Figure-skating events in recent years have put a new spotlight on Spokane as a visitor destination, and that will only intensify with upcoming U.S. Figure Skating Championships just before the 2010 Winter Olympics.
SPOKANE — As a native of oh-so-sophisticated Seattle, I’ve always felt an unspoken civic obligation to look down on our cross-state country cousin, Spokane.
But on a recent visit, something changed.
Maybe it happened as I eased into an overstuffed brown chair to sip a latte in the grand lobby of Spokane’s beautifully restored, 1914-vintage Davenport Hotel.
Or when I admired the rows of French-oak wine barrels in the lower floor of the 8-year-old Barrister Winery. Or prowled the shelves of locally owned Auntie’s Bookstore.
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Then again, it could have been when I tasted a warm, spicy brew at “Chocolate Apothecary,” a 4-year-old shop dedicated to solving the world’s ills through chocolate.
Somehow amid these experiences — all within walking distance of one another in the city’s downtown core — I found myself deciding that Spokane may be a place I’d rather explore than ignore.
That impression was reaffirmed in the warmth of an early fall afternoon at Riverfront Park, as I watched a stately blue heron sun itself on a rock in midstream.
When you get right down to it, how could we overlook a city that produced crooner Bing Crosby, NBA great John Stockton and — this one was news to me: Sonora Dodd, the woman who came up with the idea of Father’s Day?
Skaters love it
In coming to an appreciation of the Lilac City, as Spokane calls itself, I’m certainly not alone.
Figure-skating aficionados from across the country who converged on Spokane in 2007 for their national championship loved it so much they’re bringing the event back to Spokane in January, when it will set the U.S. team for the 2010 Winter Olympics, starting just 18 days later in Vancouver, B.C.
The Spokane event promises 10 days of skating action in 10,500-seat Veterans Memorial Arena, which opened in 1995 just north of the river.
Even sooner, on Oct. 16, the arena will host an exhibition hockey game between the U.S. and Canadian women’s teams. It’s also the home ice of the local WHL hockey team, the Spokane Chiefs, whose season is now under way.
But you don’t have to love figure skating or hockey to appreciate Spokane. Perhaps you enjoy wine, history, art, shopping, fine restaurants, cycling or martini bars. Or taking a gondola ride over a raging river.
And let’s not forget sunshine, something they get here about 260 days a year, even in the frigid days of winter.
No wheels needed
Many of the city’s hotels are within walking distance of the arena, the river, the convention center, shopping, dining and arts venues, making it possible to leave the car parked for a weekend of roaming downtown Spokane by foot. (Or flying over and taking a shuttle in from the airport.)
Getting around can be more of a challenge once the snow flies, and Spokane’s tourism industry is hoping not to see a repeat of last winter’s record 97.7 inches of snow.
During the figure-skating event, a shuttle service will connect the main destinations. Buses are also a good option.
Exploring Spokane almost certainly involves a visit to Riverfront Park, the 100-acre legacy of the city’s Expo ’74 World’s Fair, offering both indoor and outdoor activities.
With the change of season, summertime rides in the park’s Pavilion have given way to the outdoor-but-covered Ice Palace, open for public skating starting Oct. 21.
Even through most of the chilly season, children delight in riding the 54 hand-carved horses of the 1909-vintage Looff Carousel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The carousel, which closes for six weeks of maintenance each year, will time this winter’s work to keep the carousel open during the figure skating.
The park has outdoor concert venues and an IMAX Theater, and adjoins the INB Performing Arts Center, which hosts a varied schedule of music, theater and other events.
Fun for young and old
Riverfront Park is also the departure point for the 15-minute Spokane Falls Skyride, taking passengers in enclosed gondolas across the river, dropping 200 feet toward the rapids. It operates daily until the end of October, and weekends and holidays through the winter (with extended hours when the figure skaters are in town).
At the skyride, I caught up with Tim and Kristen Wynne, of Seattle, who had just completed the adventure with their 3-year-olds, Dolan and Amelia. The family, in Spokane for a relative’s wedding, gave the city high marks.
“It’s clean and pleasant, the people are friendly and the weather’s good,” said Kristen Wynne. “And there’s a lot of things for kids to do.”
Among the park’s many sculptures, the younger set’s clear favorite is “The Childhood Express,” a 12-foot-tall red wagon that kids climb up inside and slide down the handle. Another fun one nearby is “Goat,” a metal critter standing in front of rocks that hide a powerful vacuum. Push the button and the goat “eats” scraps of litter from your hand.
For those seeking more adult-oriented pursuits, Spokane has more than a dozen wineries, including a couple of highly regarded ones downtown: hard-to-find Barrister Winery (in the shadow of the train trestle at 1213 W. Railroad Ave.) and Robert Karl Cellars, 115 W. Pacific Ave. Both are known for their red wines, but each also make a sauvignon blanc.
Even stronger stuff — gin, vodka and whiskey — is cooked up at 2-year-old Dry Fly Distilling. At 1003 E. Trent Ave., it’s about a mile east of the downtown core, reachable on the 26 or 28 bus.
Also a bus ride away, on Route 60, is the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, 2316 W. First Ave., with an impressive collection of Native American art and artifacts.
Downtown Spokane’s countenance isn’t flawless. Vacant storefronts here and there stand out like missing teeth in the city’s welcoming smile.
The busiest shopping scene in the central city is the three-story River Park Square, south of the park, with a children’s museum in the basement. There’s also a handful of interesting shops in the renovated Flour Mill on the river’s north bank, across Mallon Avenue from the arena.
One of those shops, The Kitchen Engine, offers not just kitchenware, but classes in preparing such varied fare as pasta, sushi, lefse and apple pie.
But it was another Flour Mill shop that caught the attention of my taste buds. Chocolate Apothecary has products from around the world, including 10 different “sipping chocolates,” as well as truffles and chocolate bars containing everything from hot spices to bits of bacon.
Owner Susan Davis had gone back to school after raising two sons and was considering a career in pharmacy in 2005 when she and a couple of classmates were chatting about how dark chocolate helped with their studying.
So instead of learning about prescription meds, she switched gears and opened a chocolate shop. “Chocolate releases endorphins, so it really is a happy stimulant for the brain,” she said. “I think it’s the best medicine there is.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com