Dispatch is a new series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
Vacations can present a strange form of tyranny. You're going away to rest and recharge. But more often than not, you find yourself caught in an endless cycle of planning and rushing from one sight to another, battling the ever-present fear of missing out. It's easy to return more frazzled than when you left.
This is why, when I unexpectedly found myself in Seattle for 30 hours, I decided to try an experiment.
I'd ask everyone I met: "What would you do if you had one day in the city?" And then I'd go do it.
I arrived in the city before 9 on a hot, bright Friday morning and checked into my downtown hotel.
I set out on foot toward the South Lake Union district, a shiny tech hub fuelled by Amazon money and populated by hipsters. A group of shaggy-haired male programmer-types sent me to Portage Bay Café for free-range eggs and local, sustainable sausage. The restaurant's menus were hilariously adorned with the slogan "Eat like you give a damn."
Wandering the streets after my meal, I realized it had been more than 20 years since I'd visited. Back then, Seattle had perpetually felt like a scene from the 1992 movie Singles, complete with Eddie Vedder lounging in a café drinking dark roast. People were smoking a lot, and listening to Nirvana. Everyone was wearing plaid shirts. Fast forward two decades, and everyone was still in plaid but, I mused, more likely to be downing fresh juices than getting a nicotine fix.
I wasn't especially surprised, then, when a woman in yet another organic café insisted that I visit the Farmers Market at Pike Place, regardless of how touristy it was. So I obliged. And I wasn't sorry when I crested the hill and saw the Technicolor marketplace before me, the sea sparkling on the horizon behind it. There were bouquets of colourful flowers and fresh fish and overflowing baskets of fruit. I walked the vibrant waterfront and followed the throngs into Rachel's Ginger Beer to sample an RGB Original.
I was chatting with everyone I met, having a laugh with clerks and fellow customers alike. I felt no stress, no sense of time, no drive to accomplish anything. I was, for the first time in a long time, fully in the moment.
Later that evening, I called a taxi and a gregarious Kenyan doctor/cab driver picked me up. Did he have any restaurant recommendations? He never ate out because his wife happened to be the world's most fantastic cook, he said – turning around to flash me a proud smile – but once they'd gone to Lola for a special occasion and had been impressed. So he delivered me. My server was a laid-back blond foodie who immediately embraced my mission; she scribbled a list of top eateries on an order slip and then volunteered to select my dinner menu. I gorged on grilled pita with pistachio feta spread, fried saganaki with pickled cherries and black apricot jam, marinated beets with pea shoots and fennel, Washington chicken with yogurt and dill and, for the pièce de résistance, a light, sweet semolina pudding.
The following day I pounded the pavement for hours, hitting the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room (hotel staff said it was a must) and then walking to Capitol Hill to the superb Elliott Bay Book Company, where two aging hippies had promised I'd find a terrific selection of titles (150,000!), all artfully arranged on cedar shelves. There, I happily thumbed through a copy of Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance as I sampled the divine latte and chocolate toffee cookie that the stylish, bespectacled female clerk had insisted I purchase next door at Oddfellows, a bustling brunch spot.
Next, a pair of baby-faced beat cops suggested I check out Kerry Park, a lookout point located on a steep slope in Queen Anne Hill. A soft-spoken med school student cabbie delivered me there, and walked with me to take in the panoramic view of the city and harbour. We stood there in a contented silence, the glittering skyline spread out before us in all its sun-drenched glory.
All too soon I had just an hour left, which I spent lingering over a latte in the java capital of America. I was at a Cherry Street Coffee House (the bubbly millennial hotel concierge had said I really, really, really had to try it).
When I left, heading north to Vancouver, it dawned on me that this had been one of the most satisfying getaways I'd ever taken. By leaving the sightseeing plan to the locals, I'd gotten a snapshot of the soul of the city. The trip was totally random, and yet totally suited me. Even better, I'd connected with people in a way that I never could when I was racing around checking items off my must-see list.
But the best part of all? I came back relaxed.
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