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A Soggy Bit of Northwestern History

<i> Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers. </i>

Listening to tales of how this town got started takes either a vivid imagination or finely honed sense of humor.

Our first lesson came from a sprightly, pretty and altogether funny young woman who was a guide for Seattle Underground, a civic notch in history that borders on the absurd. According to Lorrie, it goes like this:

A clutch of Midwesterners arrived hereabouts in 1851 and decided to pitch camp on a bayside mud flat they named Duwamps. They didn’t realize it was an island until the tide came briskly in.

In spite of the high water table, the soggy town grew fitfully until the 1870s when a child disappeared forever into an eight-foot-deep pothole. Drastic measures were taken as surrounding cliffs were pushed down toward the bay as landfill. New earthworks also raised the street levels, effectively covering the lower floors of city buildings, creating Seattle Underground and other problems.

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All those lakes, bays and assorted other moisture sources sprouted one of our country’s greenest and most beautiful cities.

Here to there: PSA, Western, United, Northwest, Air Cal and Alaska Air will get you there without changes. An Airporter bus runs every 15 minutes and stops at half a dozen major downtown hotels, cost $2.75, a cab about $12.

Getting around town: Seattle has a fine transit system, free buses in the downtown shopping area, a monorail that zips you from there to Seattle Center and the Space Needle in less than two minutes.

How long/how much? Give it a couple of days and plan to keep moving most of the time, lots to see. Hotel prices are moderate, dining the same. The place gets hosed down by nature regularly, but the locals claim it usually rains about an hour or so, then sparkles like no other city.

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Getting settled in: Our choice for the town’s best in the moderate range has to be Mayflower Park Hotel (4th and Olive; $58-$68 double), locally owned by a family that cares, handsome and spacious lobby, right downtown. Tastefully decorated rooms, two good restaurants, an in-house baker for the freshest breads. Free parking. It’s difficult to beat this one for comfort and location. The toll-free reservation number is (800) 426-5100.

Not in the same category, but just as anxious to keep you happy, is The Kennedy (1100 5th Ave.; $37.95 double B&B;). Everything about this one is small and modest, including rooms and lobby. But they toss in the morning paper with your continental breakfast, give men and women guests a separate list of about 25 personal items that they may have forgotten to pack, ranging from bandages, shoelaces, and combs to umbrellas, irons and bobby pins. Just call the desk and up it comes. No charge and no tips, please.

Pacific Plaza (4th Avenue and Spring; $49 B&B; winter, $52 summer) is cut from the same cloth, noted more for its convenient location and basic needs of a visitor than for any pretensions to luxury. Rooms go from small to almost tiny, decor rather flouncy. There’s also a senior-citizen rate here.

Regional food and drink: For local specialties start with seafood and don’t go much further. Lots of ethnic places, of course, and all that rainfall accounts for tons of fresh produce. The salmon family is a large one, with enough types and tastes to stir up a salmagundi of salmon for the epicure. Washington state wines have been carving a respectable niche with grape lovers for two decades, crisp, clean, very good indeed.

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Moderate-cost dining: Maximilien in Pike Place Market is a typical French market cafe designed to put joy into the heart of the most ardent Francophile. It’s a clunky place with an endless array of mirrors nailed here and there upstairs and down. Try the terrine et rillettes duo of country pates with cornichons, perhaps saumon dijonnaise sauteed with tomatoes, sour cream, dill and Dijon mustard.

Most of the market is closed on Sundays, but Maximilien holds forth with grilled sweetbreads, homemade sage sausages and salade nicoise . House wines all French, lots of Gallic magazines and newspapers to choose from, great view of harbor upstairs, more authentic ambiance below.

We’ve always been of a mind that revolving restaurants quickly outlive their uselessness, but Seattle’s Space Needle shows you the city’s spectacular setting as no other place in town.

Once known for its low respect for food and lofty prices, the past few years have seen new owners try mightily to put things to right. The chowders still won’t thrill a Bostonian, but other dishes are prepared and offered well in the restaurant and in the more imaginative and pricier Emerald Suite. Our lunch was fine, the pasta in a creamed basil sauce marred only by gratuitous garnishing.

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Going first-class: Step backward in time to the Sorrento Hotel (900 Madison; $95-$110), from its lobby paneled in rich Honduras mahogany, heroic Rookwood fireplace, to the equally warm and low-key Hunt Club Room for superb dining in an aura of well-being and solicitous service. Only 76 rooms, all rich in atmosphere, the Wall Street Journal at your door each morning.

Newer on the scene is Baffert’s (314 Broadway E.) that prides itself on Creative Northwest Cuisine. It would be creative and joyful fare anywhere on earth. Like braised cabbage and Portuguese sausage soup; Anaheim pepper stuffed with grilled razor clams that was a marvel; red oak leaf salad with chevre, sesame oil, roasted Belgian peppers and raspberry vinaigrette; blackened Coho salmon dressed with a pepper mousse. Prices are so friendly they’re shocking.

On your own: After an overview from the Space Needle, don’t miss the color and fun of Pike Place Market; Pioneer Square Historic District and Seattle Underground; Boeing Aircraft’s Museum of Flight for a look at 1917 Jenny and jets; and a boat ride to Blake Island’s Tillicum Village for a meal of salmon baked with an open fire, Indian dances, crafts and artifacts in a cedar longhouse by the water.

For more information: Call the Seattle-King County Visitors Bureau at (206) 447-4200, or write (1815 7th Ave., Seattle 98101) for the Seattle Package, a selection of brochures with maps, sights, accommodations and dining in the area.

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