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Wednesday, June 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Green Tortoise Hostel caters to budget travelers

Seattle Times staff reporter

You've seen travelers like her, the 120-pound woman lugging a 50-pound backpack — and that's after a hard sort of what to take and what to leave behind.

Or maybe it's the mid-20s guy from England who quit his engineering job and has been traveling for two years, his way of avoiding a middle-class life.

Or the young woman from Korea who earned money at a fast-food joint in Seoul and is traveling on a $70-a-day budget for everything from lodging and food to a $12.50 elevator ride up the Space Needle.

It's the start of the summer tourist season, and backpackers traveling on the cheap from Poland or Japan or England or no-current-address are starting to descend here. Welcome to the Green Tortoise Hostel in downtown Seattle, where $20.50 a night — tax included — will get you a dorm bunkroom and all the eggs, toast, coffee and fresh fruit you can eat for breakfast.

It's on that stretch of Second Avenue between Pine and Pike with a worn sidewalk, a needle-exchange program and a grocery store that greets visitors with a sign: "No drug trafficking. Police CCTV monitoring."

The backpackers don't seem to mind a little gritty city street life.

"You just have to keep your wits about you," said Alexandra Owen of Liverpool, England, with the 50-pound backpack. "You get used to it. I mean, New Orleans, it has some real dodgy areas."

There are some 6,000 hostels worldwide but only two Green Tortoises, the other being in San Francisco. Its main competitor in Seattle is the nonprofit Hostelling International on Union Street, part of a network of 110 such hostels in the United States.

It's doubtful the backpackers know the Green Tortoise's history.

It has its roots in San Francisco, where it began in 1974 in an old school bus whose founder drove a load of friends from San Francisco to Boston. The enterprise expanded and, in 1996, the Green Tortoise took over the old Forest Hotel here, which had a reputation for drug dealing and was shut down.

"It was in pretty bad shape. It was disgusting. There wasn't anything we didn't take apart, rebuild and repaint," said Rex Baldwin, the co-owner. "The plaster was falling off the walls everywhere."

After a year of remodeling, it reopened as a hostel in 1997, with 37 rooms on two floors, 154 beds, 16 showers, 14 toilets, three coin-operated washers and dryers and a huge kitchen.

To reach the second-floor lobby, you have to make a steep climb upstairs. There you're greeted by eclectic music from a vast selection of CDs — James Bond themes, some cool jazz, a little alternative sound and a smiling staff. The hostel offers free 15-minute calls to anywhere in the United States. "Call your mom!" read signs posted on doors.

Some backpackers stay only for a couple of days, some longer.

The chemical engineer who quit his job is Darren Mehaffey, 27, of Bracknell, about 40 miles southwest of London. He has been at the Green Tortoise since May 8.

"I didn't like the office environment. And I knew that if I bought a house, was handed a mortgage, the harder it would be to break from that environment," he said. His memories will be not of house payments but of travels throughout Europe, South America and the United States.

There is no curfew. And while food and drinks are not allowed in the individual rooms, it's OK to have a beer in the hostel's common area, with its tables, booths and a couple of computers with Internet access. There's a separate room for smokers.

Three nights a week, travelers get what amounts to free dinners. On Wednesdays, huge baked potatoes are served, complete with sour cream, margarine, salsa, olives, onions, scallions, cheese and cilantro. It's especially on those evenings that the ambience of the Green Tortoise sparks up.

In the common room, travelers tell their tales. Why not travel, with jobs so scarce? Maybe somebody plays the guitar, somebody else does ink-prints.

There is a balcony overlooking a parking lot where guests can sit on warm nights. Not long ago, a backpacker from Korea painted the balcony's metal tables, one with a tortoise smoking a pipe.

Not all of the guests are 20-somethings. At 6 or 7 in the morning, it's an older crowd that rises to cook up eggs. There is Sue Ballard, 53, a chemistry professor from Kentucky who was in Seattle for a short visit and decided, why spend the big bucks on a hotel?

It has been 30 years since she stayed in a hostel and did the big backpack thing. Now she uses a suitcase. Sure, there was some noise at 5:30 in the morning when one of her four bunkmates — two from England, one from France and one from Boston — used the bathroom.

"They were all very well-mannered, friendly and nice," she said.

At that point in the morning, bleary residents were straggling in for breakfast. In the lobby, young men and slight women hauling heavy backpacks would be checking in.

Another day in the world of hostel travel was under way.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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