Escape to Olympia

This summer, the world will be consumed by Olympic fever. But if you're not a sports fan, head for Washington State and an altogether different Mount Olympus, says David Orkin

The Olympic Games are not everyone's cup of performance-enhancing tea. But who wants to win a gold medal for moaning? Instead, book a flight to Seattle and head for the Olympic Peninsula in the far north-west of the US. Olympian names are strong here. Washington's Mount Olympus (7,950ft) was originally named Santa Rosalia by Juan Perez in 1774, but 14 years later an English captain, John Mears, re-branded it after the home of Greek deities. The mountain is at the heart of the Olympic Peninsula, which in turn took its name from Mount Olympus. Much of the peninsula is taken up by the wilderness preserves of the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest. Washington's state capital, Olympia, is to the south-east, so-called because you can see the Olympic mountains from the city.

The Olympic Games are not everyone's cup of performance-enhancing tea. But who wants to win a gold medal for moaning? Instead, book a flight to Seattle and head for the Olympic Peninsula in the far north-west of the US. Olympian names are strong here. Washington's Mount Olympus (7,950ft) was originally named Santa Rosalia by Juan Perez in 1774, but 14 years later an English captain, John Mears, re-branded it after the home of Greek deities. The mountain is at the heart of the Olympic Peninsula, which in turn took its name from Mount Olympus. Much of the peninsula is taken up by the wilderness preserves of the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest. Washington's state capital, Olympia, is to the south-east, so-called because you can see the Olympic mountains from the city.

Unlike Athens, best known for man's ancient splendours, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula nature is the undisputed champion. Popular pastimes include hiking among snow-capped peaks or through old-growth rainforest; bird-watching; fishing; whale-watching; and beachcombing for flotsam and jetsam brought in by the Pacific.

In this magnificent natural arena (flanked by water on all sides), you'll find flower-filled hedgerows, alpine meadows, rivers, waterfalls, lakes and hot springs. Bear and mountain lion thrive on the densely forested slopes but are rarely seen. More common are deer and elk, while bald eagles are often spotted along the northern coast. No roads penetrate the wild heart of the Olympic National Park, and it's hard to get lost: one road (Highway 101) wraps right around the peninsula.

Your first detour from 101 should be to Port Townsend, the most interesting of the peninsula's towns. It is one of the finest examples of a Victorian seaport in the US, with many well-preserved buildings and historical sites. Accommodation here is excellent; particularly the Palace Hotel, a big brick building in the centre of town that dates from 1899, and the extravagant Manresa Castle perched on a hill outside town. Originally built in 1892 by German artisans, the building later served as a Jesuit training college and is now a top dining spot. If you're after fish go to Fins, while the Ajax Café, a few miles away on the waterfront in Port Hadlock, specialises in steaks and seafood. Port Townsend is a sea-kayaking centre and the departure point for whale-watching trips, while nearby Anderson Lake is full of rainbow trout.

As you rejoin Highway 101 westbound from Port Townsend you'll pass through Sequim, where you can see the John Wayne Marina, built on land donated by "Duke". Just north of here is the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. With over 200 bird species visiting the refuge regularly this is a great place for twitchers to while away the hours, while wine-lovers will enjoy Olympic Cellars, to the west.

Your next stop will be Port Angeles, a shipping hub from where ferries depart for Vancouver Island. Limber up for the more strenuous hikes ahead on the six-mile waterfront path that takes you out to the Ediz Hook sand spit. If you are staying overnight, try a B&B such as Colette's Bed and Breakfast. Alternatively, 20 miles away is the Lake Crescent Lodge which was built in 1916 and has superb lake and mountain views.

Port Angeles is a good place to turn off into the mountains of the Olympic National Park, admission to which costs $10 per week. Take the scenic 17-mile drive to Hurricane Ridge, from where you can take in the magnificent views of the park's snow-capped mountains with the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island in the distance. For more of a challenge, hike the three-mile Hurricane Hill Trail, whereOlympic marmots chirp on the rocks and eagles soar overhead. After your exertions, return to Port Angeles and choose between German cuisine at Toga's, French at C'est Si Bon or Italian at Bella Italia. For a delicious breakfast the next morning, try Bonny's Bakery.

Heading west from Port Angeles takes you past the beautiful Lake Crescent, which is eight miles long and 600ft deep. A highlight of a visit to the lake is the short trail from the Storm King ranger station to the 90ft-high Marymere Falls. And just past the end of the lake take the turn off to Sol Duc, where you'll be rewarded with a lovely forest hike and the Sol Duc hot springs, where you can rest your weary muscles.

Once refreshed, there are two possible detours to make in the far north-west of the peninsula, both of which pass the Sekiu/Clallam Bay coastal area with its rich collection of bird life. One is to Neah Bay, home of the excellent Makah Cultural Centre (001 360 645 2711; www.makah.com). From here a road leads to Cape Flattery, the most north-westerly point in the continental US, whose cliffs provide great views of Tatoosh Island lighthouse. The other option takes you to Lake Ozette, from where two beautiful boardwalk trails lead to wild, windswept Pacific beaches.

Back on Highway 101, continue to the turn where you can join the lovely riverside drive that will bring you to the Hoh Rain Forest National Park visitor centre. From here, a number of short trails will take you into the forest, where you'll be dwarfed by the giant moss-clad cedars, firs and hemlock that grow large on 140 inches of rainfall each year.

Once you've dried out and got back on 101, you'll be heading for the coast. Walk the short trail through the trees down to stunning Ruby Beach. Sunny summer weekends apart, this superb stretch of coastline is deserted and the wild Pacific crashes onto empty beaches. Islets and pinnacles of rock add to the drama and provide homes for birds and noisy sea lions. 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 immense logs, washed up and blanched by the sun and saltwater. Back on the road you'll come to Kalaloch Lodge perched on the cliff, which has rooms in the main lodge as well as clifftop cabins. These beaches are less wild and thus more popular with families.

The next detour is at Quinault Lake: two miles along South Shore Rd, the 92-room Lake Quinault Lodge is a fine base from which to explore the rainforest and boat or fish on the glacial lake. After all the beauty it's now pay-back time: the long stretch between here and the east of the peninsula isn't likely to entertain. You pass through the twin towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen, whose main claim to fame is that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was born here.

Back on the peninsula's east side, Highway 101 hugs the coast again in the form of the Hood Canal heading north. This side of the peninsula is known for its shellfish; depending on the season you'll be able to gather your own oysters and clams, or buy them from roadside stands and let someone else cook them for you. Stop for a bite at a waterside eatery at Hoodsport or visit Hoodsport Winery.

Near Brinnon there's one more detour to make before you cross the finishing line. About five miles south of Quilcene, take the dirt road to Mount Walker. If skies are clear, the lookout can be your rostrum and your gold medal the views of Seattle, Mount Rainier, the Cascade Mountains and the Olympic peaks. And with your medal, not anthems but chamber music: on weekend afternoons until 12 September the Olympic Music Festival features performances in a century-old barn just a few miles from the Hood Canal Bridge turn-off.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) is the only airline that offers non-stop flights to Washington State from the UK, daily from Heathrow to Seattle. Through discount agents, expect to pay around £750 return next month. Fares will be lower and more starting points available if you opt for a US airline and change en route, eg on Continental via Newark or Houston, Delta via Atlanta, or American Airlines or United via Chicago.

GETTING AROUND

A week's car hire costs from £170 from companies such as Avis (0870 606 0100; www.avis.co.uk). To reach Highway 101 from Seattle, take the car ferry (001 206 464 6400; www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries) to Bainbridge Island: drive across the Hood Canal Bridge and join 101 just south of the junction for Route 20 to Port Townsend.

STAYING THERE

Port Townsend: Palace Hotel (001 360 385 0773; www.palacehotelpt.com); Manresa Castle (001 360 385 5750; www.manresacastle.com)

Port Angeles: Colette's B&B (001 360 457 9197; www.colettes.com)

Lake Crescent Lodge: 001 360 928 3211; www.lakecrescentlodge.com

Ruby Beach: Kalaloch Lodge (001 866 525 2562; www.visitkalaloch.com

EATING THERE

Port Townsend: Fins restaurant (001 360 379 FISH; www.finscoastalcuisine.com)

Port Hadlock: Ajax Café (001 360 385 3450; www.ajaxcafe.com)

Port Angeles: Toga's (001 360 452 1952); C'est Si Bon (001 360 452 8888; www.cestsibon-frenchcuisine.com); Bella Italia (001 360 457 5442; www.bellaitaliapa.com); Bonny's Bakery (001 360 457 3585)

WINERIES

Olympic Cellars: 001 360 452 0160; www.olympiccellars.com.

Hoodsport Winery: 001 360 877 9894; www.hoodsport.com

GREAT OUTDOORS

Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge: 001 360 457 8451; www.visitsun.com/dungeness.html

Olympic National Park: 001 360 565 3130; www.nps.gov/olym

Lake Quinault: 001 360 288 2900;

www.visitlakequinault.com

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