Travel Diary: Low-Key Sojourn in West Seattle

Seattle: The Space Needle. Pike Place Market. The Monorail. SAM, MoPOP and the Experience Music Project. But on a recent trip we found those iconic spots are only one side of the city's story—literally.

West Seattle makes it easy to
travel with pets.

It had been years since we'd ventured up north, but I'd been wanting to visit my friend and cookbook author Cynthia Nims, having been titillated by the beautiful shots she'd posted on Instagram from her walks through her West Seattle neighborhood. We set a date for a road trip north, and she suggested The Grove West Seattle Inn as a centrally located (and pet-friendly) spot to stay. It's a classic mid-century, two-story motel built for the flood of tourists that came to town to attend the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Even better, its rates were easily half of what we'd find downtown.

A peninsula separated from the downtown area by the Duwamish Waterway on its eastern flank and the Puget Sound on the north and west, hilly West Seattle is primarily residential, populated by almost one-fifth of the city's residents. Much like the east side of Portland, it's connected to downtown by a bridge and has thriving, active neighborhoods with busy shopping and dining areas. It's chock-full of locally owned businesses, and includes many parks with sweeping views of the water.

Smoke is the byword at Lady Jaye.

From Cynthia's photos, though, I was particularly drawn to the beaches that wrap around its rolling hills (top video). The paved, beach-side pathways allow bike-able, pedestrian-friendly access with spectacular water views, and the broad avenues sweep along them are lined on the other side with restaurants, bars and shops.

With Cynthia's list of suggested restaurants, most of which were a ten-minute-or-less drive from our digs, we chose the well-reviewed and promising-sounding Lady Jaye Smokehouse & Restaurant for dinner our first night. Promising a butcher shop, whiskey bar and barbecue, with an intriguing cocktail menu and reasonable prices, it was an easy pick. (The owners have also just opened a bakery-and-sandwiches spot called Little Jaye in South Park's Cloverdale Business Park.)

Luna Park Cafe is a West Seattle classic.

We got a table in the front window overlooking the busy sidewalk—the people-watching was excellent—while we perused the menu and I tried not to chug my mango shrub after the day's drive. Most of the mains came with a choice of three sides, so when their justifiably notorious Prime Bugogi Short Rib (above right) arrived on a platter with a huge pile of fries, watermelon salad and another pile of blistered shisito peppers, I was suitably bowled over. Dave's choice of the Smoked Pork New York was equally impressive, with three thick slices of meat, meltingly tender and luscious along with the requisite sides.

The evening was cool and clear, and I was determined to head to Alki Beach on the peninsula's northwestern side to catch the last rays of the sunset as it dropped into the Sound. Plus it gave us the opportunity to walk the dogs before collapsing into our beds (video, top).

Beignets well worth the wait.

Somehow by the next morning we were hungry again and decided to drop by the West Seattle landmark, the Luna Park Café with its eclectic 1950s-inspired decor that looked like your grandparents' attic (plus maybe their storage unit) had exploded inside. The retro diner menu is classic, with items divided into "piles, hobos, scrambles and omelettes"—basically homefries topped with eggs, homefries mixed into eggs (basically the same as a scramble) and homefries inside an egg wrap, respectively. Clever, and also well worth a visit.

Dinner was taken care of by an exclusive invite to dine chez Cynthia with her husband Bob in their mid-century home with, as Cynthia described it, "a million-dollar view…from the driveway." So the by-now-drizzly afternoon beforehand was spent napping and reading until it was time to head to their place.

Support local even when traveling!

The next morning we emerged from our room with the dogs for their morning walk and right across the street from our motel we saw a sign saying "FRESH BEIGNETS" in front of a nondescript warehouse. This deserved investigating, so I approached the plastic-flapped entrance to Jet City Beignet and rang the bell. A sign taped to a stand read "two for $6," which sounded like a deal. I ordered from the nice young woman who popped out, and a few minutes later the pups and I—Dave's lactose intolerance prevented him indulging—were munching on a box of the hot, fresh, crunchy pastries. (Never fear, Dave got his pastry at a coffee spot nearby.)

Find stellar brews and pub fare
at Elliott Bay.

The 2.5-mile trek from home to the West Seattle Farmers Market is Cynthia's regular workout on Sundays, and we'd arranged to meet and tour the market, then head to the nearby Elliott Bay Brewing Company for lunch with our husbands. A bustling market equivalent in size to our own Hillsdale market, it's always a delight to see a community come together over local food.

The guys were already well into their pints by the time we tore ourselves away from the market, and Elliott Bay proved its bonafides, to me, at least, with an extensive selection of its own organic beers—now sadly lacking in PDX brewpubs—and some of the best pub fare I've had in recent memory.

Silas and his friend Bruun Idun.

More rain was forecast for most of our last day, but we were intent on making a pilgrimage to Lincoln Park' for a hike and a visit with Bruun Idun, its resident troll, part of the Northwest Trolls: Way of the Bird King project, a series of giant hand-built troll sculptures by Danish environmental artist Thomas Dambo:

"At night there was a storm, there at the beach where she was born
And Idun felt a feeling wrong, and so she walked there in the dawn
And on her flute, the magic horn, a tune so passionate and strong
She played for them an orca song
To ask them where they all have gone."

The LOVE rock is a local landmark in West Seattle's Lincoln Park.

The other must-see before we left was to the renowned LOVE rock that Cynthia has immortalized on her blog.  She describes it as "the letters L-O-V-E spelled out in some manner of mostly-beach-collected materials," once including a green apple Jolly Rancher.

Myriad trails run through the park, some well-marked and some not, but there is always the water on the west and the street on the east, so it's difficult for even my directionally challenged self to go astray. A long waterside beach with idiosynchratic driftwood "sculptures" scattered along its length with a paved walkway running next to it, this is a spectacular park and even has its own public outdoor saltwater pool open in the summer months.

Discovering this other, much more low-key—and less expensive—side of Seattle was a delightful, eye-opening experience, and with downtown only a few minutes' drive across the bridge, we'll definitely be returning. Thanks, Cynthia—you truly are the "unofficial Walking West Seattle ambassador"!

Astonished in Astoria

While the big news to come out of our trip to Astoria last week revolved around the collapse of the pier supporting a section of the Buoy Beer building—in which no one was injured, thank heavens—it was also noteworthy because of the stellar weather that afforded virtually unobstructed views of the river traffic on the Columbia from our waterfront room at the ever-delightful Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa.

Endless entertainment on the river.

I was there at the invitation of the hotel to get a preview of their multimillion-dollar renovation scheduled for the end of this year—currently on tap to be completed in 2023—that will not only completely redo the front desk and lobby area, but will also add a craft cocktail bar with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the hotel's spectacular view of the river, with a menu of small plates featuring the best of what's in season from local farms and fishers. The spa will also get a makeover, updating services and amenities.

Birria and tacos…be still my heart!

The addition of the bar and kitchen is a smart investment, since the area near the bridge isn't exactly swimming in nearby dining options—though it is fun to schedule a chauffeured ride into town in one of the hotel's fleet of vintage cars. But if you're up for spectacular New Mexican take-out, my friend Jennifer Bright recommends the Taqueria los Compas food truck that's just a few short blocks away. It usually has at least two authentic birria stews along with delicious tacos, burritos, tortas and more. Hint: If a brisk early walk along the waterfront is your jam, then stop in and get the breakfast versions of the above items.

Fresh-caught halibut fish'n'chips!

A ubiquitous stop in Astoria, at least for my beer-loving husband, is at Fort George Brewery and Public House right downtown, with two dining options in the main building—upstairs for pizza and downstairs for pub grub, including spot-on fish and chips. Their charming pocket bar next door, the Lovell Taproom, was closed for a short period but is again open with its own tap list if you're looking for a more intimate experience.

Jennifer also recommends the sustainable seafood at South Bay Wild, a relatively new spot owned by fishing family Rob and Tiffani Seitz, as well as Brut, a wine bar and retail shop recently opened by Lisa Parks. Also mentioned were Naked Lemon bakery, Busu and Sasquatch Sandwich Shop as good bets.

New favorite: Historic Pier 39.

But our favorite by far on Jennifer's list was a bakery and café on the west end of town, Coffee Girl. Excellent coffee and house-made pastries are on the menu, but its location stole our hearts. It's on historic Pier 39 off Hwy 30 and is the city’s oldest and largest waterfront building. It literally sits out in the Columbia River, accessed by a short, planked bridge, and contains shops, a museum and a working cannery. It's magical to sit on the deck out front and watch the river traffic flow by.

The cozy pub at the Shelburne Hotel in Seaview.

We also managed an afternoon adventure across the Astoria-Megler bridge that soars over the Columbia, connecting Oregon's north coast with Washington's  Long Beach Peninsula. Anchored on the south end by the historic and very-much-still-working fishing town of Ilwaco where you can pick up whatever seafood is being pulled out of the area's waters at several dockside markets—Fish People and Tre-Fin Dayboat Seafood are two of many options—we were there to visit Cape Disappointment's Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center where our friends Leslie Kelly and her husband Johnny had signed up to be volunteer guides for the month.

Local oysters, local beer!

Feeling a bit peckish and with some time to kill before meeting our friends, we decided to stop in at the pub at Shelburne Hotel & Pub in nearby Seaview where we'd stayed decades before. Still as warm and inviting as we remembered, especially on a wet, cool spring day, we snacked on crispy-on-the-outside, luscious-in-the-middle cornmeal crusted Hama Hama oysters with fries and a couple of stellar local pints—Leadbetter Red Scottish Ale and Semper Paratus Porter—from just-down-the-block North Jetty Brewing. (Going to be looking for this brewery in the future!)

The historic North Head Lighthouse.

Thus fortified, after a short hike to the stunning North Head Lighthouse, we made our way to the Center and were given a tour of the exhibit tracing the journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's Corps of Discovery from its beginnings as a US Army unit commissioned by President Jefferson tasked with scientific and commercial exploration (for future exploitation) of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase, ending with the Corps' eventual arrival on the country's western edge.

An all-too-brief sojourn with Leslie and Johnny had us trundling back over the bridge at twilight to our room at the hotel. A quick drive the next morning to the beach at Gearhart so the dogs could get their yayas out on the sand before heading home was the perfect end to our 48-hour trip, one we'll hopefully repeat at greater leisure in the not-too-distant future.

Beach Time: Manzanita Weekend

It had been well over a year since we'd been to the beach for more than a day trip—almost criminal considering Portland is an easy 90 miles from the coast—so for a birthday treat we rented a small house in Manzanita for a long weekend. Situated at the quieter north end of town near Neahkanie Mountain, and with rain in the forecast, we'd have a chance to read and write and maybe, just maybe, get in a few dry walks on the beach.

Cloudy to cloudless in 24 hours.

Winter sojourns on the Oregon coast require a certain flexibility. Storm fronts can blow in and just as quickly blow over, so it can pour all morning then suddenly break into high overcast (or…gasp…sun!) allowing time for long-ish strolls.

The high tides in winter—this year there have been several so-called "king tides," a non-scientific term for exceptionally high tides—bring a great deal of detritus to affected beaches. Driftwood, seaweed and grasses, along with ribbons of sea foam or "spume" churned up by the waves, litter the tidal zone, as well as colorful chunks of plastic large and small, and the bodies of creatures caught in the storms, including velella velella, birds and shellfish.

Great selection at Cloud and Leaf Bookstore in Manzanita.

When, not if, the next storm front arrives, it’s the perfect time duck into the exceedingly cozy Cloud and Leaf Bookstore for reading material, then repair to the San Dune Pub for a pint. A stop at the surprisingly well-stocked Manzanita Fresh Foods market on the way home for dinner odds and ends and we were set for the evening.

Which kicked off with a stellar pasta dish from my brother's old blog, crab and thinly sliced ribbons of chicory in a shallot and wine sauce, all warmed together with the hot pasta until the chicory wilts but still has a nice crunch. A curly endive salad in a creamy vinaigrette, a glass of a dry rosé to drink, and we were as happy, if not more so, than we would have been going to a fancy seafood place.

Safe from tsunamis…whew!

We could then head to bed knowing our rental house was safe from the aforementioned king tides and tsunamis, as declared by a line painted on the main road just down the hill. Tsunamis, triggered by earthquakes offshore in the Cascadia subduction zone, are a big topic in coastal towns, since they can affect hundreds of miles of coastline, threatening people on the beach, those living in low-lying areas, and anyone living or working near the bays and estuaries that make the Oregon coast such a rich environment.

Safe for now…

Not that it was on the mind of the young four-inch banana slug making its way across the patio, but that tsunami line out on the road means it's likely to reach full adulthood as long as it doesn’t meander too far afield.