The masticated mass is a nauseating assault on the senses and quite possibly the most disgusting tourist attraction in the world. The Post Alley gum wall is a revolting Bazooka blast of colour and sickly-sweet odour. Countless pieces of used chewing gum are squished into place on dour Victorian walls in sticky fluoro splotches like rubbery impressionist art, as if Claude Monet worked in the medium of gobs of gum. There are little gobs, big gobs, extruded gobs, gobs with business cards or love notes attached, gobs hanging from window sills like sticky stalactites. Entwined gobs crafted into hearts by lovers. Athletic young dudes leap and slam dunk their gobs high on the wall, as if in a pissing contest sponsored by Wrigley's. A Hubba Bubba Hall of Fame. Little kids press their gobs lower to the ground as parents stand by with contorted faces and antibacterial wipes.
It's hard to believe this monstrosity is in downtown Seattle, one of the smartest and most cultured cities in America. The city of Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon. Of the Space Needle, the Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Pop Culture, Dale Chihuly's avant-garde Garden of Glass and the bravely boho Seattle Art Museum. Of Hendrix, Nirvana and Macklemore. Of an 87 per cent vote for Hillary. Of Dr Frasier Crane. It's even harder to believe this is the beginning of a gastronomic tour of the extraordinary Pike Place Market.
Katya, our guide from Savor Seattle Food Tours, says she has sampled everything at the market, which must have taken years. Doubts about this claim wane as she shows us around and relates fascinating back stories about every morsel, shop and grower, and more than a few patrons.
Sporting her "Bacon. It's what's for dinner" T-shirt, Katya is a font of facts and figures. She tells us the market was created because of price gouging by middle men and has a "proud history of ethnic blending". The market started in 1907 when seven farmers came to sell their produce and 20,000 Seattleites turned up to buy. The next day 75 farmers showed up.
When councilman Thomas Revelle opened Pike Place Market, he placed his silk hat on top of a pumpkin to the cheers of the crowd and declared: "This market is yours. I dedicate it to you and may it prove of benefit to you and your children. It is for you to protect, defend and uphold and it is for you to see that those who occupy it treat you fairly … This is one of the greatest days in the history of Seattle but it is only a beginning, for soon this city will have one of the greatest markets in the world."
His dedication has rung true for the iconic site for more than a century, notwithstanding the shameful internment of the Japanese marketeers (two-thirds of the vendors) during World War II and attempts to pave the market and put up a parking lot in the 1960s. Today, there are more than 400 producers and craftspeople spread over six levels, catering to 10 million hungry visitors a year.
We tuck into warm cinnamon doughnuts at Daily Dozen and sample cheeses and cheese curd from Beecher's Handmade Cheeses, as well as their signature mac and cheese, one of America's favourite dishes for some reason. We stop at Ellenos for Greek yoghurt, which they get from Australia "cos it's the best", and sample the delectable Filipino bites – longanisa (skinless sweet sausage) and lumpia (vegetarian spring rolls) – from Leila's Oriental Mart. Leila has a few helpful signs up, such as 'If U don't know how to eat our salmon sinigang DON'T ORDER IT!' and 'We don't accept difficult customers … SO KNOW YOUR ROLE!'. Leila makes Seinfeld's Soup Nazi look like a pussy.
Colour and noise and fun and laughter are everywhere. A jazz band shows its chops outside the famous Pike Place Fish Co., where tradition dictates mongers throw fish into the crowd. Katya's insider's tip: halibut is easier than salmon if you want to take the catch of the day. At Pike Place Chowder we gobble down crab cake and clam chowder so good it was inducted into the Great Chowder Cook-Off Hall-of-Fame. And it doesn't get much bigger than that, chowder-wise. We head to Piroshky Piroshky for Russian pastries and wash them down with a smoothie from Rachel's Ginger Beer, not far from the world's first Starbucks and, in an illustration of the aforementioned ethnic blending, just around the corner are Farvahar Persian Cafe, Milagro's Mexican Art and Sergio's Barber, all keen for customers and a chat.
The market was established with philanthropic roots and the precinct includes a neighbourhood centre and low-income housing, and we are encouraged to drop our spare change in market mascot Rachel the Piggy Bank to maintain the social good.
A few blocks south of Pike Place Market, at Seattle's birthplace – Pioneer Square – we join the Underground Tour, a visceral history lesson in how not to plan a city and then how to fix it. Built on mostly soggy tidal flats at sea level, sanitation was non-existent in the early days and our guide describes in too much detail the "four-foot poo geysers" that occurred on a high tide. Potholes so large they were given names. As we breathe the musty air and pass puddles, old storefronts, sidewalks, period junk, cobwebs and heritage photos, we learn that when fire destroyed the entire city in 1889, it killed a million rats and no humans. A blessing in disguise, they rebuilt the city on top of itself, raising it between one and three storeys by sluicing an entire hill down to sea level. They moved more earth than in the construction of the Panama Canal and laid the foundations for one of America's beacon cities. As well as a workable sewerage system.
Virgin Australia (in conjunction with Delta Air Lines) flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Seattle via Los Angeles daily. See www.virginaustralia.com
Savor Seattle's Signature Food Tour of Pike Place Market runs eight times a day for two hours and includes 16 bite-sized tastings from seven market vendors. From $US42 per person. See www.savorseattletours.com
Bill Speidel's Underground Tour is a 75-minute guided walk through the interconnecting tunnels beneath the Seattle old town area and leaves every hour, on the hour. $US22 per adult. See www.undergroundtour.com
The Show Me Seattle Three Hour City Tour is an exploration of famous and not-so-famous landmarks across five precincts and neighbourhoods accompanied by a droll commentary. Tours leave at 9am and 1.30pm. $US65 per person. See www.showmeseattle.com
The classy and comfortable Edgewater Hotel is on the waterfront near Pier 67 and overlooks Elliott Bay and out to the Olympic Mountains. The Beatles stayed here in 1964 and there is a collection of photos, including one of the boys hanging out the window fishing. Walking distance to the old town area. Rooms from around $US300 a night.
Mal Chenu was a guest of Holland America Line and Port of Seattle.
FIVE MORE GREAT SEATTLE EXPERIENCES
CHIHULY GARDEN AND GLASS
Home-grown genius Dale Chihuly's museum of glass art is located beneath the Space Needle. The genius of this exhibition flows from room to colourful room and culminates in a bright garden installation. Even the birds are impressed enough to build their nests among the art. See www.chihulygardenandglass.com
SALTY'S ON ALKI BEACH
A massive pig-out even by American standards, this is an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet brunch a-la-everything. If you can take your eyes off the views over Elliot Bay back to the city, you'll find row upon mouth-watering row of signature cuisine, such as live Dungeness crab and Maine lobster, clam chowder, honey-cured bacon, herb-crusted catfish and a self-serve Bloody Mary Bar. Come by water taxi from downtown Seattle. See www.saltys.com
SEE THE SEAHAWKS
Seattleites love their Seahawks. Tribute merchandise for the NFL team is everywhere and most feature the No.12 to signify the importance of the 12th player on the field – the supporters. They are known as the loudest crowd in the NFL and if you get the chance to go to CenturyLink Field for a home game, do it.
FERRY TO BAINBRIDGE ISLAND
Take the 35-minute ferry trip across Elliott Bay to Bainbridge Island in the heart of Puget Sound, hire a bike and explore the galleries, shops, restaurants, wineries, forts, museums, golf courses, parks, gardens, hiking trails and picture-postcard views.
SEATTLE SPENCER'S PICKS
There is no more passionate a Seattleite than "Seattle Spencer". He tells us he even played Meg Ryan's assistant in Sleepless in Seattle! On his Show Me Seattle tour he reveals his favourite spots: Ivar's Acres of Clams restaurant, a greasy spoon called The 5 Point Cafe ("We've been cheating tourists and drunks since 1929"), Cafe Appassionato near the fishing boat harbour for coffee, Ballard Locks to see salmon climb the fish ladder and watching the sunset from Magnolia Bluff.