nook, and a full kitchen.
After breakfast we walk down to Pike Place Market, (www.pikeplacemarket.org) which is always best before the crowds take over. It's the soul of the city, and we never tire of watching the fish vendors launch salmon through the air like touchdown passes. Sometimes we buy a cooked Dungeness crab to take back to our room for a decadent family snack.
From the market, we might continue on to the waterfront and the Seattle Aquarium (1483 Alaskan Way, Pier 59; 206/386-4300; www.seattleaquarium.com), where we've spent many an hour watching the dogfish, wolf eel, and green sturgeon in the underwater dome, or outdoors flirting with the otters. Or we allow ourselves to be led up the hill to GameWorks (1511 Seventh Ave.; 206/521-0952) for a bit of virtual play. How long you last depends on your tolerance for tricked-out bikes that transform you into Evel Knievel or 3-D worlds where your five-year-old can blow up cities with the press of a joystick. But, hey—it's Seattle, so you may as well power up.
If you recover enough to continue on, your next stop should be Pioneer Square, Seattle's oldest neighborhood. Start at Pioneer Place, a triangular park where a totem pole and turn-of-the-century pergola mark the site of the city's first permanent settlement. Today, the surrounding area is full of art galleries, home-furnishings stores, bookshops, and cafés.
Just off Pioneer Place, you can buy tickets for the hokey but fun Underground Tour (608 First Ave.; 206/682-4646; www.undergroundtour.com). Kids under six will grow antsy, but older ones will get a kick out of prowling the subterranean passageways of Seattle's original city. Around the corner is Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (117 S. Main St.; 206/553-7220; www.nps.gov/klse), a small museum with old photographs, films, and gold-panning demonstrations.
My favorite place in Pioneer Square, if not the whole city, is the Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St.; 206/624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com), one of the nation's last great independent bookstores. The children's room has a two-story castle for climbing, along with an excellent selection of books. The café is a good spot for an afternoon energy boost.
On your second day in Seattle, head up I-5 to the award-winning Woodland Park Zoo (5500 Phinney Ave. N.; 206/684-4800; www.zoo.org). It has examples of more than 300 species, most roaming impressively natural habitats. You'll meet up with gorillas, poison-dart frogs, monkeys, and free-flying birds in the Tropical Rain Forest; endangered orangutans and lion-tailed macaques in the new Trail of Vines. From there, get back on I-5, take the Mercer Street exit, and follow the signs to Seattle Center—a 74-acre park north of downtown where you can grab lunch, visit the Pacific Science Center (200 Second Ave. N.; 206/443-2001; www.pacsci.com) and the Children's Museum (305 Harrison St.; 206/441-1768; www.thechildrensmuseum.org), or simply gaze up at the Space Needle. The latter's observation deck provides a heck of a view, but it costs a pricey $13.00 each to get there.
The city's other must-see is the mega-flagship of the sports co-op REI (222 Yale Ave. N.; 206/223-1944), where kids clamber about the skid-free rocks and waterfalls of the indoor JanSport Kids' Camp; try their parents' nerves on what's billed as the world's tallest freestanding indoor climbing wall; sample mountain bikes on a trail that winds around the building; and—as if there weren't enough rain in Seattle—test out waterproof jackets and hats in a glass-walled shower.
If you're game for a detour, I strongly recommend a day trip southeast to Mount Rainier. With an early start you can hike a volcano, touch a glacier, and be back in time to wash up for dinner.
You could devote weeks to exploring the San Juan Islands, but taking the ferry to Orcas—the biggest and (in my opinion) most beautiful of the group—will give your family a fine taste of island life. You'll also have the pleasure of reverting to island time, which, due to the overcrowded ferry system, is largely beyond your control (you may watch a few ferries come and go before you actually get on one). From Seattle, drive 11/2 hours north to Anacortes, where you catch the Washington State Ferry (call 206/464-6400 for the schedule; plan to arrive at least a half-hour before departure). Once aboard, stake out window seats or head up on deck and keep your eyes sharp for seals, eagles, waterfowl, even a pod of killer whales, depending on the season.
There are several lovely places to stay on Orcas, but we like to reserve an Island Hearth suite at the Cascade Harbor Inn (1800 Rosario Rd.; 800/201-2120, 360/376-6350; www.cascadeharborinn.com. It sits on a hillside overlooking Cascade Bay, next door to the historic Rosario resort, and has the same views at a fraction of the price. The look is utilitarian-condo, but suites come with a full kitchen, a living room with a Murphy bed for the kids, and a separate room for mom and dad, as well as two baths and a balcony.