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Essential day trips in Olympia Washington

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Lattin's Country Cider Mill and Farm apple fritters / photo from Lattin's Facebook page

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If this is your first trip to Olympia, welcome! I feel an affinity, as I've only lived here since 2007. It took months to wrap my head around the flagrantly liberal banter in Orca Books, introverted hints of "the Seattle freeze" in local taverns, and the mind-expanding pleasures of real gourmet coffee. This city embraced me, and I've hugged it back the best I know how. I think, once your initial discomfiture melts away in the South Puget drizzle, you're going to love spending time here. It's like cramming a European capital into a few square miles, then rooting that artsy downtown core into a landscape that ranges inspiring rainforests and snowy volcanoes around gritty harbor life - with a haze of liberal-arts academia wafted in for good measure. Let's take a breezy look around, shall we?

Oly's justly proud of its Hands On Children's Museum, a family destination for thousands of visitors a year. It outgrew its facilities four times in a little over a decade; then, just last autumn, a $9-million, 28,000-square-foot facility opened on the East Bay waterfront to universal acclaim. By the end of 2014, a half-acre Outdoor Discovery Center will open. Current exhibits include a "Fabulous Forest" with animal rescue center, a collection of "Emergency!" vehicles, and a two-story "Puget Sound" cargo ship. Check out the view from a 70-foot eagle's nest. Then, refuel at the Play Day Café. Now, that's edutainment!

[HANDS ON CHILDREN'S MUSEUM, 414 Jefferson St. NE, $0-$10.95, 360.956.0818]

A mere half-dozen blocks away, the vanguard of Olympia's thriving live entertainment scene is Harlequin Productions, a professional-quality troupe housed in the gorgeously-renovated, 212-seat State Theater. Expect unimpeachable technical polish and some of the most lauded actors in western Washington. Directors Linda and Scot Whitney make frequent trips to Ashland and Seattle in search of cutting-edge play scripts. As theater critic for the Weekly Volcano, my recent favorites include End Days, Conor McPherson's riveting drama The Seafarer, and a racy farce, Or,. Yours might include A Rock ‘n' Roll Twelfth Night or the much-loved holiday series of Stardust musical revues. Beyond Harlequin, Oly's discerning audiences have their pick of exemplary shows from Olympia Family Theater, Olympia Little Theatre, three colleges, and the punky little upstart band Theater Artists Olympia (TAO).

[HARLEQUIN PRODUCTIONS, 202 Fourth Ave. E., $20-$38, 360.786.0151]

Follow Capitol Boulevard south into Tumwater and turn left on Cleveland Avenue. Just past Rich Road on the south side of town, you'll find Spooner Berry Farms. Scarf down unbelievably juicy seasonal blueberries and strawberries, but please save some room. Back up a few blocks on Cleveland and turn left (south) on Rich Road. That takes you to Lattin's Country Cider Mill and Farm, home of the best apple fritters you've ever tasted. Yes, it is a working farm, complete with adorable baby animals for your goggle-eyed kids to pet and feed, but it's also the site of a joyous fall apple festival. Pick fresh pumpkins to the twang of live bluegrass. Guzzle cider by the jug. Take home a ready-to-bake pie. I must tell you, I can taste those fritters now. Perfection!

[LATTIN'S COUNTRY CIDER MILL AND FARM, 9402 Rich Rd. SE, $5 to park, 360.491.7328]

A quick buttonhook west on Yelm Highway swings you southward on Henderson, rejoining Capitol Boulevard (in the guise of Old Highway 99 SE) at the Olympic Flight Museum. This stirring facility boasts over a dozen full-sized flyers, plus a huge collection of aerial memorabilia. Check out the Huey, the P-51D Mustang, and the dreaded A6M2 Zero. ...

[OLYMPIC FLIGHT MUSEUM, 7637-A Old Hwy. 99 SE, $0-$7, 360.705.3925]

Then, go back for more apple fritters. Seriously, people, save me a couple of those.

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