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Cruising Seattle

A city that offers everything, including the home of the World's Richest Man.

A statement about humanity: Put a bunch of people on a boat for a ride among tall trees and snowcapped mountains and engineering wonders and historic sights, and all they'll want to know about is the details of a billionaire's house.

So it is on Argosy Cruises' Seattle lake cruise; the highlight of the tour, for most people, is the home of Bill Gates, not the view of Mount Rainier or the feat of the Lake Washington Ship Canal or the staggering variety of ships and boats. Everybody wants to know if the biggest computer geek and corporate tyrant on Earth really does have a trampoline in his house.

But first you'll have to put up with a sampling of the amazing lifestyle available in Seattle. It is clearly, in terms of its setting, the most spectacular city in America. In what other metropolis can you stand downtown and see three national parks? The Olympics are to the west, with mountains and rainforest and wilderness beach; the North Cascades are to the east, with peak after peak and more alpine scenery than you could see in a lifetime; Rainier is to the southeast, more than 14,000 feet high and covered with glaciers.

Everywhere in Seattle, there is water: lakes within the city and ocean all around it. The San Juan Islands are a sailing haven, and the whole place is known as the "Gateway to Alaska." Granted, Seattle can be an annoying town -- even the Argosy tour guide admits it recently tied Los Angeles for worst traffic in America -- but the advice here is not to move there; it's simply to go visit, in the summer, for about a week. When it's not raining, which is about five months out of the year, the city explodes with festivals and exhibitions and outdoor fun, and with all the money around (Boeing, Microsoft, Nintendo) there's enough galleries and restaurants to keep the most jaded traveler happy.

A fine way to start is with the lake cruise on Argosy, which also offers fishing trips and cruises of the harbor, locks, and Puget Sound. Seattle is, historically and culturally, a water town, and you'll start in Lake Union, which you can paddle around in rented canoes and kayaks. Seattle is home to 75,000 pleasure boats and nearly 500 floating homes, some of them going for $1 million. (The floating home which was prominent in Sleepless in Seattle is another highlight of the lake cruise.)

Next you'll go through the Ship Canal, a 7.5-mile cut which was made early this century to connect lakes Union and Washington. Another cut connects Lake Union with Puget Sound, meaning all those pleasure boats can rest in fresh water but cruise anywhere in the world. Just as you enter the Canal, you'll pass by the Archipelago and Greater Tui Tui of the Joyous Lake. This is an artist's floating home that claims to have been independent since December 16, 1985 (it's even a member of the International Council of Independent States, whatever that is). It has issued its own stamps since its "colonial period" of the early '80s. I guess each town has its Prince Mongo.

Next you'll be in Lake Washington, which is 22 miles long and ringed by about three trillion dollars worth of homes. There's one with a cable car running down to the lake. Another is worth $17 million and has 13 bathrooms and 16 fireplaces, many built from hand-carved Italian marble. The house where Kurt Cobain killed himself is here, as are the homes of Paul Allen and Charles Symoni, the co-founder of Microsoft and the Windows chief engineer.

But now for what you really want to know, right? What is the deal with that tyrannical computer geek's house? Well, when you see it from the lake you'll think it's some kind of rambling lodge, instead of one man's home. It's just that this one man is estimated to be worth $100 billion, more than Disney or Ford Motor Company or most of the nations on Earth. His house took seven years and an estimated $60 million to build. The estate, actually the combination of three former estates which Gates bought to make room, is five acres and has 415 feet of waterfront, along which is a private fish hatchery.

The main house, built of salvaged cedar, is 48,000 square feet, with seven bedrooms and 18 bathrooms. The garage is 6,000 square feet and has room for 40 cars; it can, allegedly at the touch of a button, be converted into a basketball court. There's a 100-person ballroom, an indoor/outdoor pool, a putt-putt course, and, yes, a room with a 20-foot ceiling, no windows, and a trampoline for a floor.

As visitors move through the house, they wear little computer badges that include information like their favorite types of music and art; as you enter each room it changes to suit you, so that when you hit the domed library it might put on jazz and some Monet.

It all sounds insane, and of course it is, to be dwelling on the idiosyncrasies of a billionaire when you're surrounded by so much water and mountain scenery and culture. It just goes to show you: Whatever you're into for a vacation, Seattle's got it.
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