Greater Seattle is as much archipelago as metropolitan area. Although its waterside setting and hills that that slope to the shoreline suggest San Francisco, other landmasses dot the water in nearly 360 degrees from central Seattle. To the east is Lake Washington and Mercer Island (and beyond that, Lake Sammamish), nearly making Seattle an island itself; to the north, that thin strip of land still holds room for Lake Union. Islands and near-islands make Puget Sound look more like a bayou than an open body of water, at least on the map. Up close, there’s a lot more open water than it seems.
The Washington State Ferries operate up and down the Sound, extending the region’s highways across the water, and saving drivers miles (if not time and money). The most accessible destination is Bainbridge Island, which lies 8 miles directly east of central Seattle. If you’re looking for an easy way to explore this blend of land and sea, unique among America’s major cities, this 35-minute ferry ride is the easiest way to do so.
The Bainbridge ferry leaves from the Seattle Main Terminal (Pier 52), where Marion Street meets the waterfront. (For us tourists, that’s five blocks south of Pike Place Market.) This is only one of several ferry docks: just to the south at Pier 50, passenger ferries leave for a 15-mile journey south to Vashon Island, where Puget Sound really gets crazy. Just to the north at Pier 55, ferries cross the Sound southwest to West Seattle, and a mile to the north at Pier 69, ferries leave for the 2.5-hour trip to Victoria and Vancouver Island.
Pier 52 is also home to the Bremerton ferry, but that trip weaves around the southern edge of Bainbridge to the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula. The resulting extra time, and the promise of a great dinner on Bainbridge at the Four Swallows Inn, was enough for us to hop aboard for a late afternoon ride.
We’d hiked from the Seattle Sheraton up to the Space Needle, and then back along the harbor to the ferry terminal—3.5 miles in all—so refreshments seemed in order. Thankfully, the Commuter Comforts Café & Wine Bar was there, with seats for barely 24 people tucked into a triangular space just before the boarding area. One of the things I love about Seattle is the way that high-quality coffees, beers and wines are the norm, and that translated in to my first experience with a dark IPA (thumbs up). There was barely enough time to get to the bottom of the glass before the alert for boarding sounded, although later it was clear that wasn’t any need to rush into the queue on a late Saturday afternoon.
The ferry was massive. I was unprepared for the size of the ship, which carries thousands of islanders to and from Seattle on workdays. A member of the crew told us that it seats 2,500 passengers and over 200 vehicles. We headed along the port (I think) side to claim the bench closest to the bow. Competition for seating was non-existent, since the ship was carrying barely a tenth of its capacity.
The 40-minute ride was terrific. As they were throughout our three-day visit, the skies were blue and cloudless. Seattle’s skyline sparkled as you looked to the bow; ahead of us, a small cluster of sailboats made good use of the mild breezes off the shores of Bainbridge Island. One hundred miles to the southeast, even Mount Rainier was visible, although less than distinct in the late afternoon light.
In the bow, the breeze was strong enough to make me realize how quickly we were moving, traveling at 15 knots. Those who make the trip regularly appeared to head indoors, playing cards, listening to music or grabbing a bite at the snack bar. Out on the deck with us were the other tourists, grabbing snaps against the skyline and the horizon, or those exercising a puppy or translating their mall walk to the ferry deck.
The ferry docks about half way inside mile-long Eagle Harbor. The former of Winslow is about a third-mile walk from the pier, along Winslow Way. Our restaurant was a little further, not quite a mile up on Madison Avenue. With time to spare, we walked further inland, finding the houses a mix of structures from several eras: small log cabins under vintage trees, Victorians and 1960s ranches. The small ‘downtown’ featured several restaurants, galleries, and the necessary infrastructure of grocery stores, post offices, and other retail establishments.
The entire island composes the town of Bainbridge Island, home to 20,000 people. I wasn’t surprised to learn that various survey judged it one of the best places to live in the U.S., and our waitress—who had grown up, moved to Rome, and then come home to work at the family business—seemed genuinely happy to be back. It would be a fun place to explore (car required), with hills, inlets, wildlife preserves, and plenty of shoreline features.
We had only time for dinner and a return ferry ride at 8:10. The ride back through the dark water to Seattle was quite a bit cooler, and we spent much of it inside, coming out only for the last few minutes. The walk back to the Sheraton (or any of the other central hotels) was a manageable three-quarters of a mile, and we were back in our rooms not long after 9 pm. Ferries leave frequently, every 40 to 60 minutes, so it’s easy to plan a day trip of almost any length.