We have just spent eight pleasurable days in and near Seattle, basing ourselves in the midtown Washington Plaza Hotel while we explored the city and western Washington State, and later clocked 1,000 miles driving a big circle through the Northern Cascade Mountains, down through the desert country that runs eastward from those mountains, then westward along the Gorge of the Columbia River and back to Seattle via Mount Rainier National Park.

This was not our first visit to Seattle, but the many previous ones had been quick excursions mostly to the Boeing Company's vast aircraft plants at suburban Renton and Everett, whose giant 747 assembly-line buildings are among the world's wonders, and to Boeing Field, from which so many first flights have taken off. But seeing Seattle as a tourist is much more enjoyable than the fast brush of a hurried business trip, for this is a highly civilized modern city and it takes a little getting acquainted for the tourist to appreciate it fully.

To an Easterner accustomed to looking up not at mountains but at glassy skyscrapers, to looking down at dirty streets and sidewalks, and to scrambling fearfully across intersections against traffic lights in a race for life or death with buses and taxis, Seattle comes as a pleasant surprise. This is one American city that still enforces its jaywalking laws and fines pedestrians crossing against red traffic lights, so the natives stop obediently at the curb. And when the pedestrian steps off into clearly marked crosswalks, he is king of that walk.

The authorities don't threaten the public here - just suggest in frequent signs that everyone should be good citizens and avoid littering. And the public responds, for this is one of the world's cleanest cities - even rivaling Singapore, where heavy fines keep the people from tossing even a cigarette stub into the gutter.

The natives also boast that their automobiles are cleaner than in most other cities because it rains so much that ungaraged cars are washed by nature several times a day, and the rain does wash away the dust. Rain is not only frequent and intermittent with bursts of bright sunshine (except, they say, in July and August when they frequently put several sunny, rainless days together back to back), but the rain also creates some interesting sociological twists.

We found a building service employees union picketing several downtown skyscraper office buildings with regulation picket signs and strike pamphlets. But, in Seattle, pickets wrap their signs in transparent plastic so the rain will not wash away their messages.

I saw few umbrellas on the streets but lots of raincoats, and while most men claimed they rarely wear raincoats, the women we asked admitted to owning and using at least three or four - fancy ones for dress, serviceable ones for work, lightweights for summer. A busy downtown raincoat shop calls itself Cloud Break; obviously they know something the Convention and Visitors Bureau would like to overlook.

Washington's nickname is the Evergreen State, and any tourist who has little use for forests and mountains, rivers and lakes, and flowers everywhere should avoid this place. The frequent rains keep the state's western slopes lush and green; Seattle, a busy city of 550,000 with the second busiest port in the country after New York City, is full of trees, flowers and parks made colorful by flower plantings.

The rhododendron is the state flower, and for that honor it blooms here in the spring three times as large as any of its eastern cousins and in colors so deep and brilliant that visiting gardeners have to stop and check to make sure they are rhododendrons.

With Puget Sound as its western boundary and lakes large and small inside the city's limits, with spanking new ferryboats linking downtown with suburbs across the Sound, and suspension and floating concrete pontoon bridges joining the sections of the city across its lakes, Seattle does not fit the image of a concrete-choked, dirty city center in its last stages.

It suffered a bad depression that preceded and outlasted the national recession of the early 1970s, when Boeing had to cut its work force from around 100,000 to 35,000, but with Boeing's recovery (though not back to its 100,000 employment figure) Seattle appears to be doing better than the rest of the country. The city demonstrates an enviable vitality in its many new buildings and improvements in municipal services.

For example, Interstate Freeway No. 5 was finally cut through the center of the city, but instead of leaving it an ugly river of traffic the city built a park, properly called Freeway Park, on top of it. Running six blocks through the city's skyscrapers, with a waterfall and acres of flower gardens backed with trees, it constitutes a midtown green oasis where office workers eat their lunch and where pedestrians use park paths for traffic-free shortcuts.

While we were in town, the city opened a new aquarium built into reconstructed old Pier 59, long since abandoned by seagoing ships, that will in three years be packing in natives and visitors alike to spy on the well-documented sex life of the Pacific Northwest's salmon. Salmon are hatched in fresh water streams after the 3-year-old adults fight their way upstream over rapids and up falls to lay their eggs where they were hatched. Millions of fingerlings now swimming in the aquarium's concrete tanks will be released this year to go far out into the Pacific - many all the way up to Alaska - returning by some miraculous directive force in three years.

The aquarium has a fish ladder - a series of concrete tanks, each higher than the preceding one so the water can tumble out of a corner opening with the rush of a small waterfall, fooling the salmon into charging "upstreat" into the next level. In the final holding tank the salmon will return to the spot where they were released to lay and fertilize the eggs and complete their brief life cycle by exhausted death.

Such fish ladders, which make it possible for salmon to bypass the many locks and dams on Washington's streams, are exciting tourist attractions, thus Pier 59 is expected to become a major item for Seattle. Salmon is a popular culinary attraction. Barbecued salmon steaks in waterfront restaurants are a special delicacy. Inland devotees to smoked salmon owe it to themselves to go down to the Pike Place Market to sample hard and soft-smoked salmon and marvel at the different fish from the Pacific Ocean. Also, they will learn how superior the local vegetables are to what we buy at inland supermarkets; artichokes as big around as Seattle rhododendrons were so inexpensive, we wanted to take some back to the hotel just to gaze at.

To look at Seattle one rides a speedy glass-walled elevator 520 feet up the side of the Space Needle, built on the edge of downtown for the 1962 Seattle World Fair and now the hub of an amusement park, concert halls and science center called Seattle Center. From the observation and revolving restaurant levels you begin to get a feeling for this city.

To the west and north stretches Puget Sound, carrying cold waters from the Pacific Ocean and heavy freighters and ferries shuttling thousands of commuters morning and evening in efficient luxury unknown to Eastern Seaboard commuters. Inside the city the encircled Sound creates saltwater lakes. Nearby is freshwater Lake Washington, completely inside the city's limits and chock full of sailboats and power cruisers, while hundreds of houseboats house a floating permanent population along all waterfronts. Seattle residents have the same devotion to outdoor life and the water as do the people of Oslo, from whose Scandinavian lineage many local residents descend.

City sightseeing is pleasant and easy. There is Pioneer Square, where the city first developed, following its original coastal settlement in 1851. Fire in 1889 leveled what is now the square and the new city rose atop the rubble, making for a contemporary underground tour of bits of the original city at $1.50 a head. The square has had its facade carefully restored and makes a pleasant, free, pedestrian aboveground tour.

All these possibilities make Seattle a good base for exploring the Pacific Northwest. One morning after driving across some of the lakes in and near downtown, we took a ferry across sunlit Puget Sound to Bremerton on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula, where the historic battleship Missouri, on whose decks Japan surrendered in 1945, may be visited. By the time we returned to our hotel at 9:30 p.m., we had:

Visited the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula to admire Victorian architecture in tiny seaport villages; stopped by a roadside restaurant surrounded by tall green trees and chatted with a farm woman trying to sell 20 acres of rich farmland for $5,000 an acre, presumably for home sites; traveled south inland through the peninsula, always in view of snowpeaked Olympic Mountains in a scenic and memorable drive; visited an active fish ladder outside Olumpia, the state's capital, and admired the miniature U.S. Capitol building statehouse and its magnificent plantings; and spent an exhilarating hour in Tacoma's Point Defiance Park, one of the wonders of the Northwest with giant Douglas firs, great hemlocks and spruce, an odd sequoia or two, magnificent chestnut trees, rose gardens, a Japanese garden, an aviary and reconstructed Fort Nisqually.

We dined overlooking Puget Sound outside Tacoma to end a fully satisfying day of touring. It was difficult to choose a high point - Olympic Peninsula scenery and mountains or the unbelievably beautiful municipal, free Defiance Park. The only thing we missed was a distant view of Mount Rainier, miles to the east, but clouds shut us out. And we wondered whether our circle drive starting the next day would match that one day's surfeit of touring rewards. To our joy and amazement, it did.