Yes, the rumors are true. Flannel, forests and soy vanilla lattes aren't too hard to come by in Seattle. And yes, its nickname, "The Emerald City" is well-deserved.
Even though Seattle sports a slightly Scandinavian vibe — clean, environmentally progressive, urban but also on the edge of wilderness — it's not a stark, serious eco-topia. This colorful city proudly wears its patches of Wild West self-reliance and Pacific Rim multiculturalism on its recycled-fleece Patagonia sleeves.
Seattle's downtown is compact and walkable; the rest of the city's sprawling, majestic lake-hill-lake-hill-bay landscape may prove daunting to first-time visitors. For a city that prides itself on environmentalism, the mass transit system needs work but is making headway. The famed Monorail only serves two downtown stops and the low-footprint public buses may scare off the uninitiated. Furthermore, traveling outside of the city center may require a car, bike or even a boat.
Seattle consists of a ragtag patchwork of eclectic neighborhoods perched on hills, in valleys, under bridges and even on islands. It begs to be explored, so pack a sense of wanderlust, a good pair of walking shoes and perhaps an umbrella.
Want to bond with Mother Nature? Seattle is an amusement park for nature lovers that's open 365 days a year, rain or shine. If you don't want to travel too far afield (skiing, hiking, rafting, etc.) there are plenty of outdoorsy inner-city excursions to be had.
Green Lake, a park/nature preserve in the heart of the city, features a 2.8-mile path that's a go-to spot for serious joggers, walkers, bikers and skaters. The Burke-Gilman Trail is another recreational haven. At 27 miles long, the historic trail passes through visit-worthy neighborhoods north of downtown — funky Fremont, seafaring Ballard and the University District — before entering the burbs.
On the shore of Lake Union and along the path of the Burke-Gilman Trail is Gas Works Park. This dramatic place — it's located on the site of an abandoned gas production plant — has the dubious distinction of being the starting point for World Naked Bike Ride events. It's also a popular place to fly kites.
Adjacent to the hectic consumerism of the University Village shopping district (the "U Village") but seemingly worlds away is the Washington Park Arboretum. The 230-acre urban green space is a primo spot for a picnic, plant appreciation and people watching.
Yes, there are indeed rainy days in Seattle when outdoor adventure isn't appealing. Both bookworms and fans of contemporary green architecture will get some mileage out of the Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Library. Or learn more about Mother Nature at the Pacific Science Center, travel to the top of the iconic — and recently greened-up — Space Needle, and then swing by a Seattle Greendrinks meet-up where you'll discover what happens when a Grist editor, a permaculturist, a fair-trade coffee micro roaster, a salmon watcher and a sustainable fashion designer all walk into a bar ...
Given that this is the Emerald City, there's no shortage of green hotels in Seattle. Aside from the three eco-friendly Kimpton properties — the Alexis, the Hotel Vintage Park and the Hotel Monaco — there are three standouts that cater to LEED-seeking luxury travelers, on-the-cheap green hipsters and nature lovers.
A newbie on Seattle's green hotel scene is the 346-room Hyatt at Olive 8 , on track to become the city's first LEED-certified hotel. Expect all the trappings of an upscale Hyatt property plus a large rooftop garden, a holistic spa, and Urbane, nirvana for locavores hankering for world-class Pacific Northwest cuisine. Chef Bret Martin may be a New Zealander but he knows his way around locally caught salmon, Walla Walla onions and Beecher's artisanal cheese.
Eco-expats and sustainable design snobs may feel more at home at the Ace Hotel in the riotous Belltown neighborhood. The hotel's Philippe Starck-meets-European-youth-hostel aesthetic is sexy but not too severe and the affordable Ace chain — with other properties in Portland, Palm Springs and New York — is known for eco-friendly flourishes. True to its hostel vibe, many Ace rooms don't feature en-suite bathrooms, so you may get to save water by sharing an Aveda product-stocked shower with a new friend.
Nautical Thoreau types looking to commune with the Puget Sound will enjoy the Edgewater, a rustic boutique hotel built over Elliot Bay on Pier 67 (talk about water views). This Eco Leaf-rated property once provided fishing poles to guests so they could fish from their rooms. En-suite fishing is no longer listed as one of the hotel's amenities so order the sustainable catch of the day at Six Seven, the in-house restaurant.
Seattle offers plenty of great eats outside of hotel restaurants. The city may still be struggling to find its gastronomic identity, but an influx of eateries focusing on organic, local and seasonal ingredients have developed a ravenous following.
The award-winning Tilth is one of only two restaurants in the country to receive organic certification by Oregon Tilth . Chef Maria Hines' rotating menus offer innovative organic and local choices such as mini duck burgers and truffled cauliflower flan.
Hungry for just a slice? Order from Pagliacci Pizza, a red-sauced Seattle institution with citywide delivery kitchens. If you thought pizza delivery was inherently ungreen, think again. The company purchases green power, serves beverages in biodegradable cups and was recently named "2008 Recycler of the Year in Composting and Food Waste" by the Washington State Recycling Association.
With stunning natural surroundings as its main attraction, Seattle has proven to be a good, but not great, shopping city. The downtown arteries are lined with chain stores but there are numerous only-in-Seattle spots for retail therapy.
The labyrinthine Pike Place Market (yes, this is where fishes are tossed and where Starbucks began) is the place to "meet the producer." Founded in 1907, Pike Place is one of the oldest continually operating open-air markets in the United States and undoubtedly laid down the "greenprint" for future farmers and green markets. Nibble on organic produce, get a tattoo, try on handcrafted jewelry or shop for herbal remedies all in one bustling space.
Outdoor outfitter REI's flagship store is also a Seattle must-shop. REI has a stringent environmental stewardship policy and a dizzying inventory of everything from recycled-content sleeping bags to organic power bars to solar chargers.
If all the shopping, biking and walking has your feet screaming murder, take a breather and get a pedicure at Julep Nail Parlor, a paraben- and formaldehyde-free house o' nails.
Toward a sustainable future
Seattle embraces its status as one of America's greenest cities and continues to improve its image. The city has already surpassed initial Kyoto Protocol global-warming targets and continues to focus on curbing the traffic-related carbon emissions that have plagued it for years. Segments of a light rail service that links downtown with northern and southern neighborhoods and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is due to start running in mid-2009.
Seattle is versatile. It's whatever you make it: a sleek, sophisticated center for eco-innovation, culture and commerce or a rough-and-tumble gateway to the great outdoors. The G-word is anything but a dirty word in this town; just try to use the other G-word, "grunge," sparingly.