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We headed north…

April 3, 2008

…to Tacoma, Washington, a place we usually just zoom right past, as many people do, driving up I-5 or riding the Amtrak Cascades on the way to Seattle. But on this particular sunny, chilly Saturday, our destination was this gritty, industrial transport hub at the southern end of Puget Sound.

Our first stop was for a picnic lunch at the nature center at Tacoma’s Snake Lake Watershed, 70 acres of wetland tucked into a corner between two freeways through suburban Tacoma. We saw hordes of Black-capped chickadeeblack-capped chickadees and other birds, bluebells and budding branches, but the only snakes we saw were inside the nature center itself – a well-fed king snake and a carved wood sculpture of an albino boa. Turns out that Snake Lake is named for its shape, not for its denizens.

After lunch, we drove north and west to a magnificent regional jewel, Point Defiance Park. It’s ten times the size of the Snake Lake area, right on Commencement Bay, with a view of the south end of Vashon Island.

The day was sunny and warm, so we lingered at the duck pond and wandered about the grounds. DaffodilsDaffodils, Forsythiaforsythia and Camelliascamellias were blossoming. We also saw carefully-tended beds where dahlias and roses would soon be in bloom.

The park’s permanent structures also catch the eye. A rambling, comfortable-looking building called The Lodgethe Lodge, built in 1898, housed the park’s directors until about 1980, and The Pagodathe Pagoda, a former trolley barn whose upcurved eaves do look a little like that style of Chinese architecture, overlooks a Japanese garden and pond.

Still in the park, we strolled along a strip of seawall and rounded stones to pebbly Owen Beach, from which we had a good view of Mt. Rainier from Owen BeachMt. Rainier. The atypical warmth of the day had brought out visitors from all over. A visiting Korean family gave us each one of their balloons as they were leaving.

We walked back to our car along the wooded bluff overlooking the beach. By this time it was late afternoon, so we went in search of food. Our eleven-year-old guidebook recommended Harbor Lights on Ruston Way, and the map showed it would be easy to get to from Point Defiance, so we tried there first. It was a lucky choice. The place was elegant but unpretentious. They were kind enough to take us without a reservation, since we arrived a bit before the dinner rush. The service was cheerful and attentive, and the food was both delicious and plentiful. My wife had a Dungeness crab sandwich; my daughter ate all of her fish and chips dinner, which was a first. I had an intensely flavorful clear clam chowder (made without cream, using clam juice instead; this was a type I had not encountered before, and I was very impressed) and fried shrimp. Harbor Lights has been in business for over 50 years and, judging by the quality of our dinner, may well stick around for 50 more.

After dinner we drove to Tacoma’s downtown. Here the bones of the working port city are a bit more exposed; despite numerous fountains, parks and public sculptures, this felt to us more like a typical urban core, nearly abandoned after working hours – and the camera’s battery was nearly dead. So we went back to the motel, where the view from our window seemed to sum things up: a sunlit Mt. Rainier in the background, while in the foreground was the bright orange neon sign of Tacoma - Land of Many Contraststhe Hooters next door.

* * *

The motel, a Days Inn, turned out to be a good choice, by the way – clean, and even with I-5 just a few hundred feet away, mercifully quiet. We slept well, after our long day outdoors.

* * *

On Sunday we faced more typical Northwest spring weather – gray and rainy as predicted – but this was our day to visit museums anyway, so our spirits remained high as we puttered around the motel room waiting for things to open at noon.

We parked near Union Station, whose Union Station Rotundamassive, graceful dome still dominates the area, although the building itself is now a U.S. Courthouse and event facility, no longer a train station, and not open at all on the weekends. We peeked in the windows anyway, said hello to the bronze statue of a carpetbagger out front, then went next door to the Washington State History Museum, a brick structure whose arches echo its more venerable neighbor’s.

The Washington State History Museum turns out to be an expansive, modern museum whose exhibits trace the geological and cultural history of the region from the Ice Ages up to the present day, maintaining a commendable balance between celebrating the state’s The Product Treeproud history (the Product Tree bears in its branches a few of the myriad products that are made from wood) and unflinchingly documenting some of its A Shameful Chaptermore unpleasant parts.

One very pleasant part of the Museum is the model railroad layout on the 5th floor, which contains scale models of many bygone features of Tacoma’s landscape, including the Top of the OceanTop of the Ocean Restaurant, a waterfront landmark on Commencement Bay which, in the real world, burned under suspicious circumstances many years ago.

After spending several hours in the history museum, we were more than ready for a toasty, tasty lunch at Cascade Bagel & Deli, the former Museum Café (we could still see the remains of the sign over the door).

Then it was an easy walk over the Bridge of Glass to Dale Chihuly’s Museum of Glass. This glorious and unique facility was a major highlight of the trip. Not only were we introduced to the work of such talented current artists as Lino Tagliapietra and Dante Marioni (though unfortunately photography of the exhibits was prohibited), we also got a chance to see artistry at work, in the amphitheater of the The Museum of GlassJane T. Russell Hot Shop, a spacious working glass studio within the signature slanted cone that dominates the Museum from the outside. When we were there, featured artist Amy Rueffert was working with a team of Hot Shop assistants simultaneously on two pieces, one a realistic log with birds perching on it, and the other a massive, thirty-pound heart-shaped piece of rosy white glass with embedded decals.

Watching The artist and her workthe artist at work took us up until closing time at the Museum of Glass; after that we returned to the motel for a light dinner en chambre.

To cap off the evening, I met up with someone I’d never seen before – an email correspondent for more than a decade, who lives in the Tacoma area – at the MSM Deli (the acronym stands for “Magical Sandwich Makers,” in this case). The deli has a big, quiet back room and a broad selection of beers; we shared commiseration about the current state of the nation while we drank a couple of bottles of locally-produced Dick’s Imperial Stout, made in Centralia, Washington, and ate gyros – though the gyros came slathered with ketchup?!? instead of tzatziki, which threw me. This place gets good reviews – someone’s even uploaded a video talking about how wonderful their sandwiches are. Maybe they were having an off night, or perhaps this is just some local condiment fad I’m not aware of…

We held down a couple of chairs for a couple of hours, then he got back into his battered white Saab and drove away…

* * *

The last day of our trip, providentially, dawned sunny again. We went back to Point Defiance, this time to explore the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, which was very much the highlight of the trip from our daughter’s perspective.

On this chilly Monday, the crowd was sparse – mostly moms and their preschoolers, and a couple of local field trips – so we could linger in front of the animals we wanted to see most. We especially enjoyed Seahorses frolic“Once Upon a Tide: A Seahorse Odyssey,”
the walruses being fed (PDZA has three – E.T., a E.T.huge bull male; Basilla, a blind female, and a young female named Joan),
the Arctic foxarctic fox and Red wolfred wolves, and
learning about Jaya, a young female Sumatran tigerJaya, a young female Sumatran tiger.

* * *

It was a lot to pack into a three-day weekend; we headed south after the zoo tired but happy…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura permalink
    April 12, 2008 3:59 pm

    Love the pics!
    That dome is um…here to stay, huh? Massive doesn’t quite cover it, imho. Very cool.

    Especially like the seahorses, though. I do love seahorses. They look so incredibly fragile and ethereal…lovely little critters.

  2. sarahemc2 permalink
    April 14, 2008 4:39 am

    Sounds like a lovely trip. We are not so good at getting out to see things; Lucy wants only to go to places where there will be people her own age and not ours, and by definition that means we aren’t invited to tag along. We want only to go and see things that take us far away we don’t spend the whole time talking about work and how much more we needed a new roof than a vacation, and thus far haven’t been able to find any place that far away.

    Here is a funny coincidence. My Aunt Dorothy died a few years ago, and the family commissioned Dale Chihuly to build a sculpture in her honor. It’s now part of the permanent collection in the Huntington Museum of Art. Whodda thunk it? But I am crazy about his work… so ethereal and somehow also so organic.


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