A natural Olympic high

Forget Sydney, the real raw excitement is on the Olympic Peninsula where the cougars sprint

No artificial stimulants are responsible for the rugged, muscular performance of the Olympic Peninsula, jutting, like the squarest of chins, into the Pacific at the far north west of the continental United States. Canada, in the voluminous shape of Vancouver Island, is to the north across the Juan de Fuca Straits. Seattle is a short highway and a long ferry ride east. But few people go the distance to reach the Olympic National Park.

No artificial stimulants are responsible for the rugged, muscular performance of the Olympic Peninsula, jutting, like the squarest of chins, into the Pacific at the far north west of the continental United States. Canada, in the voluminous shape of Vancouver Island, is to the north across the Juan de Fuca Straits. Seattle is a short highway and a long ferry ride east. But few people go the distance to reach the Olympic National Park.

Here, on a superb deserted coastline, the wild Pacific crashes onto empty beaches. These aren't swimming beaches with sun-loungers and umbrellas. They're raw, remote and better suited for hiking, camping and beachcombing.

Vast, ancient forests reach almost to the water's edge. The local driftwood consists of piles of huge tree trunks, washed up by the sea and blanched by the sun and saltwater. On the western side of the peninsula, you can find yourself wandering through suffocating rainforests. The snow caps of the mountain range that gives the peninsula its name occasionally poke above the trees.

Then there are rivers, lakes hot springs. Bears and mountain lions (cougars) thrive on the forested mountain slopes, and bald eagles are commonly seen along the coastline.

The landscape is not completely devoid of man-made contributions. The Victorian architecture at Port Townsend is definitely well worth seeing, as is the Native American Cultural Centre at Neah Bay. The claim to fame of the twin towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen is that Kurt Cobain (late of Nirvana) was born and went to school here.

Apart from the Cobain connection, however, there's no real reason to visit Aberdeen. Instead, make the most of the Peninsula, hopping about from beach to forest to mountain by ferry. If the weather is good, there are great views of the wooded islands, Seattle and, if you're lucky, Mount Rainier towering at the south east.

Once on the peninsula, navigation is simple: apart from a short stretch to the west of Port Angeles there's really only one road. It loops round the park with all the attractions branching off it at points along the way: views of the Olympic mountain range from Hurricane Ridge, Cape Flattery, the Hoh River rainforest, Rialto and Ruby beaches and Lake Quinault.

The small city of Olympia, Washington's state capital, is also worth a stop. Unlike the exposed west coast, the eastern side of the peninsula is more sheltered and full of pretty marinas and villages. But for the real Olympic Peninsula experience, it's the wildness you should aim for. Ski on Mount Olympia, try a "storm-watching weekend" on the west coast. Or just watch the Pacific roll in.

* The only airline offering direct flights to Seattle from the UK is British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.british-airways.com), with prices from £376 return. Through any decent discount agent, you can fly via one of a dozen or so American gateways and pay around £120 less. A week's car hire costs from around £185 from Avis (0870 6060100; www.avis.co.uk)

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