Virgin Atlantic launched a daily service to Seattle in March. Tom Parry boards the celebratory flight to visit the trend-setting home of Nirvana, Starbucks and Boeing.
As Virgin Atlantic flight VS105 touches down, rain pounds the windows of the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner as furiously as Kurt Cobain thrashing his guitar strings in the opening bars of Smells Like Teen Spirit.
But on this particular day in late March it’s another blonde maverick taking centre stage in Washington State’s largest city; tucked away on the far side of the US Pacific northwest coast. Virgin Atlantic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson (pictured right), is in town as the carrier makes its celebration flight marking a new daily service from Heathrow.
Having taken over the route from joint venture partner Delta Air Lines, it hopes to add 40,000 extra seats annually and fly a total of 150,000 passengers between London and Seattle-Tacoma airport each year.
Sporting a Cobain-esque red checked shirt, the billionaire explains to a buzzing arrivals hall how the new route sees his airline “coming home”. Manufacturing giant Boeing, which is headquartered in the city, rented Branson a second-hand 747 more than 30 years ago, and in his words, gave a “young upstart record producer a break”.
“Seattle is a beautiful city full of young, innovative entrepreneurs who are really looking to make a difference in the world,” he continues.
“It’s a city after my own heart.”
Heeding Branson’s words I take my place onboard a 14-passenger touring van operated by city tour specialists Show Me Seattle to grab myself a slice of city life.
Embarking on our swift two-hour excursion (the full three-hour version is bookable from $65pp, and commissionable on request) we take in Downtown. Surveying the scene, I feel as if we could be thousands of miles away in Boston or New York’s hipster-Mecca of Williamsburg as we pass neon-signed coffee hangouts and independent record stores.
Guide showers me with touristy trivia, pointing out former Seattle resident and Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee’s favourite Chinese restaurant and the building used as the Grey’s Anatomy hospital. He recalls a tale of how an episode of TV sitcom Frasier jinxed the city’s monorail, which broke down soon after a similar fictional storyline, and, for good measure, reveals his own claim to fame as an extra in Sleepless in Seattle.
With time of the essence we head to a trio of the city’s most popular attractions – handily located in The Seattle Center, a 72-acre urban park and home of the 1962 World’s Fair.
Standing 184 metres tall, the Space Needle is my first port of call – a leftover of the World’s Fair and itself a symbol of the city’s daring and innovation that Branson alluded to.
Stepping inside its glass Dave elevator we glide smoothly upwards for a mere 41 seconds to the observation deck. From such a vantage point I’m able to spot more of Seattle’s trademark sites.
I make out the city’s sporting must visit, Century Link Field, affectionately known as “The Clink” to legions of fans of the Seattle Seahawks NFL team, who have twice set World Records for being the loudest crowd at a sporting event.
On ground level is Chihuly Garden and Glass, where I marvel at the vibrant, other-worldly creations of Washington State-born glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
Completing my hat-trick is the funky Museum of Pop Culture (known as the Mopop). Designed by architecture royalty Frank Gehry to look like a smashed Stratocaster guitar, the museum was born from the private collection of Microsoft co-founder and Seattle’s answer to Jay Gatsby, Paul Allen. Its three levels are filled with an assortment of props, costumes and memorabilia from across music, TV, film and sport.
I examine the psychedelic wardrobe of Jimi Hendrix – another of Seattle’s icons – measure up a future NFL career against a life-size replica of Seahawks’ tight end Jimmy Graham and man the controls of my very own spaceship in the Sci-Fi zone.
It’s undeniable that bucket-list experiences come in many forms but only in Seattle can you go behind the scenes at one of the biggest and most secretive attractions in the world.
A 40-minute coach journey takes me from Downtown Seattle to Boeing’s Everett Delivery Center – a mega factory and the world’s largest building by volume. After passing a Fort Knox-worthy checkpoint, I gaze open-mouthed upon a vast airfield dotted with aircraft. I set about a real-life game of Where’s Wally? – spotting liveries from carriers across the world all waiting to be flown home by their new owners.
Ahead of us is the delivery centre itself, a seemingly endless hangar, which would not look out of place as a Bond villain’s lair, where Boeing’s 747s, 767s, 777s and 787s come to life.
At more than half a mile long and nearly 40 hectares in area – dwarfing the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids of Giza – the building is so vast it has its own ecosystem. I’m able to walk the factory floor as part of a specially arranged visit. Visitors can join public tours which use a network of gangways and viewing decks, with tours bookable from $25 via Boeing and commissionable (futureflight.com).
Inside, I find a workman’s shed on an industrial scale hard to comprehend, where 44 aircraft lie at any one time in various states of completion. Some on their sides, some upside down and others without wings – these are the last addition – with concrete blocks attached to replicate the weight.
A collection of 20 huge overhead cranes work above us to lug the aircraft down a production line, which they are painstakingly nudged along at up to three inches a minute. Towering landing gear, passenger seats and toilets are all scattered around waiting to be installed.
Hours later and following Virgin Atlantic’s new route launch party, even an entry-level coffee connoisseur such as myself is in dire need of a caffeinated concoction.
Luckily our host city is not only the home of Starbucks, which opened its first store in Pike Place Market in 1971, but the coffee giant’s only Roastery and Tasting Room.
Located in the city’s Capitol Hill neighbourhood, nine blocks away from the original shop, coffee pilgrims can sample a range of exclusive beverages and see Starbucks’ wizardry for themselves.
Here, a mini-factory houses large copper coffee bean silos and roasting ovens, while a network of tubes move the special Starbucks Reserve beans into sacks that are sold across the world.
Opened in December 2014, the Roastery has been described by the company as the future of Starbucks and also features an arsenal of exclusive merchandise and its own library. Sat at a saloon-style tasting bar my barista Chris takes me through the alchemy of brewing the perfect cup. It’s a fascinating process and the aftermath of last night’s fun is remedied by a limited edition Whiskey Barrel-Aged Sulawesi, a “cold brew” coffee served on the rocks (and fittingly) in a large shot glass.
As I sip and watch Starbucks’ roasters go about their craft, I conclude that while the sun-soaked strips of LA or bright lights of New York may be more prevalent on brochure covers, Seattle has its own confident, quirky essence that cannot be replicated or bottled – you need to try it for yourself – and I don’t just mean the coffee.
Book it: America As You Like It offers a city break to Seattle from £859pp, including return flights on Virgin Atlantic and four nights’ room only accommodation at the Deca Hotel in the city’s University district.