Wild Washington

By Ilona Kauremszky

WASHINGTON named after America's first president, this Pacific Northwest state that straddles the Canadian border is a paradise for ecoseekers, technophiles, foodies and oenophiles.

From cosmopolitan Seattle to the rugged Pacific coast to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Rainier, Washington's diverse geography is sure to inspire. You can hike the lush conifer forests, climb mountains, shoot raging whitewaters of the Columbia River or contemplate a sunset over the Walla Walla Valley. As for that laidback coastal charm, your motor coach group is sure to catch the Zen.

Once explorers Lewis and Clark mapped the wonders of Washington. Now Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon.com and motor coach companies are staking their claim to the beauty of Washington's wild northwest.

Here are some favorites.

Known as the birthplace of Starbucks, grunge, the dotcom boom, and of course Kelsey Grammer's hit sitcom "Frasier," Seattle is the largest city in Washington and a major gateway destination for some tour operators and a "hub and spoke" base for others.

Cradled between the Olympic Mountains and the rugged Cascades, the Emerald City hugs the lip of Elliott Bay on Puget Sound. Despite its reputation as a rainy town, Seattle receives only 37 inches of rain annually. By contrast Miami receives 56 and New York receives 42 inches annually.

For a city sampler, groups can walk, bike, bus, ferry, or hop aboard the monorail to survey some awesome sites. The Pike Place Market serves up a lively mélange of exotic foods, commerce and of course, coffee. New York Times reporter Timothy Egan called it the "Marrekech of the Northwest" for good reason. This crowd pleaser has been a city fixture for 90 years and doubles as the oldest continuously run farmers market in the United States. Scoot along the cobblestone streets to Pioneer Square, Seattle's oldest and most famous neighborhood, which is now a 30-block National Historic District and home to galleries and posh boutiques.

Aboard the elegant Royal Argosy, dinner and lunch cruises are served on this 55-metre ship. It sizzles with regional cuisine and sumptuous views of Puget Sound. The Spirit of Washington Dinner Train offers a 70-km roundtrip with a one-hour winery stop, another great way to soak up the eastern shores of Lake Washington.

Over at the waterfront, there's a smorgasbord of shopping and group excursions. There is the Seattle Aquarium, the IMAX dome Theatre and the colorful streetcar that connects groups to the Chinatown International District.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's homage to pop music is eulogized in the Experience Music Project part of the Seattle Center. This unconventional museum opened in 2000, tracing the evolution of American Music. Situated in the 30-hectare urban park, a legacy of the 1962 World's Fair, Seattle Center offers plenty of coach parking. Groups will wish to get a birds' eye view from the 605-foot high Space Needle and dine in the revolving restaurant. At the Pacific Science Center, a laser light show simulation transports you into a techno virtual reality.

Can't decide where to start? The Seattle Visitors and Convention Bureau has a Travel Planners Guide chock-ablock full of suggested itineraries, tour companies, events calendars and experts who can assist in customized tours. Log onto www.seeseattle.org for more details.

The majority of the population (14,200 in the county) resides on Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan Islands. The rest of this archipelago of 743 rugged islets is mostly uninhabited. These islands are a gift left by the Ice Age glaciers. The rocky points, sheltered coves, and beaches buffeted by madrona trees give refuge to some of the world's most rare species, a paradise for bird and whale watching.

Photo buffs can join one of the many cruises that provide sightseeing tours. Mystic Sea Charters offers various group packages such as overnight, luncheon, and whale watching. In Friday Harbor, Fantasy Cruises, a family-owned business, earns its name as a luxury vessel that guarantees uuhhs and awes at every turn of their nautical odyssey.

Jack Kerouac fell in love with fjord-like Ross Lake. Artists still congregate at the famous Artist Point at Mount Baker. This area is home to the world's largest building, the Boeing factory which is open for tours, Skagit Valley Casino Resort, the Bavarian Village of Leavenworth, and the North Cascades National Park.

Along the US/Canada border, Bellingham County serves up hefty tour samplers and is a major launch point to the San Juan Islands. It boasts the best fall foliage in the state while driving along Route 542 to Mount Baker. This northwest county is home to the American Museum of Radio, which holds the largest collection of radios and electrical equipment in the Western U.S. Groups also can stop at the Dutch community of Lynden. Planners need simply to request the "Tour of Dutch" Lynden Tour to access the Pioneer Museum, grab an authentic Dutch lunch, visit a working farm and watch some Klompen Dancers. (email requests to lynden@lynden.org)

The National Geographic Explorer calls the Cascade Loop "one of America's most spectacular drives" which snakes along the Skagit River. The old company town Newhalem marks the start of a not-to-be-missed historic two-and-a-half-hour boat tour offered twice daily during the summer.

In the heart of the turquoise-green Diablo Lake, Skagit Tours whisks groups aboard their 42-foot boat to view the glacier-fed waters and the high narrow canyons. Group discounts are available. The trip is limited to 80 passengers.

"We're situated in the North Cascades National Park, home of the most glaciers located in the contiguous United States," says Janice Boman of Skagit Tours and adds, "Yet, there is no fee required to enter the Park, a money saver for commercial operators."

Split by the Cascade Mountain range, Washington is comprised of two major climate zones: the rainy west and the drier east. The east lies on the same latitude as some of France's great vineyards. Over 200 wineries have sprouted up which are divided into five wine regions. The largest wine and grape-producing region is in the Columbia Valley. The highest concentration of wineries rests along I-82 in the Yakima Valley. Both regions produce red wines. Further southeast, Walla Walla is perched on the edge of the Palouse Hills. Derived from the native term "swift running small stream," Walla Walla is home to the "Sweet Onion" but has recently been transforming its farmland into vine land. With more than 40 wineries and more than 1,000 vineyard acres, Walla Walla specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah as well as white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Pinot Gris.

Motor coach tours can have fun exploring the Columbia River where a ring of stones shaped as Stonehenge sits as a World War I memorial. This homage to fallen soldiers is a legacy from Sam Hill, a local millionaire and founder of the Maryhill Museum of Art, a castle-like chateau considered to be the most isolated major museum in the United States.

For suggestions on the cellae vinaria, group planners can log onto the Columbia Cascade Winery Association which provides sublinks to Tours, Wines, and Wineries.

Here's an easy trip from Seattle. Thirty miles east, the Snoqualmie Falls cascades 268 feet. Amidst endless forests and three looming volcanoes, this region is known as a mecca for nature buffs, and is home to Mount Rainier, Paradise, and Mount St. Helens.

Affectionately known as "the Mountain," Mount Rainier towers 4,392 meters and is the fifth tallest mountain in America. Plan to spend at least a day in the region hiking trails like "The Trail of Shadows," followed by a visit to the Longmire Museum.

Mount St. Helens offers five visitor centres. Groups can observe the volcano by hiking, road tripping through the blast zone, watching a multimedia simulation or camping in the shadow of the volcano. Afterwards, it's off to Paradise. You'll see why it's called paradise once you have taken in the 360-degree-panoramic vista.

Shooting the rapids through the deep gorge of the thundering Columbia River is a whitewater blast. Locals insist there's no place more scenic in the northwest. Zoller's Outdoor Odysseys, a family-operated business since the seventies, ushers up to 100 people per trip and provides a variety of rafting packages.

"We have lots of big splashing fun but we don't do anything ridiculous. The riverbed itself was once a lava tube. After 19 seasons of guiding here on the White Salmon River, I still am amazed at how the western red cedar, firs, and pines cling to the rock walls," states Mark Zoller.

The morning trips are Zoller's favorite as the sun filters through the forest speckling the canyon walls. "We have the privilege of guiding thousands of first-time rafters each year. We know they'll remember the sensation of dropping into a hole, cool water flooding their face, and the excitement of the next breath but I also hope they'll remember how the flora and fauna work together in harmony."

The Washington State Group Tour and Travel Association has made it a cinch to tackle the 10 different regions of the state. Check out washingtonstate.com Association members can help customize your group tours.


photos: Washington State Tourism

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