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Though you could zip from Portland up to Seattle in less than three hours on the ever-congested I-5, there's a much better way to get there. I'm talking about the scenic route, via the Long Beach Peninsula, Grays Harbor and the central coast of Washington. You can take your time along these roads and drink in the brisk sea air, stopping every now and then to enjoy the sights before arriving in one of America's most laid-back cities, Seattle.

Long Beach

Leaving Portland, Long Beach is a 100-mile journey, first north on I-5 and then west on Washington State 4. Living up to its name, Long Beach measures nearly 30 miles, much of it quite developed. The highlight of any visit here is Fort Canby State Park, with its memorable Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. Cape Disappointment, nearby, is the place where the two intrepid explorers and their retinue ended the long trek from Missouri back in 1806. (Open daily, free admission, tel. 360/642-3029.) The cape's lighthouse is the oldest on the West Coast, dating back to 1856.

Also in Long Beach is a favorite of mine, the World Kite Museum & Hall of Fame, with amazing contraptions from around the world. Open daily in summer, weekends only for the rest of the year. Admission is $1.50 for adults, $1 for kids and seniors. (112-3rd St. Northwest, tel. 360/642-4020, Web site: www.woldkitemuseum.com).

A good place to eat here is the 42nd Street Cafe in Seaview (4201 Pacific Way, on the Pacific Highway, tel. 360/642-2323). It's the spot for fried razor clams and traditional comfort foods like fried chicken, with main courses running from $10 to about $16. Open daily, year round.

Grays Harbor

Farther north is Grays Harbor, which you reach by driving around Willapa Bay (the source of most of Washington's oysters) in an 80-mile near-circle. North of the harbor's mouth, from Ocean Shores to Pacific Beach on State 109, is a spectacular stretch of scenery, well worth the detour.

The big deal along these shores is razor clamming, but you'll need a license to try it (it's probably also a good idea to bring a sturdy bucket and towel!). Contact the chamber of commerce at 800/345-6223 for details before you depart on your trip.

If you decide to overnight in the area, the Ocean Crest Resort (SR 109, Sunset Beach, Moclips, tel. 800/684-8439 or 360/276-4465, fax 360/276-4149) offers an amazing view of the coast. Rates for a double room range from $50 to $125, lower midweek in winter. There are stairs down to the beach (although swimming in the ocean is definitely not recommended), but the hotel has its own pool and a fine restaurant, specializing in seafood.

Down in Westport, on the harbor's southern coast, you might enjoy the Westport Maritime Museum (2201 Westhaven Drive, tel. 360/268-0078). The museum houses whaling exhibits, complete with skeletons, and the huge Destruction Island Lighthouse lens. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for kids (free for school-age children every third Saturday of the month noon until 2:30).

Getting back to your Seattle itinerary, take US 12 from Aberdeen (at the eastern end of Grays Harbor), going right through Olympia, the state capital, back to I-5.

Seattle on the Cheap

Seattle is a satisfying blend of cosmopolitan center and new-age mecca, with the tranquility and grandeur of its several mountain ranges starkly contrasted by the cities well-chronicled obsession with caffeine, fine eateries, and loud, raucous street gatherings (this a community deeply committed to social activism--and, at times, just plain partying). The city is fortressed by the Olympic Mountains to the east and the Cascade range to the West. Mount Rainier is a particular highlight of the horizon. One moment you're looking at a hazy blue sky, and the next moment the majestic slopes of this still-active volcano materialize out of thin air like some far off Oz. Seattle boasts several waterfront vistas as well. To the south of downtown is Elliot Bay, which flows into Puget Sound and, eventually, the Pacific. There is also a series of lakes and rivers north of downtown, beyond which on exceptionally clear days can be seen the upper reaches of Mount Baker.

Culture, On and Off the Rock

Partly due to Microsoft's proximity in suburban Bellevue, the soaring economy (even with all the troubles of 2000) has brought the city a plethora of exciting cultural experiences. It is the home to a major opera company, a world-class ballet and symphony orchestra, a first-rate museum, and many professional theaters. The city witnessed the birth of the grunge movement, and has a thriving jazz and alternative music scene as well.

I'll start with the city's newest cultural temple, the EMP (Experience Music Project, opened in June of 2000), which is the most peculiar "museum" I have ever seen. Conceived by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft (and owner of much of Seattle now, it would appear), and designed by Frank O. Gehry of Bilbao Guggenheim Museum fame, EMP is like nothing anyone has "experienced" before.

Gehry's architecture has aroused as much negative publicity as positive, critics stating that the EMP looks like "smashed Kleenex boxes," among other things. Although I found the exterior fascinating, the multicolored array of lumpy, smooth structures (I hesitate to call them "buildings") didn't move me emotionally, one way or the other. One Seattle friend of mine hates the look, describing it as an "indulgence" on Gehry's part.

Inside EMP, however, I realized that visiting here could be a life-changing experience for anyone interested in popular American music--how it is created, how it is performed, and how it is taken in my the consumer. After paying your admission (see below), an attendant hangs a small computer around your neck, plugs in earphones for you and hands you a remote control, connected to the computer by a cable. There is a short lesson on how to use this contraption, and then you are free to wander (with a map, preferably) around the museum's two exhibit floors.

On the top floor, you can use interactive electric guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums or experiment with mixers, sampling and microphones, creating your own music. There is also a Demo Lab, and, if you are brave, you can go "On Stage" and perform for your friends or strangers. I loved the piano boards where you could follow keys that light up, showing you which ones to hit, then how to add rhythm and guitar to back you up.

Exhibits themselves are keyed to your computer, so all you have to do is aim your remote at the appropriate display and click Enter, then see information on your screen and hear the music being played. You can be viewing and hearing a Jimi Hendrix display while the person next to you is absorbed by Elvis Presley. There are hundreds of guitars, basses, and other instruments on display, too.

The "heart and soul" of EMP is the Sky Church, a big space where performances take place, many of them on "the world's largest indoor video screen." You can take (or leave) the Artist's Journey, a bumpy ride on a "motion platform" with special effects, lighting, film, audio, video, computer graphics and more. (I left it.)

Admission is not cheap. For adults it is $19.95; seniors, military personnel and students 13 to 17 pay $15.95; children 7 to 12 pay $14.95; age six and younger free. Your ticket entitles you to come in and out all day, until closing time (you get a wristband), so you can go out to eat or picnic, though there is a nice (if noisy) restaurant in the basement. One hint: if you plan to visit more than one day, you might want to invest in a membership, which is only $35 if you live outside Washington State ($45 otherwise). This allows you free admission, access to the member-only section of the Web site, a magazine, T-shirt, and other perks.

EMP is open from 9 AM to 11 PM daily in summer, 10 to 6 daily the rest of the year except Fridays and Saturdays, when it is from 10 AM to 11 PM. My advice is to get there early and on a weekday. Contact EMP at 877/EMP LIVE or 206/EMP LIVE (same as 206/367-5483). You can check out their Web site at www.emplive.com.

Seattle has an incredibly vibrant theater scene. Most national tours play either the Paramount Theater or the Fifth Avenue, both grand and ornate converted movie palaces (a dragon coiled around the dome of the Fifth Avenue holds an elegant chandelier in its mouth). The Fifth Avenue also offers a season of locally produced, Broadway-style musicals. Balcony tickets can run as low as $18.

The Seattle Rep is a nationally known venue, specializing in contemporary plays and big, flashy productions of Shakespeare. The Intiman Theater specializes in both European and American classics, and A Contemporary Theater (ACT) presents new works, many West Coast premiers, and quirky, off-the-wall fare. On the "alternative theater" and "performance art" scene, theaters such as Empty Space and The Annex present edgier, more varied offerings.

To find out about current productions, show times and ticket prices pick up a copy of either The Stranger or The Seattle Weekly, free newspapers published every Thursday and available in most bars, restaurants and supermarkets. You can read each online:The Stranger at www.thestranger.com, The Seattle Weekly at www.seattleweekly.com.

Where to Stay

I have located a few places to stay and eat right in the downtown area surrounding Pike Place Market or very close by, as the market is the city's prime tourist magnet. All are low budget.

Moore Hotel, perhaps Seattle's oldest, is right next to Pike Place Market, at 1926 Second Avenue, Seattle WA 98101. Phone them at 800/421-5508 or 206/448-4851, fax 2-06/443-0405. Their e-mail is info@moorehotel.com, Web site www.moorehotel.com. The 140 rooms are rather large, and if you want to pay more than the standard rate (doubles from $60 to $75), you can get kitchenettes or suites. The lobby is fairly cheerful and well lit, the service very friendly. Children under 16 stay free, extra bed $10 each. There is a just-average restaurant and a lounge adjoining.

St. Regis Hotel, 116 Stewart Street, Seattle WA 98101, has 133 rooms and a 24-hour laundromat. Double rooms run from $50 to $64, with lower per night weekly rates. This is an eight-story building that has seen better days (the lobby is pretty grim), but it is well located, right downtown. Contact them at 206/448-6366, fax 206/448-5536. Their e-mail is st.regis@p-h-s.com, their Web site www.saintregis.com

Kings Inn, 2106 Fifth Avenue, Seattle WA 98121, tel. 800/546-4760 or 206/331-8833, fax 206/441-0730. Email boc1266@msn.com, Web site www.kingsinnseattle.com. This is a three-floor motel, nicely located, with free color cable TV, local calls, coffee, parking and tub/shower combinations in the 68 rooms here. You can also get a refrigerator or microwave on request. They have special rates for seniors and families, to mention only two groups. Doubles run from $55 to $95, suites from $70 to $90. It's a few blocks' walk from the marketplace.

Dining Out

Culture has other aspects, too, including the manner in which a community treats its less fortunate citizens. You can do good by doing well, so to speak, when you go for lunch or dinner at one of the three restaurants operated by FareStart, a nonprofit charity which teaches the disadvantaged the culinary skills to work in restaurants and catering services throughout the Seattle area.

FareStart Restaurant, 1902 Second Avenue, serves a "gourmet" buffet lunch at $6.50 every weekday from 11 to 2, featuring hot entrees, soups, salads, vegetarian dishes, pasta made to order, and dessert. The cooks are the best students of FareStart, a charitable operation that runs three restaurants (serving 1500 meals a day) and a school to teach disadvantaged persons culinary skills and customer service so that they can go out to work for restaurants and catering companies and businesses throughout the Seattle area. An administrator of the service told me that "90% of their students go straight into jobs, and 90% of those stay on the job for at least three months, most of them more than that." On every Thursday evening (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's), an outside celebrity chef is invited to come in, teach the students, and provide a gourmet three-course dinner for the public at $14.50. You'll be helping FareStart as well as enjoying one of the city's best buffets, when you dine here or at their other two outlets, listed below.

The Broderick Cafe is FareStart's other restaurant downtown, located at 615 Second Street in the Pioneer Square area. It offers continental breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The menu includes panini sandwiches, fresh salads, soups and great espresso. The third FareStart enterprise is a training cafe at Antioch University, also serving three meals a day. Phone any of them at FareStart, 206/443-1233, or visit their Web site at www.farestart.org.

Lowell's, on the main level of the primary building in Pike Place Market (Number 1519 Pike Place) is famous for its daily breakfasts starting at $5.75. Breakfast or lunch, every meal is accompanied by nice views of the Puget Sound and the Olympic mountain range beyond. Phone them at 206/622-2036.

Merchants Cafe is the oldest restaurant in Seattle, and looks it. Although it is positively genteel now, with business people crowding in for lunch on weekdays, it was undoubtedly the original Skid Row saloon, or so the management likes to boast. Try a sandwich and soup for lunch, maybe even for dinner. Atmospheric, and how! A few blocks south of the Pike Place Market area, in Pioneer Square at 109 Yesler Way, phone 206/624-1515. Open daily.

Gibson's Bar & Grill (AKA Gibson's Marketplace Grill), corner of Second Avenue and Stewart Street. This place is typical of grunge (the decor), the musical and sartorial versions of which originated in Seattle. Just one block up from the Pike Place Market, it features both Chinese food and all-American fare such as hamburgers. You can get full Chinese dinners from $9.95, combo plates from $8.75, individual main courses (sweet and sour pork, for instance) from $4.95. The lunch special goes for $4.50 and up, hamburgers the same. Live music some evenings.

Coffee & Bagels

Starbucks started here, and for decades, the Scandinavians in this area have been guzzling caffeine in huge quantities. The tastiest chain coffee is from Seattle's Best, which has the advantage of growing its own beans and being politically correct at the same time. Their branches are scattered all over town, including the downtown area. At independent places such as Caffe d'Arte, on Stewart Street opposite the St. Regis Hotel, you can get a brew for as little as $1.35.