The last thing you want to do is spend 18 hours in the stale air of the airport. But what options do you have?
The short answer: a lot.
The slightly longer answer: relax at a luxury hotel. Treat yourself at a spa. Explore the history of the aircraft industry. Go indoor skydiving. Go beachcombing. Play soccer. Play golf. Breathe in the floral scents of a botanical garden. Take in a free concert. Shop. Eat. Repeat.
The nearby towns of SeaTac, Tukwila, Burien and Des Moines cluster around the international airport like bees circling a hive. Tukwila, home of the Northwest’s largest indoor shopping mall, Westfield Southcenter, extends to the east. Burien, to the northwest, has a quaint downtown strip atop a hill that descends to Puget Sound.
The highlight of Des Moines, to the south of the hub community, is its busy pier-side commercial district. Highway 99 through SeaTac, which surrounds the airport, is packed with a couple of dozen hotels, but the community also includes everything from lakes to golf courses to botanical gardens.
Beyond the immediate airport environs, neither Seattle nor Tacoma is more than a light-rail ride away. Sound Transit Link runs 20 hours a day, breaking only between 1 and 5 a.m., and connecting the airport with Seattle’s Pike Place Market (50 minutes) or downtown Tacoma (1 hour) for fares of $2.25 to $3.25.
Cedarbrook Lodge is one of those surprising oases that you’d never know existed if you weren’t given specific directions.
Even though it’s mere blocks from the SeaTac airport — you could walk if the hotel didn’t provide a free shuttle — the 167-room urban resort is surrounded by gardens that muffle the dissonant sounds of bumper-to-bumper traffic and the roar of airplanes’ jet engines as they take off and land.
Cedarbrook is a favorite of corporate groups, who make good use of its extensive meeting space, and a popular choice for those who appreciate good food and drink. The Copperleaf Restaurant & Bar serves a sustainably sourced dinner menu (featuring such rarely seen dishes as abalone and antelope) to complement excellent breakfasts and lunches. For visitors with time to overnight, the guest rooms have working office facilities, 42-inch TVs and floor-to-ceiling windows with views across the cedar-fringed wetlands that surround the hotel.
Within the property is the Spa at Cedarbrook, whose menu offers everything from therapeutic and deep-tissue massages to manicures, pedicures, facials, mud wraps and much more. I appreciated the men’s spa menu; my “shower power rainwater rinse” began with a salt exfoliation and continued with a horizontal shower, moisturizer rub and a scalp massage.
Museum of Flight
The Boeing Airplane Co. was established in 1916 in a south Seattle shipyard beside the Duwamish River. Its original home, known as the “Red Barn,” was moved in 1975 to the edge of Boeing Field, where it still stands. Renovated and opened to the public in 1983, it is now at the heart of the exquisite Museum of Flight, 5 miles from downtown Seattle near Tukwila.
This is the sort of place where you can plan to go for an hour or two, and wind up spending all day. Its major components — other than the Red Barn, whose displays focus on the history of aviation and of Boeing itself — include a Great Gallery containing more than 40 historic aircraft, a separate gallery specific to World Wars I and II, five theaters, a replica air control tower and its new Space Gallery and Spaceflight Academy.
The Great Gallery is the most impressive room in the museum. No fewer than 43 aircraft stand or are suspended beneath its six-story frame of glass and steel. Among them is a Lockheed M-21 Blackbird, built in 1963, the lone survivor of the two fastest piloted jets ever built. It was able to travel at speeds above Mach 3 at altitudes greater than 85,000 feet. Flight simulators emulate the experience of flying everything from hang gliders to Blue Angels fighter jets to space maneuvering units.
Visitors may also sit at the cockpit of a spy plane or attack jet, or scan for traffic on busy Boeing Field from an interactive replica of an airport control tower. An enclosed bridge crosses busy East Marginal Way to additional museum facilities, including an Airpark that displays the first Air Force One jetliner and the only Concorde on the West Coast.
I had previously been paragliding and bungee jumping, but skydiving was new to me. The iFLY Seattle might have given me my first taste of this sport, but a teenage shoulder subluxation led instructors to “highly recommend” that I pass on the opportunity. The shoulder could have been blown out by a 100 mph blast of air through a vertical wind tunnel, they told me — making it an even greater risk than a 12-year-old back surgery.
For adventurers without that sort of medical history, however, iFLY could be a great way to pass time between flights. Situated beside Southcenter, the facility includes a vertical wind tunnel, 14 feet in diameter, where daredevils can enjoy 60 seconds of controlled free falling within safety-glass walls, above a trampoline-like net.
An instructor helps participants to “belly fly” with back arched, arms extended, chin raised and eyes up. Repeat visitors can learn to fly on their backs, while seated, or even upside down. And in a demonstration of their expertise, some instructors even offered choreographed flips and cartwheels.
First-time flyers pay $59.50, with discounts for returnees. A five-minute block is $99.
Thrill seekers can also find other adrenaline-pumping activities near Southcenter at Virtual Sports (laser tag) and SyKart Indoor Racing (go-karts), while younger visitors are well served in Tukwila at the Family Fun Center (mini-golf and bumper boats).
Outdoor sportsmen can enjoy golf at the Foster Golf Links in Tukwila or the Tyee Golf Course on the border of Des Moines and SeaTac. And soccer lovers might well find a pickup game on one of the 12 fields at the Starfire Sports Complex at Fort Dent, where the Seattle Sounders professional team maintains its training facility.
If you include its surrounding parking, Westfield Southcenter covers more than four large city blocks. Its 218 tenants — headed by Macy’s, JC Penney, Nordstrom and Sears — make it the largest shopping mall in the Pacific Northwest.
The shops include 54 men’s and women’s apparel shops, two dozen jewelers and 23 shoe stores. While the majority are national chain outlets, retailers such as Made in Washington and the Seattle Team Shop offer souvenirs and clothing that might only be found in the greater Seattle area.
Southcenter has been open since 1968, but it is forever changing. The Mervyn’s department store, for instance, closed in 2010, to be replaced by Seafood City, a Filipino-American supermarket chain that has expanded into six states from its California base.
One of the most obvious features of Southcenter is its spaciousness. Despite the number of businesses that are packed into its corridors, there are open areas sufficiently large to stage community events. There are ample sitting areas, quite apart from the food court, where tired shoppers can put their feet up. They include not just chairs and tables, but also full-size sofas. And for those who just need a break from the shopping experience altogether, kid-friendly Round 1 has bowling, billiards and other games, as well as karaoke machines.
Des Moines marina district
Des Moines is my favorite of the airport-area neighborhoods. A short turn off Interstate 5, halfway from Seattle to Tacoma, it has a shoreline 4½ miles long, one the largest small-boat marinas on Puget Sound, a three-quarters of a mile strip of small shops and cafes, a curious national historic district and the most visited state park on the sound.
More than 800 vessels, including sailboats, motor yachts and other pleasure craft, are moored in Des Moines Marina. There are twice-weekly farmers markets here on Wednesdays and Saturdays through October, and almost any time of any day, anglers of all ages cast lines from the pier for ling cod, rockfish and other fish. On moonlit evenings, dozens of people may be found jigging for squid.
Hillside homes rise above the harbor and Des Moines Creek, which descends a 400-foot bluff through a park corridor on the north side of the marina. Near its outlet, at Des Moines Beach Park, is the Covenant Beach National Historic District — location of the town’s first homestead and, in the 1890s, a lumber mill. Subsequently a church camp, its historic lodge and out-buildings are now used for youth summer camps and recreation programs. Free concerts are offered weekly in summer.
Marine View Drive is downtown Des Moines’ main thoroughfare. Points of interest include the 1947 Des Moines Cinema, a classic single-screen theater, and a range of small restaurants, import stores and other intriguing retail outlets.
Beaches and gardens
The most visited state park on Puget Sound is Des Moines’ forested Saltwater State Park, which embraces a quarter mile of rocky shoreline around the mouth of salmon-rich McSorley Creek, about 2 miles south of the marina. Park buildings were built in 1935 and 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s very popular with scuba divers, as Puget Sound is one of the world’s richest marine habitats in terms of diversity of species.
More than 80 of those species are exhibited at the small aquarium of Highline Community College’s Marine Science and Technology Center (MAST), located on a 260-foot pier at Redondo Beach, next door to the popular Salty’s restaurant.
Farther north along the Puget Sound coastline, north of Des Moines, are Normandy Beach Park and Seahurst Beach Park, the latter at Burien. A freshwater, inland swimming hole, at Angle Lake Park, is a mere mile south of the airport off Highway 99.
Flower lovers will feel at home in the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden, north of the airport near the SeaTac Community Center. Only a few of its 10½ acres have yet been developed, but they are beautifully tended. Paths wind through Elda Behm’s Paradise Garden, its colorful blossoms putting forth their wonderful fragrance; the Seattle Rose Society Celebration Garden, and the Seike Japanese Garden, its stonework surrounding a classic pond.
When hunger comes calling, there are plenty of excellent restaurants ready to answer the call, with dozens of different ethnic foods — everything from Italian to Vietnamese to Somali — available within a short trip from the airport.
For carnivores, my first recommendation is Sharp’s Roaster and Ale House, in SeaTac and so close to the runways, you don’t even need a taxi to get there. My meal began with pan-roasted cornbread and a salad of baby spinach and other field greens, accented with shaved fennel. Then I dove into a half dozen “big bones” of barbecued prime rib — I was supplied with a bib and even plastic gloves — accompanied by a brandied cherry Manhattan.
For seafood lovers, the best of the Anthony’s Homeport group sits beside the Des Moines Marina, with a full oyster bar and two floors of seating. Another classic eatery in this saltwater community is the Des Moines Doghouse, whose budget-priced fare ranges beyond old-fashioned hot dogs to Colombian chorizo sausages and empanadas. Almost across the street, Scotch and Vine complements its generous portions of cheeses, chops and shellfish with a superb selection of wines and whiskeys.
Over at Southcenter, Moctezuma’s Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar is so authentic that it has a woman making corn tortillas on a grill near its entrance, not the sort of thing I’d expect at a shopping mall.
So, who was it who said there’s nothing to do on an airport layover?
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org