The Inland Empire Strikes Back
By David Volk
One weekend the travel bug bit, but my wife had to work. Since it would be my first trip alone since we got married, I was determined to make the best of it. Now, all I had to do was pick a fun, exotic location not too far from home. Like Spokane.
As I quickly discovered, trips to Spokane provoke interesting reactions on both sides of Washington. My Seattle friends reacted as if I was a Russian announcing a trip to Siberia. They didn't know what was there, but they were pretty sure it wasn't good. Some were sure I wouldn't find enough to fill a day, and one Spokane wag told me a sure way not to run out of things to do:
"Take two naps a day."
What makes her joke so ironic is that there's plenty to do during the summer in Spokane. In fact, the impending reopening of a long-closed downtown hotel has sparked a revitalization in the city.
Part of what makes Spokane so attractive is the weather. While Seattle was digging out from an unexpected snowstorm in mid-March, Spokane was storing its winter woolens. Early spring quickly gives way to warm summer weather that lasts into October.
Another attraction is the traffic. There isn't any, and the locals like it that way. I liked it, too, because I cover lots of ground when I travel solo. I flew in at 7:30 a.m. Saturday just so I could see everything.
Since there wasn't much open, I headed for Riverfront Park, the site of Expo '74. Like Seattle's, Spokane's World's Fair buildings feature early-'70s futuristic concrete architecture that isn't so attractive now that it's the future. Fortunately, there's still plenty to recommend the park, including an antique carousel, kids' rides, walking trails, concerts and its best feature, Spokane Falls. The falls might not be as tall as the ones at Snoqualmie, but those cascades aren't in the middle of a city.
Next, I started walking along the Centennial Trail, a 39-mile footpath from the western edge of Spokane to the Idaho border, but found myself scrambling for my life when I heard a caterwauling from a nearby tree. It turned out to be two raccoons fighting or mating--I'm not sure which--but it dampened my enthusiasm despite the sunny weather.
Having had enough of nature, I went in search of man-made beauty and found the Davenport Hotel. The center of Spokane social life for 50 years, the block-long, 11-story Italian Renaissance hotel closed in 1985. It remained shuttered until a local developer renovated it with plans to reopen it this summer.
I could still see traces of its former glory despite the renovation work. There was the 80-foot-wide Spanish neo-rococo lobby with its Italian marble fountain and 12-foot-tall Florentine fireplace, the Italian neoclassical Isabella Ballroom and the French neoclassical Marie Antoinette Ballroom.
I liked it so much I wanted to stay, but the guest rooms weren't ready.
After years of hoping for a reopening, merchants launched a revival without it. A downtown mall opened in 1999, an arts district began developing and a 1916 neoclassic steam plant was turned into a funky retail/office complex called Steam Plant Square, with a restaurant and gift shop nestled in the plant's nooks and crannies.
Once I left downtown, I took the Spokane City Drive, a 33-mile tour past the area's big attractions. The highlights included jaunting by the nouveau mansions on Cliff Drive, visiting the English Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, gawking at Manito Park's theme gardens, and meandering through scenic Riverside State Park, where you could spend the entire day hiking.
My favorite stop was Browne's Addition, where the city's late-19th-century timber and mining barons built fancy homes to flaunt their wealth. The 126-acre district is filled with Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Tudor-style homes, each bigger than the last.
I enjoy looking at old houses, but I hate not seeing their interiors. Apparently, I'm not alone. The welcome mat at a Queen Anne~style apartment building said simply, "Go Away."
Fortunately, I found three houses I could explore.
Fotheringham House was my bed and breakfast for the night. Built by Spokane's first mayor in 1891, the home's Victorian antique furniture made it seem like he might return at any minute. The best thing about Fotheringham is its location: It's so perfectly situated for exploring Browne's Addition that the friendly owners printed up a self-guided tour spotlighting noteworthy homes.
Despite what Spokane residents said, there was plenty to do Saturday night, including five plays, two concerts, a political singer, an improv group and the club scene. I chose the Interplayers Ensemble Theatre's production of Arthur Kopit's "Wings." The acting was good, but the story about a former wing-walker's efforts to cope with a stroke didn't grab me and I fell asleep.
I visited another house Sunday at The MAC, the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. Admission includes a historic house tour with a twist: People who visit the house of 19th-century mining baron Amasa B. Campbell participate in the tour by pretending to be Campbell's contemporaries.
The rest of what was formerly the Cheney Cowles Museum is just as good. Each gallery under its vaulted roof uses dramatic approaches to present exhibits relevant to the people of the Inland Empire. One detailed the Davenport Hotel's history, another focused on Eastern Washington institutions, and a third looked at regional Indian tribes.
Having had enough of the sublime, I went in search of lunch and kitsch. Lunch was chili and hard cider at The Elk, an inexpensive smoke-free neighborhood pub locals rave about. The chili was bland, but the obliging waiter brought me four bottles of hot sauce.
I don't care what Gonzaga University says, I consider a room of memorabilia dedicated to alumnus Bing Crosby classic kitsch. The room in the Crosby Student Union contains Der Bingle's Oscar, scripts, and such curiosities as an ice cream carton sporting his picture and a Crosby exercise gadget.
Fortunately, I saved the best for last. Carr's One of a Kind in the World Museum is so obscure that Visitor's Bureau employees hadn't heard of it. And that's too bad, because it has so much to offer.
From the outside, the unassuming little museum looks like an auto repair shop, but from the inside it looks like, well, the inside of an auto repair shop filled with relics. A set of double oak doors salvaged from an old Spokane building open onto the oddest gathering of artifacts I've ever seen: a 13-foot-long replica of the World War II destroyer USS Nicholas, a Royal Louis ship made with 27,500 matchsticks and a life-size mannequin of Jackie Gleason flanked by metallic female mannequins.
The car collection includes a 1973 Lincoln Mark IV once owned by Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy's 1962 Lincoln Continental and Gleason's 1968 Oldsmobile limousine. Since visitors are allowed to climb into the autos and sit where the celebrities once sat, I went cheek-to-cheek with Gleason and Kennedy.
I was so thrilled with my butt's brush with greatness I didn't mind when the owner showed me his favorite exhibit. He lifted a curtain to reveal a tabletop stage filled with plastic frog musicians dancing in time to bad recorded music. I was too stunned to react, but the owner seemed proud, and that's all that matters.
Ready to rest on my laurels, I checked into elegant Hotel Lusso, Spokane's only downtown luxury hotel. I stayed in a spacious, high-ceilinged penthouse suite boasting a large white marble fireplace and two overstuffed white chairs. The room was so beautiful it made me sad my wife wasn't there and so comfortable I didn't want to leave, but I had to because the hotel restaurant was closed.
Fortunately, the staff recommended Luna, 15 minutes away. The service was so good, the food so amazing that the neighborhood eatery was filled on a Sunday night. I opted for Luna's Sunday night theme dinner and found myself enjoying Southwestern dishes such as nopales (cactus) and bell-pepper salad, spicy tortilla soup with avocado and roasted red onions, and chipotle-roasted chicken with chili corn fritters.
As I left I realized there was one suggestion a local gave me that I had forgotten to follow up on. Once I reached the hotel. I finally found time for that nap.
If you go
(All area codes 509, except as noted.)
The Davenport Hotel, 10 S. Post St., 455-8888, www.thedavenporthotel.com. Rooms from $99 to $1,950.
The Fotheringham House Bed and Breakfast, 2128 W. Second Ave., 838-1891, www.fotheringham.net. Rooms from $95 to $115.
Hotel Lusso, N. One Post (cq), 747-9750, www.hotellusso.com. Rooms from $155 to $295.
Bing Crosby Memorabilia Room, Gonzaga University, 502 E. Boone Ave., 328-4220, ext. 4297.
Campbell House is next to The Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture.
Carrs One of a Kind in the World Museum, 5225 N. Freya, 489-8859. Admission $5. Open Saturday and Sunday only from 1 to 4 p.m.
Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, E. 127 12th Ave., 838-4277.
Centennial Trail: The trail is a paved pathway running along the Spokane River from Nine Mile Falls to the Idaho state line with numerous entrance points for walkers, bikers and runners.
Manito Park is on Grand Boulevard between 17th and 25th avenues.
The Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (The MAC), 2316 W. First Ave., 456-3931.
Riverfront Park, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.
A city map featuring the Spokane City Drive is available from the Spokane Convention and Visitor's Bureau, 801 West Riverside, (509) 624-1341, www.visitspokane.com.
Spokane Interplayers Ensemble, S. 174 Howard St., 455-PLAY, www.interplayers.com.
Elk Public House, 1931 W. Pacific Ave., 363-1973. Inexpensive.
Luna, S. 5620 Perry St., 448-2383. Moderate.