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Editor's note: The Washington Legislature convened this week, returning to a state Capitol all shiny after a major renovation. Now's a good time to tour the big dome while the polish is still fresh and while you can catch your lawmakers in action (or inaction, depending on how they're getting along). And guess what: There's more to do on a visit to Olympia.
An Olympia getaway: Touring the spiffed up Capitol and more
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIA — It's not, perhaps, the most magisterial gateway, the Poulsbo RV lot. But every time I pass it on the side of Interstate 5, I know I'm getting close. I should start easing into the right-hand lane, figuring out what I want to do first. I'll be in Olympia within minutes.
I'm heading back to a city I lived in for four short months. Coincidentally, I'm going back with a friend who also lived there for four months, though a year after I left. In the same way that no Seattleite ever goes to the Space Needle, we're back as tourists, weekenders, to do all the things we never did when we fancied ourselves residents.
Far more than a government town (which in itself is more interesting than it sounds), this city of about 43,000 is a funny little mix of people and penchants that manages to somehow work. There are the government types, dining out in their suits and skirts in the restaurants on Fourth Avenue, the main drag; there are the old-timers, placidly smoking in the backs of the cafes; the Evergreen State College hippies, warming a piece of sidewalk with a friend and a guitar; and the classic Northwesterners, wandering by with travel mugs in hand.
"Oh, it's a dynamic town," said Patrick Hub, owner of the Olympic Wine Merchant on Fourth Avenue. "It's definitely not sleepy."
Indeed not. From the early-morning walkers to the wee-hour revelers, Olympia is — dare I say it — a pretty happening place.
Our first stop of the weekend was a tour of the state Capitol.
Our Capitol rocks. At 287 feet to the tip of the cupola, it's the fifth-highest domed masonry building in the world. That's right. And depending on who you're asking, it's the prettiest. Go in through the north entrance, up the 42 expansive marble steps (as Washington was the 42nd state, of course) and take in the austere dome overhead. Even my friend, the ultimate cynic, is impressed.
Every day, on the hour, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the state Department of General Administration offers free tours of the building. Our tour leader was Joan Hanna, a retired Olympia schoolteacher.
"It's very, very interesting," she said. "You realize the beauty of the building the more so when you realize the details."
Hanna led us on a 45-minute tour of the 76-year-old building, newly reopened after a two-year repair job patched up substantial damage from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Who knew various types of European marble could be so interesting? With the slapdash structures that pass for buildings these days, it's truly amazing to see the kind of care and detail that went into a place like this.
They've just thought of everything. Even the carpet pattern, for example, is no accident. In the House of Representatives, it's sweet little rhododendrons, the state flower. The Senate, not to be outdone, boasts dogwood blooms — a higher flower for a higher house.
According to Hanna, all the molding in the building used to be painted white, giving rather a sterile feel to the place. Painters went to work in the late 1980s, brushing dusty rose, gilt and plum on the ornate workings, which I consider a total bullet dodged. A paint job in the late '80s? But for someone's good taste, we could have ended up with the only purple and teal dome in the land. And is that a Pat Benatar mural above the lectern?
At more than 150 years old, Olympia's downtown is home to all the good stuff that comes with an updated old downtown. Historic buildings, narrow streets, cute shops — the works. A good mix between usable and touristy, you can wander in and out of toy shops, knitting stores, bookstores, tattoo parlors, vegan restaurants and antique shops. Even if you don't buy a thing, it's a good afternoon.
I had my eye on some pretty antique linens at The Antique Mall, an eclectic vintage-y place on Fourth Avenue. Then I reluctantly remembered the no-more-knickknack rule my boyfriend had issued. Though knickknack was not the word he used.
A newer addition to the area is Hub's wine shop, opened just 11 months ago. He's got a couple of bottles open all the time for public consumption, but on Sundays he holds themed tastings for wine novices to sip the fruits of certain regions, such as the "Wines of South Africa" tour on Jan. 30.
Speaking of Pat Benatar, bet it's been at least 20 years since you've seen a poster of her. At Olympia's Old School Pizzeria, all the gang's there — Pat, Michael (as in Jackson), Kirk (as in Cameron), Donnie (as in Wahlberg) and Hasselhoff (as in David — but does he need an introduction?).
The walls are completely papered in old-school memorabilia — but only if you regularly use the phrase "old school" will it truly be old school to you. Me? I'd owned most of those posters. But, you know, without the irony.
For a more traditional old-school feel, head on over to The Spar Cafe, a great old-fashioned-but-not-in-a-fake-way diner. The Spar has been feeding downtowners traditional fare since 1935, looking much the same now as it did then, judging by the sepia photos on the wall. It's got a reputation for serving the best breakfast in town, and has a tobacconist to boot.
"It's not a luxurious place by any means," said Stan Johnson, 70. "It's good, basic food."
Olympia is, surprisingly, not home to a huge selection of bed-and-breakfasts. But it is home to The Swantown Inn, a charming Victorian mansion just a few minutes outside downtown. As it happened, we decided to stay there the very day it changed owners, and the new guy, Nathan Allan, hadn't even moved in his own stuff when we showed up at the door. Despite the potential for bumps, Allan was gracious and eager to show us around his new digs. He's got a few updates planned for the place, but wants to keep most things intact. Though we missed out on breakfast this time, I'm going back someday for the gourmet meal he and partner Casey Frazier have cooking.
At first, it didn't look like any water I wanted to be drinking. First of all, it came out of a makeshift-looking Home Depot pipe. Behind a building. In the middle of a parking lot. OK, this is the reason they make Brita, right? Ah, but no. I actually had to stand in line to take a sip at this well-known artesian drinking well. Olympia, if you've never read the fine print on the can of its namesake beer, is famous for its subterranean artesian springs, and thousands of people show up each month to taste it straight from this public well.
People were pulling their minivans up to the spigot, playing the Culligan Man as they hauled great big jugs out to fill. Some, like me, just showed up with a Nalgene bottle and a powerful thirst.
"It's the only water I drink," said local Brandi Ramos, 32. "It has no taste, which is fabulous. Once you drink it, you can't go back."
You know you've been walking along an interpretive trail when you stop, nudge your friend and say something like, "Hey, was that a red-spotted toad?" Yes, I became a wildlife expert in just one afternoon as I strolled the main trail at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just north of Olympia. Turns out I didn't really see the toad, and we somehow missed the long-tailed weasel. I did, however, see a lot of Canada geese. But they were in the wild.
The other, longer trail is closed this time of year, an order we were more than willing to obey considering the reason is hunting season (until Jan. 31). But the place is misty, lovely. Maybe prettier in the stark winter dusk than on a summer afternoon.
After leaving the refuge at dark we headed back to Seattle. But I never got that awesome sweatshirt from the Old School Pizzeria. Guess it'll be my excuse to go back.
Lisa Heyamoto: 206-464-2149 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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