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Seattle, Washington

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It’s pretty easy to find yourself in Seattle if you’re cruising the Northwestern seaboard. It’s the embarkation port for several major cruise routes heading north for Alaska, and also represents the far northerly point of many routes that have started down in California.

The city has been called many things in the past – ‘The Emerald City’ is the nickname the locals prefer. However, it has also been referred to as ‘the other capital of the USA’ – a sobriquet that puts it in direct contention with Washington D.C. You might think of a few reasons for this right away: the real capital of the US is named after one of its first presidents. The ‘other’ capital is named after the Native American Chief Seattle – and seems to stand, therefore, as a direct challenge to the white, European status quo that exists on the opposite coasts.

Seattle: Panorama
Seattle Skyline

But Seattle’s also a capital of other things, despite not being the state capital of Washington – that’s Olympia. During the 1990s Seattle was unquestionably the capital of counterculture, producing radical bands like Nirvana and weird new fashions such as grunge. It was one of the original centers of resistance to the forces of globalization: it was here, in 1999, that the leaders of the World Trade Organization were surrounded by thousands of protesters (some called them rioters) demanding restrictions on global corporate power.

So as you get off your cruise ship in Seattle you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re stepping into a hotbed of revolutionary ferment where crazed anarchists plot the downfall of the existing world order.

You’d be wrong. Seattle’s a great city, and, although it’s a little way off the mainstream of Middle America, then that comes as a refreshing change rather than a terrible shock. Any anarchists you find in this town are likely to be very friendly.

Seattle: DowntownOne of the first major Seattle attractions that you will likely want to visit is the city’s most famous landmark – the Space Needle. Contrary to the impression you may get from looking at images of the Seattle skyline, the Needle isn’t in the downtown area of the city at all, and neither is it the city’s tallest building by a very considerable stretch – it is, however, one of its most dramatic, so over and over again the camera has lied to us about its real scale. The Needle was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. In terms of other, older structures like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it does not appear such a huge engineering achievement. It’s only when you find out a little about the bits of the Needle that you don’t see that you realize just how amazing it is. Because Seattle is in an earthquake zone – the last big one was in 2001 – the Needle is engineered so that its center of gravity is at ground level. This required the engineers to pour thousands and thousands of tons of concrete into the base to counteract the weight of the superstructure. Conversely, the gigantic and crude balancing act is mirrored by an altogether more subtle one at the top of the tower. The rotating restaurant right at the top is so finely weighted and balanced that the whole structure is turned by a single electric motor of slightly less than 750W power output – more or less exactly one horsepower, which is significantly less than the power needed to drive the average family saloon.

If you’re more interested in live entertainment than the sort that can be found built of reinforced concrete and steel, you’ve come to the right town. If your cruise itinerary permits (and it probably will, given the city’s location on most routes) it’s a great idea to take in a concert while you’re in town. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra is one of the most famous and the most recorded in the world, and its home is in the city’s Benaroya Hall. The orchestra performs regular concert seasons of classical and contemporary works, all of which are well advertised throughout the city. The Benaroya also hosts many other music and theatre events, as well as acting as something of a social center for the city’s arts enthusiasts.

If your taste in music is a little more up to date, you’ll find that the city’s reputation for being at the cutting edge of popular music persists in a host of clubs and bars. And if you prefer more intellectual pursuits, Seattle is one of the best places in the world for performance poetry.

So Seattle really is the anti-capital: lively, progressive, anything but stuffy and old-fashioned. When you sail into this city you’re going to get an idea of what the brave new world really looks like.

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