A good view is a fine thing, and heights are head-clearing by nature (unless you suffer from vertigo, in which case you may as well quit reading and lie down). Do the posh chain stores, the ubiquitous construction sites, the For Sale signs that seem to come with Sold By tags preattached, and the hateful people talking on their phones in their SUVs make you long for a little perspective, a different view of what was once our sweet home town? Do you need someplace to while away an afternoon with the summer visitors (who, we'll note, never came to visit back when they thought Seattle was in Alaska)? As you'll see here, it wasn't always easy, but I intrepidly sought out the best views with the least irritating circumstances. Here's the report:
The Space Needle: Ah, the icon, Le Tour Eiffel of the Pacific Northwest; it is incumbent upon you to send your guests here, but when was the last time you went yourself? Maybe you don't go because you think the line will be long and you will be herded into a tentlike structure for an interminable wait with tourists leaning on each other like the fading damned and you will be thirsty and it will be too warm—and you are right, friend. And yet it beckons! It's a national landmark! As the new slogan exhorts, "Come 'Live the View'"! I finally made it to a group waiting for the elevator, eagerly indeed, and Chipper Tour Girl was just hitting her cheerfully monotonous stride describing the ground-floor lobby remodel when I sought to discreetly make a few notes (it will have a curving walkway all around, apparently ࠬa the Guggenheim in New York but on a smaller scale, per the original '60s plans); then she saw me and shrieked, "Are you with the MEDIA!?!" And I mumbled well, yes, and was summarily dragged away from my mystified and impressed group of tourists from Kansas. My escort, a clean-cut and pleasant young man with the Space Needle logo embroidered on him, confided, "It's really corporate here." I was then subjected to an excruciatingly pleasant phone conversation with a Media Relations Human and shuttled specially up to the top, despite my protests that I wanted to get the real experience and that I missed my group and their San Diego Zoo T-shirts. What's the moral? I should've lied? Jeez.
Anyhow, the lines are long (you have to wait to come down, too; think about that), it now costs $9, the bar is gone, and you may want to bring a Ritalin dart gun. The remodel thus far seems to be affecting a cruise-ship-in-the-sky kind of feel. But it's still pretty neat; people from all over the world mill around the deck and they have nice accents. A monk in saffron robes and woolly socks with Birkenstock-type sandals was talking on a cell phone. The slots where you formerly stacked two quarters and pushed in for the telescopes have been sealed over; they're free now—I guess they're making enough off your nine bucks. The view is impressive but still low enough to get the lay of the land, and the city looks quite lovely; the rectangle of grass in Memorial Stadium is stunning, and the EMP is nearly neat enough to make you forget the loss of the Flight to Mars. ($9 adults, $8 seniors [all those years in this mortal coil for this?], $4 kids, tiny ones free; call 443-2111 for hours or visit the inevitable www.spaceneedle.com)
Bank of America Tower: Didn't this used to be called the Columbia Tower? This is the big, dark, scary office tower on Fifth and Columbia, and yes, they do have an observation deck. You must take two separate wood- and marble-paneled elevators with ominous Muzak and a disembodied voice ("Going up!") to the 73rd floor, where the "deck" is sort of a hallway around three sides of the building. You get the feeling they calculated exactly how much they would have made renting this prime view square footage to a brokerage company versus how many of us they can get to come and pay $5, and the latter must have been slightly bigger. If you like wall-to-wall carpeting and the soul-searing hum an office building produces, you'll love it here. The height is vertiginous, the city dwarfed, flattened, and decidedly second-class looking. On the upside, the ferries look cute tracing across the Sound, and the perspective of the rubble that is now the Kingdome is awesome; the window ledge is even marked "KINGDOME," with a sad little arrow pointing forlornly to nothing. And you can write in a notebook all you want here without fear of censure. (8:30-4:30 weekdays, $5, $3 for the kids and Grandpa; 386-5151)
Smith Tower: I had never been in the Smith Tower, and when I went to look, a very nice elevator operator told me the observation deck is closed for renovation until later this spring. Later, a very curt Media Relations Human returned my call with a message saying they were "not interested in pursuing this at this time." Fie on her, I say! I really wanted to wear a hard hat and look around. I wasn't going to make any trouble. Jeez. Well, the lobby is certainly a wonder of retro beauty, and I bet if you call them at the office and say you're engaged to be married and want to book the Chinese Room they will be happy to show you around. Again—should I have lied? (Smith Tower, Second and Yesler, 622-4004)
Volunteer Park Water Tower: "A stairway leads to the top of the water tower . . . from which the wide expanse of surrounding scenery can be enjoyed to a degree of perfection, it being without question the most commanding view point in the city," the Park Commissioners wrote in their 1909 report, and while the B of A probably holds the title of Most Commanding View now, this one is swell, and gloriously, amazingly, it's free. This is your tax dollars at work, people! After a brief but exerting stair climb to a big, gazebolike room with cutout windows in the brick (open to the air but screened to prevent leapers), you are rewarded with treetop-level views through which the Space Needle is in proper perspective, the Aurora Bridge looks quite elegant, and Lake Washington is calm and large—worlds away from anything corporate. When I was little I wanted to live here, then in high school I wanted to have a party here. Now I want to live here again. No one bugs you, and the bricks are really pretty inside and out. Plus when you're done, you're in the park. (Open daily 10-7)
Seattle Seaplanes: Save the $9 you would have spent to go to the top of the Needle and borrow $33.50 from someone and fly, baby. You get 20 minutes of pure, queasy pleasure in a Cessna piloted by the inimitable Jim; your flight takes you from Lake Union over the University of Washington (which is undeniably regal by air) and south over Lake Washington, across over the Central District and above Pioneer Square (where you may wish to give the B of A building the finger for taking your five bucks), back around over the Sound and northwest Seattle before swooping in for a dramatic water landing. Superlatives fail here; it is, I hate to say, breathtaking. The dockfront office has a wicker porch swing out front and a big dog inside, and the gangway leading out to the seaplanes is lined with planter boxes of Jim's beautiful roses. Jim is classic; he always wears a tie and likes to tease the ladies, flyboy that he is, and he inspires confidence even as you are airborne in something that sounds like a Volkswagen. If you've never done this and flying doesn't make you sick, I highly recommend it. And if Jim asks you if you like roller coasters, say "Hell, yes!" (1325 Fairview E, 329-9638, 800-637-5553, $42.50 tour/ride)