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All aboard Seattle water taxi

Cross the Sound, explore charms of Alki Beach

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SEATTLE — It was a sunny Friday afternoon, and Beverly Milne and her co-workers had just an hour for lunch.

They could:

1. Eat take-out teriyaki at their desks in downtown Seattle.

2. Dine al fresco at Alki Beach, breathing salt air and soaking up the view of the Seattle skyline across Puget Sound.

Faced with that choice, Milne and her co-workers hopped aboard the Elliott Bay Water Taxi at Pier 54 at 11:30 p.m.

Ten minutes later, they were pushing picnic tables together and popping the tops off soda cans at Seacrest Park in West Seattle.

"We can get out here and be back in less than an hour," Milne said, reaching into the pocket of her sweater for the container of yogurt she brought. "We have time to eat and about another 10 minutes more before we have to take the boat back. It's just a nice, relaxing excursion."

And the price is right. The fare is $2, and with that you get a round-trip transfer good for two hours. If you have a King County Metro bus pass, it's free.

After a one-year hiatus, the Elliott Bay Water Taxi is back in service seven days a week. It's part of a one-year demonstration project by the county to transport commuters to and from West Seattle. But anyone can go along for the ride.

The water taxi docks at Seacrest Park near a 2 1/2-mile paved path that runs south along Alki Beach to Alki Beach Park and north for a mile along a park built by the Port of Seattle near Terminal 5 and the West Seattle Bridge.

The runs fill up during rush hours, but at off-peak times and on weekends the Admiral Pete, an 82-passenger catamaran with wooden bench seats and polished brass railings, is the perfect way to explore the closest thing Seattle has to California's Venice Beach.

Sun, sand, fried clams and blackberry smoothies await at the dozen restaurants and seafood shacks along Alki Avenue. Whether you have an hour or an entire afternoon, all you need is a good pair of walking shoes or anything (except a car) with wheels. If you'd rather ride, Metro runs a free shuttle bus Monday through Saturday along Alki to and from the Seacrest dock.

My favorite way to explore is by bike. There's room for six bicycles on the stern of the Admiral Pete. As I hoisted mine over the railing and handed it to a crew member, I realized I needed to work on my upper-body strength. The water taxi is staffed by only a skipper and one crew member, so passengers are responsible for their own heavy lifting.

At 20 knots, the Admiral can skid across Elliott Bay from Pier 54 in eight minutes, but in off-peak times the captain slows down to save fuel and give tourists a ride that lasts a few minutes longer. No one complains.

My plan was to spend a few hours biking the 2 1/2 miles to Alki Beach and back, leaving plenty of time for stops along the way. Alki is steeped in history, and a ride or walk along the shoreline is a good way to learn a bit about Seattle's past.

Seattle's first white settlers landed at Alki in the winter of 1851, but due to windy conditions, most of the settlers, known as the Denny Party, retreated to the site of the present Pioneer Square.

Luna Park, a glitzy amusement park called the Coney Island of the West, drew thousands here from 1907 until it closed in 1913.

A half-mile north of Seacrest, I stopped at the Luna Park viewpoint to read about plans to replace a 95-year-old seawall. Concrete markers point out the spot where bathing tanks at the Salt Water Natatorium, the last remaining part of Luna Park, had been filled in to create the place where I was standing.

Back on my bike, I shared the path with a woman in-line skating between two dogs, a man using a walker with wheels and two cross-country skiers using roller-skis and ski poles. The heart of Alki is a swimming beach about 1.7 miles from Seacrest. Near here is Pepperdock's, a West Seattle institution, where I stopped to take in the beach scene over a salmon burger and iced tea.

The paved path ended a half-mile from here. If I had been in the mood for a longer trip, I could have continued along Beach Drive past the Alki Point Lighthouse to the Fauntleroy ferry dock and biked around Vashon Island. Another time perhaps. I still wanted to explore the new paved pathways, decks and shoreline-viewing platforms the Port of Seattle built at Terminal 5, about a half-mile south of the Seacrest dock along Harbor Avenue Southwest.

Just past Salty's restaurant, there's a children's play area, decks, picnic tables and lookouts over the Duwamish Waterway. Except for two Port police officers and a few in-line skaters, there was hardly anyone else around.

"It looks like a well-kept secret," I remarked to a skater who stopped and offered to oil a squeak in my bike chain. "Only tell your friends," he told me. I didn't have the heart to tell him they included thousands of newspaper readers.

I caught the 4 p.m. boat back to Seattle, beating the rush-hour crowds and, best of all, avoiding any traffic.

"We get out there and people say, 'This is the best boat deal in town,' " Barbara Matheson, the skipper, told me as she piloted the Admiral back to Seattle on my return trip.

"Tourists love it, and the commuters, they couldn't be happier. They look out at the viaduct and say to themselves, 'I'm not there.' "