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Skies are still blue in Seattle

Those who think of Washington State as part of a West Coast package predominated by California culture should go see the Pacific Northwest, of which Seattle reigns as queen, for themselves.

Although interest in the city and the area has been stimulated by the recent volcanic eruptions of Mt. St. Helens, pleasure visits are being postponed as a result. Needlessly, it turns out. Seattle, 100 miles from the volcano, is protected from the ashy fallout by prevailing winds, and the city remains its characteristically clean self.

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Although one gets the feeling of the wide-open West in Washington, the state is actually one of the smallest in the area.To squeeze in the incredible variety of sand dunes, swamps, glaciers, lava beds, areas without appreciable rainfall and others with 200 inches annually, mountains (on one-half of the state), and trees (on two-thirds), scenery has to change quickly in Washington.

Seattle has its full share of Washington's wealth of geographic beauty: bay, sound, and seven scenic hills. Despite these constrictions, Seattle was built out instead of up. The resulting physical expansiveness is matched by a mood of social openness, a vestige of frontier days.

Early explorers of the area were Spanish, French, and British. In 1792, British Capt. George Vancouver explored Puget Sound and American Capt. Robert Gray discovered the Columbia River, near the mouth of which the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the winter of 1804-05.

It was the fur trade that attracted the first, and for several decades the only, settlers to the Pacific Northwest. Logging and salmon fishing also supported workers, mostly single men since working conditions were not conducive to family life. Not until 1889 did Washington have a population large enough to enable it to become a state.

Seattle was settled in 1851, by pioneers who named the city after Chief Sealth of the Suquamish tribe who befriended them. To increase Seattle's population, women -- with priority given to Civil War widows -- were imported as brides for the abundance of single men. Eventually, the city became established as a center for finance, wholesaling, import-export, and culture for all of the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska.

The city was barely a century old when it became the site of the 1962 World's Fair, an occasion that put Seattle on the map in the minds of many. It turned the city around economically and rekindled the pride that is prevalent in its citizens today.

Rising from the Seattle Center, the former fairgrounds, is the Space Needle, the city's modern symbol. From its 520-foot indoor/outdoor observation decks is a fine view of the surrounding area.Washington's majestic 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier -- visible from Seattle an average of one day out of four, I was told -- is a fabulous sight, with its snowcapped upper peaks seemingly suspended on the horizon. Just below the observation deck is a revolving restaurant that also affords great views of Elliott Bay, Puget Sound, and several lakes, embraced by the Cascade Mountain Range, the Olympic peaks, and green hills covered with cedar and fir.

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Near the foot of the Space Needle is the Pacific Science Center with its gleaming white arches and gushing fountains. It's worth a visit for its special programs: a 70-mm film "To Fly" that provides a spectacular simulated experience of soaring over America and, at the Laserium, multicolored laser light that is imaginatively choreographed to eight-track stereo music and projected upon the domed ceiling.

Because of its distinctive, albeit youthful, history, Seattle has buildings less than 100 years old that qualify as registered national historic landmarks. Many are located in the Pioneer district, filled with Victorian brick buildings from the 1890s.

One street there was called "Skid Road," so named because small logs were placed crossways to the steep hillside and greased so that items could be moved up and down it more easily. When the colorful area fell upon hard times, the phrase "skid road" came to have a different connotation.

All that is changed now, with the restoration of 18 blocks into pedestrian malls, restaurants, and shops. At the core is Pioneer Square, tree-shaded and cobbled, with doors to intriguing shops tucked behind the ivy that covers the fine brick buildings around it.

On the square is the Seattle Visitor Center of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Films, photos, and exhibits give visitors a strong exposure to the fever of Seattle's great gold-rushing days in 1897. More gold-rush stampeders left for northwest Canada from Seattle than any other city, buying supplies and then boarding boats. Even the mayor of Seattle resigned to organize one of the many ill-fated Klondike mining expeditions.

From the Pioneer district it is only a short walk to the waterfront where, along the Alaskan Way from Pier 51 to Pier 70, various amusements await. Many boat excursions are available. At Pier 56, there are tours of Puget Sound, 130 tidal miles to the Pacific Ocean, and Elliott Bay, a major container port for Alaska and the Orient. From Pier 52, Washington State ferries regularly ply Puget Sound to Bainbridge and other islands. For longer trips, by both ship and hydrofoil to Victoria, British Columbia, head for Pier 69.

More a museum than a store is Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on Pier 51. First opened in 1899, its stock reflects the geographic setting of Seattle: Northwestern and Alaskan Indian totem poles, Eskimo carvings, Oriental artifacts , and curios from around the world.

Along the waterfront are many places to partake of the dungeness crab and salmon that so influence Seattle cuisine. Enjoy a steaming cup of clam chowder from a snack bar, or sit at one of the many attractive waterside restaurants, inside or out, under an awning that has an overhead heater for cool weather.

By the attractive Waterfront Park at Pier 59 is the Aquarium. Perhaps the most exciting of its exhibits -- for which a separate ticket may be bought -- is a half-hour 70-mm film on a wrap-around screen. "Ocean" submerges viewers in a lovely underwater landscape and conveys the experience of swimming through forests of kelp with light filtering from the water surface into the underwater darkness.

Stairs from the Aquarium provide access to Pike Place Market, an amenable assortment of food vendors set up in the 1907 market, saved from destruction and made a historic district in 1971. Here, at Seattle's own best-loved site, at aromatic shops and stands, are products for which Washington is well known: giant dungeness crabs, salmon, sourdough bread, and apples. There are also stands for Pacific Northwest crafts, street musicians, and coffee shops overlooking the sound and Olympic Mountains.

Public transportation in Seattle presents several pleasant surprises. To encourage its use, fares are free on city buses within a large central zone. A unique transportation treat is the Monorail, left from the 1962 fair. The 25 -cent, two-minute ride passes overhead from a central downtown city point to the middle of the Seattle Center. And, by the time for my American Airlines departure from Sea-Tac Airport, I had learned about Gray Line's downtown airport bus, a good buy at $3.60 compared with taxi fare on arrival that had been $21 in ideal traffic conditions.

Leaving was not easy, for in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest one experiences distinctive elements of the complex culture we call America.

Further information on the area is available from the Seattle and King County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1815 Seventh Avenue, Seattle, Wash. 98101.

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