With my wife’s family in town to visit, it gives us good reason to get out and explore the city we love like a couple of wide-eyed tourists. On a lucky sunny day in early fall, we jumped aboard the Argosy Lake Union boat cruise for an afternoon on the water.
South Lake Union
South Lake Union looks nothing like it did when I first moved to Seattle a little over a decade ago. Along with the Space Needle, you might consider tower cranes to be just as iconic a symbol for the city these days.
Microsoft billionaire and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen basically bought all of the land around the south end of the lake and has developed it very successfully. Either that or he’s completely stripped the soul out of what Seattle used to be and along with Jeff Bezos have filled the town with imported engineers (lovingly referred to by locals as “Amaholes”) who will be the only ones left to turn out the lights when the bubble bursts.
Depends on who you ask.
Did you know: South Lake Union is actually an international airport? It’s true! Kenmore Air offers flights to Canada as well as the San Juan Islands. They’ve been flying in and out of the lake since 1946.
Of the many great things on the lake, one is the Center for Wooden Boats. Among the many programs they offer for boating enthusiasts, they allow you to rent kayaks, canoes, rowboats, sailboats (as shown above) and even paddle boats for the day or by the hour.
North Lake Union
Gas Works Park is a unique park built on the site of a defunct coal gasification plant. This 20 acre site once turned coal into gas for delivery to homes and city systems in a similar fashion to how we use natural gas today. It operated from 1906 until 1956. The site was purchased by the city for $1.34 million shortly after and converted to a park.
Beyond Gas Works is what is called the Fremont Cut. This stretch of man-made waterway was built to connect Elliot Bay (and, further, the ocean) to Lake Union. The Montlake Cut (coming up later in this post) then connects Lake Union to Lake Washington. The entirety of the water way is called the Lake Washington Ship Canal and includes the Ballard Locks, the most used locks in the US.
The George Washington Bridge (Hwy 99) is the high bridge, while the Fremont Bridge (Fremont Avenue) is the bright blue and orange drawbridge.
Being freshwater and thus easier on the hulls of ships, these waters are popular for shipbuilders and for docking your boat. All along the lake and the ship canal you’ll be able to peek inside the workshops of builders large and small and occasionally get to see some impressive mega yachts.
Montlake Cut and bridge
Next up on our Lake Union Boat Cruise, the Montlake Cut is the site of the Windermere Cup, a rowing event which opens boating season in Seattle since 1987. The University of Washington is a formidable rowing school. They’ve been rowing since 1900 and have won the national championship numerous times. A Washington crew famously won gold at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
The beautiful Montlake Bridge was completed in June 1925. The permanent bridge replaced temporary barges that had been put in place to help traffic get to the site of the University of Washington’s football stadium. It is designed in a “collegiate gothic” style by the same architect responsible for the early buildings of the University of Washington.
We had fun pulling up our Zillow app and seeing how much the massive lakefront homes were selling for. The bargains begin at $10 million. Speaking of homes…
Lake Union floating homes
The “floating homes” of Lake Union are a major draw for those taking part in the boat cruise. You mean houseboats, right? No, the distinction between “houseboat” and “floating home” is important.
Most of these homes do not have any kind of mobility equipment on board. Meaning they can’t move under their own power. No engine, no wheel, no rudder. They are homes on floating platforms connected to underwater services like electric and sewer.
During the cruise, you’ll obviously see the nice floating homes you are expecting, but you’ll see humble beginnings, too.
This home was the first—built for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909. In fact, most of Lake Union had homes that looked like this until regulation and gentrification started taking hold.
Living on the lake was for the poor – not for the rich!
Sovereign Nation of Tui Tui
An only-in-Seattle type oddity is the home of Robert Rudine and Janet Yoder, which isn’t even technically in Seattle. This home is the Sovereign Nation of Tui Tui. It comes complete with it’s own post office and stamps. Very little is found online about the claim, so we’ll just have to play along.
Sleepless in Seattle floating home
The pièce de ré·sis·tance of the Lake Union boat cruise is the Sleepless in Seattle floating home. I’m confident in saying that 100% of the people who sign up for this cruise have done so because of this house.
Sleepless in Seattle was released way back in 1993 yet it’s still a top tourist attraction. The home was built in 1978 and has been sold many times over the years. The most recent sale was in 2014 to a tech exec (who already lives in Seattle). He bought the home as a family vacation property for a cool $2 million.
Take the Lake Union Boat Cruise
Argosy offers many tours. The only tours that show you the Sleepless house are the Lake Union Boat Cruise and the Locks Cruise. I highly recommend the Lake Union tour if the Sleepless house is on your list of things to see. So much of the time spent on the locks cruise will be waiting for the locks to fill with water. Not what I want to do.