Passengers boarding the new walk-on ferry to Des Moines at Seattle’s Bell Harbor Marina could practically touch the massive Norwegian Spirit cruise liner ready to leave port. But while the liner’s 2,000 passengers were bound for Alaska, a dozen of us were day-tripping to Des Moines, a suburb known more for jets overhead on their approach to Sea-Tac Airport than its tourism attractions.
The Chilkat Express, a 62-seat catamaran, equipped with a hydrofoil, joins other fast walk-on ferries zipping across the Puget Sound between Seattle and communities including West Seattle, Kingston, Bremerton, Vashon, and Southworth in Kitsap County. Those runs are aimed at commuters. For now at least, there’s a two-month, city-sponsored Des Moines pilot project, providing suburban residents a quick and pleasant trip to and from Seattle that doesn’t involve fighting traffic.
The bonus for Seattleites is a cheap, 40-minute cruise ($10 each way for adults; $5 for seniors) along the Sound in a comfortable boat with upholstered seats and picture windows run by local tour operator Puget Sound Express. The Wednesday-Sunday trips are scheduled to run through October 9. Des Moines city officials seem optimistic about continuing the service.
“Everything is about revitalizing the downtown and marina,” City Manager Michael Matthias told The Seattle Times recently. “The ferry fits in perfectly with that.”
Catching the first boat leaving Seattle at 11 a.m. and the last one back at 4 p.m. my husband and I had about four hours to explore. With electric power-assisted bikes loaded onboard, we joined the few others going south, once almost a full load of passengers disembarked in Seattle. We’ve traveled to and from Sea-Tac Airport hundreds of times, but always on surface roads, never before on a water route skirting familiar landmarks such as the lighthouse at Alki Point and Three Tree Point, a triangle-shaped spit jutting into the east Sound in Burien.
Zipping along at a brisk 32 knots (40 mph), the Chilkat Express reached Des Moines around 11:40. We maneuvered around construction at the marina — a $15 million renovation of the north seawall that will create a stairway modeled after Seattle’s Harbor Steps, linking downtown and the harbor. We pedaled past picnickers and beachcombers enjoying low tide at Des Moines Beach Park. Picking up the paved Des Moines Creek biking and walking trail, we wended through shaded lowland forest. Jets flying overheard were the only clue we were just a few miles from the airport and the Angle Lake light rail station.
The trail is just four miles out and back, so with time to spare, we next detoured a few miles out of town to the city of Normandy Park and the wooded Marine View Park Valley Loop Trail, a mile-long trail popular with birders and hikers. Parking the bikes, we walked the trail, taking in views of the Sound and beaches below.
Doubling back to Des Moines, we relaxed at Anchor Espresso & Lounge with cozy seating and a large selection of fruit smoothies. A recent Seattle Times story on places to eat in Des Moines recommended Sweet D’Licias, a Mexican ice cream shop serving a drink called a mangoneada that combines pureed mango with the spicy, sour tang of chamoy and Tajin.
Looking for a spot at the marina for a late lunch before the 4 p.m. ferry, we snagged seats on the patio of the Quarterdeck Pub, and settled in with glasses of Jellyfish Porter and grilled tuna sandwiches. The menu is simple, but the beer and wine-by-the glass selection is large due to a loyal boating clientele.
With just ten of us onboard, the trip back felt like a private cruise. Greeting us at the dock in Seattle was a long line of passengers headed home to Des Moines.
If you go: The Des Moines to Seattle foot ferry makes four round-trips per day, Wednesday-Sunday, departing Des Moines at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and leaving Seattle at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Reservations are recommended. One-way fares are $10 for adults; $5 for seniors and military. Children under 13 ride free. Bikes are $2 extra, with a bike capacity of four.