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A NORTHWEST PASSAGE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOOKING AT MY TEEN-AGE daughter and soon-to-be teen-age daughter sitting slouched and sullen at the airport at 6 in the morning, having been rousted before daybreak for a flight to Seattle, I wondered how this vacation would go.

I was hoping for a week of family bonding and fun -- a cousin's wedding, a reunion with friends, an excursion to the San Juan Islands and a few days in the city -- but traveling with sometime members of the SDT (Sisterhood of Disaffected Teens) can be tricky business.

If you are the parent of grown children, you have likely put those turbulent teen years out of your mind. And if you have sweet toddlers or admiring grade-schoolers at home, it may be impossible to comprehend that your little rays of sunshine will one day be capable of gale-force emotional swings. Slumped in their seats, the girls' sleep-deprived body language spoke volumes: You call this fun?

My wife and I lugged our uncertainty on the airplane along with our bags, and off we went to the land of Starbucks.

According to the experts, family vacations work best when the children are involved in the planning process. In theory, this is a fine strategy, but with the reality of the kids' go-go lives -- camp, swim team, pet-sitting, part-time job and social calendars that rival those of heads of state -- in the weeks before the trip the moment never seemed to present itself to sit around the dinner table and break out the Pacific Northwest maps and guidebooks.

As the plane lifted off, I briefed Carolyn, 15, and Molly, whose 13th birthday was just around the corner, on the itinerary: After the wedding, we would head to the San Juans for three days, then back to Seattle for three days. We would get the best of the great outdoors on Orcas Island, including whale-watching, and then the best of the city.

The girls nodded tiredly, which in the language of SDT means: Whatever. Then they retreated to their headphones and CD players, thereby declaring themselves in an adult-free zone.

Lush, cool Northwest

The settlers who founded Seattle in 1851 were a hardy bunch. They came to the Northwest by way of the Oregon Trail, in what was a grueling 2,000-mile journey.

My family was feeling similarly scrappy as we loaded the rental car and headed out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. We had survived the flight across the country, the leaden airline pancakes and the couple behind us whose snack from home was a container of hard-boiled eggs.

Because we had crossed time zones and gained three hours, it was only 9:30 in the morning, but the girls were rested, and although their headphones were at the ready, they were excited to be seeing a new part of the country.

Even from the interstate, it was obvious we were a long way from the East Coast. We had left browned-out, heat-oppressed Maryland and arrived in a place that was green and lush -- and chilly. It was barely 60 degrees, a perfect spring day in the middle of summer.

"The air smells good here," one of the girls noted.

Later that afternoon in a lovely outdoor garden, we would help launch Jeff and Amber on the road to matrimony. And soon after, we would hit the road ourselves, meeting our friends and heading north for the coastal town of Anacortes, where a Washington state ferry would shuttle us to Orcas Island.

The great outdoors

The San Juans, a 457-island archipelago in the upper Puget Sound, are closer to the Canadian border than the U.S. mainland. Formed by volcanic eruptions, a couple of ice ages and the relentless effects of water and wind, the islands feel wild and untamed. Only a handful are inhabited, and Orcas, the largest, is said to be among the most rugged and most beautiful.

Orcas is also home to the highest spot in the archipelago. On a clear day from Mount Constitution's lookout tower you can see Vancouver, the snowcaps of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, and dozens of islands far enough in the distance to appear in soft shades of blue and gray.

With our friends, we explored Moran State Park, hiked fern-filled paths to waterfalls and later mucked about on the beach at the great waterfront house we had rented through the Internet.

Although the house had an entertainment center complete with satellite dish, the TV was not turned on during our stay. The kids were content to play on the beach, climbing on boulders, wading in the tide pools to examine starfish, discovering what they were certain was a pearl in an oyster, submerged just out of their reach in a rocky crevice.

The beach was not sandy, but covered with fairly amazing rocks, the product of the area's volcanic history.

The rocks, of various shapes and sizes, were jet black, auburn, slate and pale chocolate. Many had patterns and striations, like tiny planet Jupiters, and all had been worn smooth by the eons and the tides. We couldn't resist the urge to pick them up, and more than a few would make the trip home.

Sitting on a large piece of driftwood, watching Mount Baker looming grandly in the distance, it was a pleasure to see Carolyn and Molly having fun without benefit of phone, computer or CD player.

The kids might not have cared that the San Juans are actually part of an underwater mountain range, or that the British and Americans nearly came to blows in 1859 over a territorial dispute that became known as the Pig War, but it was clear that they understood the most important thing -- that communing with the natural world can be a deeply satisfying experience.

And therein lies a lesson for parents traveling with teens: Don't be too ambitious. Overload the kids with culture and history and they will probably ignore most of it anyway. Instead, allow time to kick back and do nothing. On vacation, the value of doing nothing is highly underrated.

That first night in the San Juans, we watched the sun set and the fish jump, skipped some rocks on the water, then walked up the steep steps from the beach to see deer nibbling on the raspberry bushes in front of the house. We sat on the sun porch and stared at Mount Baker some more.

It was after 10 p.m., and still light out, when the kids announced that they were getting up at 6 o'clock the next morning to find their oyster and pearl at low tide.

Had I heard that correctly? Teen-agers on summer break getting up on their own at 6 a.m.? Obviously, Orcas Island had yet to establish a chapter of the SDT.

This place is good for the soul, I thought. No wonder the hippies came.

Laid-back island

"I had a pony tail when I first moved here," says 55-year-old Jim Nelson, who with his artist wife, Betsy, owns Orcas Island Bayside Cottages, where we are staying.

When the Nelsons moved to Orcas Island in the mid-1970s, they were among the many free spirits in their 20s who were gravitating to the San Juans.

"We moved up here about a year after we got married," says Jim, originally from Nebraska. "First time I ever saw the place, I knew I wanted to live up here somewhere."

The Nelsons were drawn to the beauty of the San Juans, and also to the pace. "It really is a laid-back sort of lifestyle," he says. "That's been the attraction: Laid-back, relaxed. And whatever you do here in terms of the community, you can have an impact because it's such a small place."

There are about 4,500 full-time residents on Orcas, and in the village of Eastsound, the island's commercial hub, the hippie vibe is strong. In addition to spotting the occasional "Follow Your Bliss" bumper sticker, visitors may notice an unusually high number of VW buses.

Besides the pharmacy, hardware store and supermarket, Eastsound has interesting restaurants with cozy outdoor seating and cute shops in tucked-away garden courtyards. There is no shortage of tie-dye and handmade jewelry for sale. At the Clinic of Tibetan Holistic Medicine, you can get health consultations and treatments, and nearby, the Orcas Everlasting shop sells teas, espresso and chocolate along with "island products and fou fou."

Orca encounter

Horseshoe-shaped Orcas is surprisingly large. From our rental house near Obstruction Pass on the island's southeastern tip, it's a 30-minute drive to the ferry landing on the southwest side, where the Orcas Express is docked.

Dan and Denise Wilk have been running Orcas Island Eclipse Charters for 12 years, and are well known in the area for championing the rights of the resident Orca whales. When the movie Free Willy II was filmed here in 1995, that was Captain Dan and Denise onscreen playing the marine patrol in their boat.

On the dock before our 10 a.m. departure for a three-hour tour, Captain Dan shows us on a map where the whales have been sighted, and that's where we're headed. Finding the whales is an inexact science that relies mainly on a network of spotters. But because the animals travel 100 miles a day in search of salmon, there is no guarantee they will be seen.

It's a gorgeous morning -- sunny with scattered clouds and bracing temperatures in the mid-50s. The Orcas Express' 15 or so passengers are bundled in fleece, sweatshirts and foul-weather jackets. There is a heated indoor cabin, but on deck it will be red-nose cold when the 56-foot boat reaches cruising speed.

There are currently 82 whales living in the region in several pods. J pod, which makes its home year-round in the San Juans and lower Puget Sound, consists of four families, 18 whales total.

We learn that the animals have a matriarchal social structure and remain with their family their entire lives. (I wonder if this fact makes Carolyn and Molly glad they are not Orcas.)

The whales are smart. They work together to fish, and communicate using a language of clicks and whistles. At one point during the trip, a hydrophone is lowered into the water so we can listen to whale discourse, but on this day they aren't talking.

While Captain Dan navigates, Mary Miller, a naturalist who moved to Orcas Island with her husband three years ago, acts as guide. She points out bald eagles and their nests, sea lions, herons and other marine creatures as we cruise, and provides details about the islands we pass along the way, including the one owned by actor Gene Hackman.

Not far from Lime Kiln lighthouse near Haro Strait, we come upon nearly two dozen other whale-watching boats, many from Canada. As we approach slowly, someone yells, "Six o'clock!" and there is an Orca in our wake, swimming toward us.

Before long, there are whales all over the place, and everyone moves from one side of the boat to the other as new sightings are called out. We have found J pod.

Captain Dan keeps a respectful distance from the animals, but we are still close enough so that he and Mary can identify individual Orcas from markings on their dorsal fins.

With the cold wind on our faces and the thrill of seeing the whales in their natural environment, our senses are on full alert, and the kids as well as adults respond instinctively. Scanning the water, tracking the whales, we are completely in the moment.

"A mother and her calf!" someone shouts, and everyone heads to the stern to watch the pair swim together. There will be no dramatic breaching or tail slapping today, but we are happy to have seen this much, and the experience further connects us to the San Juans. I have no doubt that Carolyn and Molly will remember this for the rest of their lives.

It's not easy to leave Orcas Island the next day. A lot more time could be spent here, discovering artists' woodsy studios, taking the sea kayak trip that was canceled earlier because of rough water, doing nothing on the beach.

But as we queue up for the ferry back to Anacortes, we take heart, for still ahead is the city.

Beautiful Seattle

There is nothing like seeing a city skyline to make you appreciate the scope of human ingenuity. But turn a corner in Seattle and glimpse Mount Rainier, and you will also see what no amount of human ingenuity can match.

That is the magic of Seattle. The Emerald City, as it's called, does indeed sit amid the Pacific Northwest's immense natural beauty like a gem.

The city is defined by mountains and water, surrounded by Puget Sound and Lake Washington, the Olympic range to the west and the Cascades, with Rainier and Baker, to the east.

If you are put off by the traffic, the staggering real estate prices or Seattle's other urban woes, you need only look at the natural wonders all around you to gain perspective.

The city energizes, the mountains and water equalize. Given this symbiotic relationship, is it any wonder that the locals cultivate their laid-back reputation while at the same time practically making a religion of caffeine?

We begin our tour at the city's most identifiable landmark, the Space Needle. It's a nice view from the 520-foot-high observation deck, but like many popular tourist attractions, the needle is overpriced and underwhelming. After about 30 minutes, the kids are ready to go.

The day's main attraction, the Experience Music Project, is only few steps away. EMP is the brainchild of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and ardent fan of rock 'n' roll and Seattle native Jimi Hendrix.

The museum opened in 2000 to howls of protest about its bloblike exterior, but few people quibble about what happens inside.

EMP is interactive in a big way. Visitors are issued headsets with digital devices on shoulder straps. Point the device at exhibits throughout the museum and a recording gives you information. Or, if you're a teen-ager, you can use the headset to tune everything out and listen to classic rock tunes.

In the Sound Lab, you can form your own band and record a CD, or take lessons on guitar, keyboards and percussion. You can also be on stage under the bright lights and feel what it's like to be a rock star (and then buy the picture that proves you were). A guaranteed crowd pleaser is the Funk Blast ride, which involves a nifty bit of time travel back to the '60s.

Baby boomers will happily relive their musical coming of age at EMP, and maybe learn a thing or two about how the guitar evolved from genteel parlor instrument to electrified emblem of a generation. The kids, meanwhile, will love wailing away on the drums and guitars.

Arrive early, get your hand stamped, and you can come and go all day. Take a lunch break and ride the monorail downtown, then walk the short distance to Pike Place Market and get rained on.

(For most of the year in Seattle, if it's not raining, it's threatening rain. Residents often find themselves defending the weather or apologizing for it. Either way, they live with it. If you see someone in the city carrying an umbrella, chances are it's a tourist; locals find them too much trouble.)

As you make your way among the vendors' stalls at the packed market, you may at times feel like a sardine (guidebooks warn about pickpockets), but there is good shopping and eating here, not to mention street musicians playing for tips, and an unending opportunity for people-watching.

Snack on warm, roasted cashews while you browse for lunch. At an Asian carryout, try humbow, a sweet, steamed dumpling filled with vegetables or barbecue pork. Top it off with a latte at the very first Starbucks, which opened in 1971. In all, Pike Place sprawls over nine acres and is home to some 250 vendors. The action never seems to stop.

For a less touristy market experience, visit Uwajimaya in the city's International District -- formerly known as Chinatown. Uwajimaya bills itself as the largest Asian grocery store and gift market in the Pacific Northwest. The huge supermarket is full of American products as well as exotic fare (quail eggs, anyone?) and equally exotic seafood: "Fresh local octopus, $2.99 a pound."

An adjoining food court offers everything from stir fry and satay to Pad Thai noodles and the latest fad, bubble tea -- flavored dessert tea often served with gelatinous tapioca balls that are sucked through an oversized straw. (After trying bubble tea, my advice is to stick with the octopus.)

We explore the city's neighborhoods with no real itinerary. At the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard, we watch a boat being lowered from Lake Washington into Puget Sound, and then, through underwater glass at the fish ladder, we are mesmerized by the salmon fighting their way upstream, against the current, to spawn.

At cobblestoned Pioneer Square, the 19th-century birthplace of the city, we shop among the crafts and antiques stores and linger to watch a glass blower at work. In funky Fremont, which considers itself Seattle's Left Bank, the kids love the Deluxe Junk secondhand store as well as the giant sculpted troll that resides under a bridge.

And in Bellevue at Enatai Beach Park, one of 400 city parks, we rent kayaks and paddle along Lake Washington, marveling at the bald eagles perched in the treetops, the waterfront homes and Mount Rainier off in the distance.

We pack a lot into a few days, but it never seems rushed. There are SDT moments, to be sure, but the kids are happiest and most engaged when we are out of the car and exploring. And therein lies another lesson for parents traveling with teens: Don't expect miracles.

If you think your young ones are going to grow up overnight as a result of seeing a new part of the world, think again.

Regardless of how well traveled they are and how expanded their horizons become, teen-agers will still be teen-agers, capable of tuning you out, trying your patience and sometimes being mortified by your very existence.

Try not to worry. Somewhere in their mysterious, hormone- addled teen brains, they get it. Somehow all of what you have done and seen in your travels has expanded their horizons. And you can be fairly sure that when they turn a corner in Seattle and glimpse Rainier -- or later, when they turn other corners in different circumstances -- they will understand the significance of what it is they are seeing.

When you go

Getting there: BWI offers nonstop and connecting flights to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. For ferry service from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands -- and elsewhere in the region -- contact Washington State Ferries: 206-464-6400; www.wsdot.wa.gov / ferries.

Lodging :

Bayside Cottages Orcas Island, 65 Willis Lane, Olga, WA 98279

360-376-4330

www.orcas1.com

* Seven rental units, six on private waterfront with wonderful views of Mount Baker. The well-appointed Beach House comfortably accommodated four adults and four children. Daily and weekly seasonal rates. Three nights at the Beach House in July cost $700. For summer stays, reserve months in advance.

Activities:

Moran State Park, 3572 Olga Road, Olga, WA 98279

360-376-2326

www.parks.wa.gov

* The 5,252-acre park offers great hiking, cycling, fishing, boating and camping, along with spectacular views from Mount Constitution.

Orcas Island Eclipse Charters, Orcas Island Ferry Dock

800-376-6566

www.orcasislandwhales.com

* Three-hour whale-watching tours on the 56-foot Orcas Express. Cost: adults, $46.50; children under age 13, $31.

Experience Music Project, 325 Fifth Ave., Seattle, WA 98109

877-367-5483

www.emplive.com

* Interactive museum where everyone can be a rock star. Open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

* Admission: $14.95 to $19.95; children under age 6 admitted free.

Pike Place Market, Pike Street and First Avenue, Seattle, WA 98109

206-682-7453

www.pikeplacemarket.org

* Crafts, produce, fishmongers, restaurants and tons of tourists are found in this bustling marketplace, along with the original Starbucks, which opened in 1971.

Uwajimaya, 600 Fifth Ave. South, Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98104

206-624-6248

www.uwajimaya.com

* Asian supermarket, gift shop and food court in the International District. Open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Information:

For more information about lodging, dining and activities in the San Juan Islands and Seattle, try these resources:

* Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce: 360-376-2273; www.orcasisland.org

* Washington State tourism office: 360-725-5052; www.tourism.wa.gov

* San Juan Islands Visitor Information Services: 888-468-3701; www.guidetosanjuans.com

* Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau: 206-461-5840; www.seeseattle.org

An ideal day

5:30 a.m.: Drag yourself out of bed and down to the beach on Orcas Island to watch the sunrise over Mount Baker.

6:30 a.m.: Congratulate yourself on getting up so early, then go back to bed.

10 a.m.: Board the Orcas Express for a three-hour whale-watching excursion, and count yourself lucky if you see these extraordinary animals in their natural environment.

2 p.m.: Browse the shops in Eastsound, soaking up the laid-back vibe. Resist the urge to buy something tie-dyed.

3 p.m.: Head to Moran State Park and the Mount Constitution overlook for a panoramic view of the San Juans in all their glory.

5 p.m.: Relax at your rental house, contemplating nothing more strenuous than a drink and a nap. Later, walk down to the water and watch the kids explore the beach.

7 p.m.: Eat in, or head back to Eastsound and dine outdoors at Bilbo's Festivo Mexican restaurant. At the table with family and friends, consider holding forth on the benefits of travel and widening one's horizons, but then think better of it when you imagine the rolling of teen-age eyes that will ensue.

10 p.m.: It's still light out. Sit on the sun porch at the beach house and gaze at Mount Baker. If your trip to the Pacific Northwest included nothing more than this, it would be enough.

-- Bruce Friedland

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