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Originally published May 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 22, 2008 at 12:19 PM

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A mini vacation on Metro Transit

As I traveled south on Interstate 5, the postcard view stretched from Lake Union's kaleidoscope of boats and planes to the downtown Seattle...

Special to The Seattle Times

Planning outings

EVEN WITH LIMITED METRO TRANSIT EXPERIENCE and no guidebook "cheat sheet," I found it easy to plan my own trips. I simply chose destinations, then turned the logistics over to Metro's Web site Trip Planner (www.kingcounty.gov/metro) .

I plugged in the starting point and destination, the time I wanted to leave or arrive, and the maximum distance I wanted to walk. Click. I had my itinerary with times, route numbers, stops and fare. Click again. There was the return trip.

It may take a couple of tries to create the itinerary you want. Watch both the destinations and travel time. By entering "Alki," I got a three-hour trip to Auburn — not what I wanted. Using Trip Planner, Alki Beach Park came up "Alki Playground" — where I wanted, but by a different name. If you aren't sure, get on the phone.

Calling the Rider Information line (800-542-7876 or 206-553-3000), I reached recorded information or connected to a real person (available 24/7, except holidays) who quickly answered questions about routes, times and trips.

In addition, once I was on my way, bus drivers were virtual encyclopedias — answering questions, explaining transfers, and calling out upcoming stops and the destinations reached from each.

My bus adventures began in my hometown of Kirkland, although I used a variety of transit centers as starting points in Trip Planner, to get the best connections; settling on Bellevue and Issaquah for one trip, and Westlake Center for three others. The farthest I walked to make connections was three blocks. The longest wait was just under 30 minutes. (Take a book or buy a paper.)

— Jackie Smith

If you go

Destinations

Go online for a list of destinations, including parks, museums, shopping centers and more. Click on your choice and up pops a Trip Planner screen already programmed with that end point. See http://transit.metrokc.gov/tops/bus/destinations/destinations.html.

Fares

Carry exact fare; drivers do not make change. Metro's standard adult fare is $1.50 each way for one or two zones, or $1.75 for one zone and $2.25 for two zones during peak riding hours (6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday). Youth (ages 6-17) ride for 50 cents, all times, all zones (increasing to 75 cents July 1). Senior citizens and the disabled may ride for reduced fare, but only with a special permit. Up to four children age 5 and younger may ride free when accompanied by a responsible person paying an adult fare.

Zones

The Seattle city limits is one zone and all other areas outside the city, but within King County, are a second zone.

Transfers

If changing buses, or returning soon, ask for a transfer, good on any bus in any direction for 90 minutes to two hours from time of issuance.

Traveler's tip

Metro's Visitor Pass, $5.50, will allow you a day of unlimited bus rides. Visitor and other bus passes are available from Metro offices and most Bartell Drug and QFC stores.

More information

Metro Transit customer service, 206-553-3060 or www.kingcounty.gov/metro.

Other Puget Sound transit systems

• Sound Transit, regional bus and train system: 888-889-6368 or www.soundtransit.org.

• Community Transit, Snohomish County: 425-353-RIDE or www.commtrans.org.

• Pierce Transit, Pierce County: 253-581-8000 or www.piercetransit.org.

Kitsap Transit, Kitsap County: 800-501-RIDE or www.kitsaptransit.org.

Underground art

TAKE ADVANTAGE of downtown Seattle's free-ride zone and tour the public "art-itecture" in Seattle's 1.3-mile-long Transit Tunnel. Pick up an "Art-itecture" brochure from the Metro Customer Service booth at Westlake Center, then set off to explore Convention Place Station, University Street Station, Pioneer Square Station and the International District/Chinatown Station; each with different architectural styles. The tunnel and its stations are open 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; closed weekends.

Bus vacation pros and cons

PROS: It is cheap travel; besides the inexpensive fare, you save the cost of gas and parking. You don't have the hassle of driving and can enjoy the trip and the destination. You meet some interesting people along the way.

CONS: Your trip may require travel on more than one bus; ask for transfers. Bus stops generally don't have restrooms; plan accordingly. Some stops are in the open; dress for anticipated weather (carry an umbrella). Bus travel can limit the length of your visit depending on the frequency of the schedule. Commuters often fill buses early and late in the day, making some trips standing-room only.

— Jackie Smith

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As I traveled south on Interstate 5, the postcard view stretched from Lake Union's kaleidoscope of boats and planes to the downtown Seattle skyline. But few passing motorists seemed to notice it as they tap-danced with their brakes through the morning's commute. I, however, could savor the panorama because I had left freeway maneuvering to the bus driver.

Riding Metro's Route 255 from Kirkland, I'd begun my "travel-by-bus vacation," an experiment inspired by Rick Steves, Edmonds' budget-travel guru, whose guidebooks extol using public transportation in European cities to save money, see the sights and meet locals along the way. It works there; it could work here.

After one trip, I was hooked. The journeys were as interesting as the destinations. Routes wound through neighborhoods I'd have never found on my own. It was continuous sightseeing.

Even paying full adult fare, the trips were incredibly cheap. I paid more for a double-tall latte at Snoqualmie Falls than I did for the round-trip fare to get there from my hometown of Kirkland. And not a single stop for $3.75-a-gallon gas.

Aiming for interesting destinations reached via regularly scheduled transit routes, here's where I went on my four-day Metro Transit holiday:

Ballard beckons

Sights

Ballard, Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, Nordic Heritage Museum, Golden Gardens beach park

Our ride

• Route 17 from downtown Seattle: 35 minutes.

• Round-trip cost: $3.

Highlights

The Hiram M. Chittenden (Ballard) Locks (www.seattle.gov/tour/locks.htm, 206-783-7059) link Puget Sound and Salmon Bay. Watching boats of all shapes and sizes being raised or lowered between the two is one of the best shows in town. Salmon navigating the fish ladder provide the second feature. Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden carpets the north shoreline of the locks with some 500 species and 1,500 varieties of plants. Exhibits at the Visitor Center tell the story of the Locks, the canal, the gardens and the fish. And it is free.

Also tell your driver you want the Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 N.W. 67th St., a mile north of the Locks (www.nordicmuseum.org, 206-789-5707). The bus stop is less than two blocks from the museum. There's an admission charge ($4-$6) to visit its galleries highlighting the Northwest's logging and fishing industries and the five Nordic nations: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Driver Bryan Oh was watching out for me. Calling out for "the lady who wanted the Golden Gardens," he looked at me in his mirror. "Here's where you want to get off," he said of the Ballard Locks. "There are lots of gardens here and it's easier than Golden Gardens. It's a long way down [from the bus stop] to the park." Ignoring his advice, I climbed the steep stairs down from 32nd Avenue Northwest to Golden Gardens beach park and back — we shared a laugh when, out of breath, I reboarded his bus. It was a hike. I should have taken his advice.

Trip Tip

The eclectic mix of shops and eateries along Ballard's Northwest Market Street and historical Ballard Avenue is a short bus ride from the Locks, museum and Golden Gardens. Frequent buses make it a snap to travel between the locations (transfers are good for a couple of hours).

Pros

From Route 17 you'll see: Lake Union; Gas Works Park; Aurora, Fremont and Ballard bridges; Seattle Pacific University; Fishermen's Terminal and the heart of Ballard. The bus stops across the street from the Locks' main entrance, about two blocks from the Nordic Heritage Museum, and less than a block from the long stairway to Golden Gardens Park. (Route 46 goes directly to Golden Gardens, but runs only during peak commute hours on weekday mornings and evenings. More midday runs are coming this fall, but still no weekend service.)

Cons

Bus 17 stops high above the 87.8-acre Golden Gardens beach park. To reach it you'll descend a steep stairway and sloping dirt path — and climb back up to get home. The views won't be the only thing leaving you breathless. (Ballard Locks makes a nice alternative.)

Snoqualmie Falls escape

Sights

Snoqualmie Falls, Snoqualmie, North Bend Outlet Stores

Our ride

Route 271, Bellevue Transit Center to Issaquah Park and Ride: 44 minutes. (Other routes go there, too.)

• Route 209, Issaquah Park and Ride to Snoqualmie Falls: 35 minutes.

• Round-trip cost: $3, no charge to view the falls.

Highlights

Bundled against a spring wind, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the Snoqualmie Falls (www.snoqualmiefalls.com) observation deck mesmerized by the force of the 270-foot waterfall, its deafening rumble drowning conversations. With umbrellas unfurled, a few braved the weather to explore the sprawling grounds. The gift shop — usually a haven for souvenir seekers and those wanting snacks — was closed for inventory; I sought shelter in the nearby historic Salish Lodge and Spa (www.SalishLodge.com). After I explored the gift shop, The Attic Bistro, an inviting upstairs nook overlooking the falls, was a perfect spot to sip a latte. Lunch and other libations were available.

Route 209 will also take you to the town of Snoqualmie and the Northwest Railway Museum (www.trainmuseum.org). From the museum, the Snoqualmie Valley Railroad offers 75-minute, five-mile runs on its antique coaches through the Upper Snoqualmie Valley ($7-$10, weekends through October). You can also reach the Factory Stores at North Bend (425-888-4505) on Route 209.

Trip tip

Construction of a new transit center and parking garage at the Issaquah Park and Ride hasn't affected bus service. No restrooms. On 209, tell your driver your intended destination; this route is sightseeing heaven, you could miss your stop.

Pros

From Route 209 you'll see: Issaquah's Gilman Village, its historic downtown, and the towns of Preston, Fall City and Snoqualmie.

Cons

Route 209 runs weekdays and Saturdays only; no service on Sundays. If you want to ride the trains, plan a Saturday trip.

Island time

Sights

Puget Sound, Vashon Island

Our ride

• Route 54 bus from downtown Seattle to Fauntleroy ferry: 30 minutes. (Other routes go there, too.)

• Washington State Ferries crossing: 20 minutes.

• Route 118 from Vashon ferry to downtown Vashon commercial area: 20 minutes.

• Cost: $3 round-trip bus and $4.30 round-trip walk-on ferry ticket.

Highlights

You'll feel much farther from West Seattle than a 20-minute ferry ride when you arrive on this little island, only 13 miles long and 8 miles at its widest. Sprinkled with art galleries, shops, restaurants, B&Bs and beautiful beaches, it's easy to see why it's such a popular getaway.

It was the most difficult of my bus journeys to accomplish, largely due to limited midday service. There's a two-hour dead zone between the 10:40 a.m. (weekday) bus and the 12:40 p.m. bus from the Vashon ferry terminal to the commercial district and points south, making for a long wait at the tiny island terminal if you miss the first (as we did) or come much before the second.

Vashon resident Ralph Hunzicker waited with us at the Vashon terminal for Bus 118 to take him home. He'd returned from Japan and ridden a bus from Sea-Tac to the ferry. He had used the bus/ferry combination before to get to the airport and says it can't be beat for convenience and price. By catching the later bus, a friend and I lunched at The Hardware Store Restaurant (www.thsrestaurant.com, 206-463-1800), footsteps from the bus stop in the heart of town (fellow passengers recommended it) and had time to hop the southbound bus and continue our sightseeing. We traveled almost the full length of the island before riding back to catch the 3:25 p.m. Fauntleroy-bound ferry.

Trip Tip

Walk-on ferry passengers disembark before cars leave the ferry. If you don't, you may well miss the bus. If you see a bus aboard the ferry, you can board it during the crossing. Vashon's main commercial area is a 10- to 15-minute drive from the island dock — too far to walk. There's a latte stand and restaurant near the ferry terminal, vending machines in it.

Pros

You can flag down the bus along the routes on the island — you need not be at a marked stop.

Cons

Limited midday schedule, no bus service on Sundays.

Beach break

Sights

West Seattle, Alki Beach

Our ride

Route 56, downtown Seattle to Alki: 28 minutes.

Cost: $3 round-trip

Highlights

The sweeping views over Elliott Bay and the Seattle waterfront from the Route 56 bus were so striking that we wondered why we'd never before taken a bus to Alki Beach Park. We rode to the last stop, right at the Alki Bakery (2738 Alki Ave. S.W., 206-935-1352). Resisting the pastries' call, we crossed the street, entering the park that stretches along Puget Sound for more than two miles from Alki Point to Duwamish Head; the place where the first white settlers arrived in Seattle in 1851.

We strolled along the wide, level pathway past picnic areas, stopping to watch artists at work in the bathhouse-turned-art studio. A waterfront table and a hearty lunch welcomed us to the Alki Cafe (2726 Alki Ave. S.W., 206-935-0616), footsteps from the bus stop and park.

Trip tip

We caught Route 56 at First Avenue and Pine Street downtown, a block from Pike Place Market. We were able to include an unplanned visit to the Market before catching the bus at Westlake Center back to Kirkland.

Pros

From Bus 56 you'll see: Pioneer Square, Qwest and Safeco fields, the Port of Seattle, Elliott Bay and the Seattle skyline. Numerous restaurants line Alki Avenue Southwest.

Cons

This is a popular route in summer months and the bus can be crowded.

Kirkland-based freelancer Jackie Smith is a regular contributor to NWWeekend.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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