ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
Truly ready to slow down? Good, because that’s the only way to approach your exploration of the islands in Washington State; especially considering that ferry boats are in your imminent future and you are now at their charming mercy! In this itinerary, we’ll downshift to “island time.” Leaving Seattle far behind, we’ll make the easy jaunt over to Whidbey Island, head north to Fidalgo Island, ferry hop our way through the lovely San Juans, and return to Seattle via the mainland; with a recommended side trip up to Bellingham via La Conner and the scenic Chuckanut Drive. What you’ll notice is that there are many riches to explore in the north of Washington State, both on the mainland and among the islands. Our recommended routes are presented only as suggestions to get you started. You may choose to mix and match routes differently. There’s no right or wrong way to explore, so follow your own heart and timeline.
Recommended Pacing: Plan on at least a two-night stay on Whidbey Island. Bunk in one spot, perhaps, and use it as a base for exploration. Since Whidbey is a very small island, getting around is easy, even if you do some backtracking in a day. Some of the best inns ever are here and you’ll want time to enjoy them. We recommend at least five days to explore the San Juan Islands leisurely, especially if you want to try a kayaking or whale-watching adventure. Keep in mind, too, that the ferry schedule will make a definite impact on how you plan, so give yourself over to island life! If you have time for the picturesque detour to Bellingham on your return journey, allow half a day in La Conner, then stay overnight in La Conner or Bellingham.
Named in about 1792 after Captain George Vancouver’s sailing master, Whidbey Island is the largest of the Puget Sound islands. Its length from top to bottom is only 60 miles and getting to it from Seattle is easy: at most a 30-minute drive north to the ferry terminal, followed by a 20-minute crossing. We’ll take you on a tour of the more interesting spots on the island as we head northward to Deception Pass, where we’ll cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca onto Fidalgo Island en route to another ferry, and the first of our stops in the San Juan Islands.
From Seattle, take I-5 North to 525 North/Mukilteo. Keep left on the Mukilteo Speedway, passing signs that say 99 South/Lynwood, and continue to the Mukilteo Ferry Terminal, where you’ll queue for the Whidbey Island Ferry.
Once on Whidbey, you’ll first pass through the small town of Clinton, once a steamboat refueling spot, and today home to the busiest of Whidbey’s two ferry docks. A strong Norwegian heritage influences many of the activities in Clinton and on the island generally. Drive north on 525 for 2 to 3 miles and turn right on Langley Road. Our first stop is the Whidbey Island Vineyard and Winery, on the right in a little less than 2 miles. Begun in 1986, the winery is owned and operated by Gregory and Elizabeth Osenbach, who proudly handcraft small lots of wine using traditional European methods. Let them introduce you to their award-winning wines: crisp, fragrant whites; an unusual and lighthearted rhubarb wine; plus serious reds and whites from classic varieties grown in eastern Washington. The Osenbachs specialize in grape varieties from the cooler parts of Europe: France’s Loire Valley and Alsace, Germany, and Eastern Europe. (5237 South Langley Road; open Thursday to Sunday, from noon to 5 pm, September through June; and daily, except Tuesday, from noon to 5 pm, in July and August; 360-221-2040; www.whidbeyislandwinery.com.)
Leaving the winery, turn right onto Langley Road and head in the direction of the town of Langley. Langley Road becomes Sixth. Turn right on Anthes Avenue and drive to First. Park anywhere you like and take to this charming village on foot. Perched on a low bluff overlooking Saratoga Pass, Mount Baker, and the Cascades, Langley’s lovely waterfront, historic buildings, walkways, and parks await you. This is a thriving arts community; home to many regional, national, and international artists. Browse among bookstores, bakeries, art galleries, shops, jewelers, and restaurants to your heart’s content.
When you’re ready to move on, drive back up Anthes and turn right on Third, heading west. Third becomes Brooks Hill Road, and from here it’s a short and lovely drive out to Double Bluff Beach, not one of the prettiest, but certainly one of the better, beaches for collecting shells, digging up clams, and spotting bald eagles-especially during low tide. To get to Double Bluff, take Brooks Hill (which becomes Bayview Road) to 525 North and turn right. Drive 2 miles and turn left on Double Bluff Road. The road ends at the beach. See if you can spot an eagle in search of its next meal out over the water.
Retrace your steps back to 525 North and turn left. Turn left again on Bush Point Road (which will eventually become Smuggler’s Cove Road) and drive 6 miles to South Whidbey State Park (360-331-4559). Here you have a handful of short trails to choose from, whether through old-growth forest or out to the beach. All are easy, ranging from almost standing in place to a gentle loop of almost 2 miles-a very tranquil spot.
Leaving the park, turn left on Smuggler’s Cove and head initially in the direction of Coupeville. When you get to 525, however, make a right turn and head south. We’re going to backtrack for a moment. Turn left at the signs to Greenbank Farm (open daily from 10 am to 5 pm; 360-678-7700), an unassuming and thoroughly welcoming place that has become an island landmark over the years. In the early 1900s, the Philips family wondered what the land on Whidbey Island would grow. After much in the way of experimentation, they switched in the 1930s from dairy to berry farming, and by 1972 the Greenbank Berry Farm was known as the largest loganberry farm in the United States. When that way of life was threatened in recent years by possible development of the farm’s 522 acres, an intense local effort resulted in the acquisition of the farm by the citizens of the island in 1997. Browse through the gift shop, buy some loganberry jam, taste one of the many fine wines of the Puget Sound Appellation, or enjoy a light lunch or snack (with a delicious slice of pie, of course!) in the Whidbey Pies Café. The locals who run the place are incredibly friendly. Many activities are scheduled year round at the farm, including a Sunday Market, each Sunday from mid-May to October, when you can buy island-grown produce, flowers, and crafts from 11 am to 2 pm. In July, the farm celebrates its agricultural heritage with the annual Loganberry Festival. August brings the skirl of bagpipes and the swirl of kilts at the Highland Games, while in December, Winter on Whidbey means hayrides, bonfires, hot cider, and caroling.
Return to 525 and continue south to Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, only 3 miles down the road. Turn left on Resort Road, then left again onto Meerkerk Lane, following signs to the gardens. For a small admission fee, spend an hour or more strolling through these beautiful grounds, home to more than 2,000 rhododendrons, but also to 43 acres of gorgeous forests. Take the Harborside Trail to the parkside cliffs and watch for whales and bald eagles. Special events are scheduled year round in the gardens, including the Whidbey Island Folk Music Festival on the first weekend in August and a Mother’s Day Concert on the second Sunday in May. (Open daily from 9 am to 4 pm, with the spring blooming season best between March and May; 360-678-1912.)
Make your way back again to 525 and this time head north. Take 20 west in the direction of the Port Townsend Ferry. You can make a day trip to Port Townsend (we cover the town in another itinerary) or follow the frontage road past the ferry terminal to Fort Casey State Park (open daily from 8 am until sundown; 360-678-4519). Here at Admiralty Head, Fort Casey was built in the 19th century as part of a larger defense system designed to protect the entrance to Admiralty Inlet. No guns were actually fired from this spot, but the fort was used as a training location during both World Wars. The Admiralty Head Lighthouse has been transformed into an interpretive center on the fort’s history and is open from 11 am to 5 pm, Wednesday to Sunday and on holidays.
Leaving Fort Casey, follow the signs to Engle Road and Coupeville. The oldest of Whidbey Island’s towns, Coupeville was first established in 1853. Brochures for self-guided walking tours through this 19th-century seaport town are available at the Island County Historical Museum, a good place to begin. A brief video in the museum will introduce you to the area’s history. (908 N. Alexander Street at the corner of Front; open daily, May to September, from 10 am to 5 pm; 360-678-3310.) You’ll also learn about Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, 17,400 acres of remarkable prairie land, thoughtfully preserved so that future generations might appreciate the cultural and geographic heritage of this once-bustling farming and seafaring community. Ask in the museum for directions to the 1-mile trail from the beach at Ebey’s Landing (at the foot of Ebey Road) to Sunnyside Cemetery at Cook and Sherman Roads. The cemetery contains the headstones of some of the region’s pioneer families. From it, you’ll have marvelous views of the prairie and the water. Meanwhile, stroll the streets of town and try to imagine what it might have been like over 150 years ago when the first European settlers arrived at this home of the Coast Salish Indians.
Don’t return from Coupeville to Hwy 20 just yet. Instead, take Madrona Way (west of Broadway) from town. It’s a scenic 4-mile frontage road that guides you along Penn Cove and connects to Hwy 20 a bit farther north. Once back on 20, drive straight through Oak Harbor, home to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and on to Deception Pass.
The beautiful Deception Pass State Park (360-675-2417) includes not only this northernmost tip of Whidbey Island, but also the area of Fidalgo Island just across the dramatic Deception Pass Bridge. It represents a total of over 4,000 acres of protected shoreline, land, and trails. Rocky, driftwood-strewn beaches here are popular for day-trippers who come to revel in the sunsets seen across Rosario Strait from Bowman Bay (on the north side of the bridge). You might want to enjoy one of the hiking trails in the park, some of which guide you into groves of tall trees, while others take you along lakes or coastline. Find a park map and see what calls to you. On the north side of the bridge, for example, is a short 4/5-mile loop around Rosario Head. Follow the Rosario Beach signs once you’ve crossed the bridge, leave your car in the parking lot, and look for signage to the Rosario Head Trail. From the vista point midway along the trail, you’ll gaze in awe across the water and back over to Whidbey.
Once you are ready to leave Whidbey to continue our tour to the San Juans, cross Deception Pass Bridge and continue north in the direction of Anacortes, taking a detour to Mount Erie. Well marked from the highway, a steep, meandering road will lead you, up and up, to the top of this 1,273-foot mountain for sweeping views in all directions of Puget Sound, Mount Baker, the North Cascade range, and-weather cooperating-Mount Rainier. In springtime, you’ll find the valley’s gorgeous tulip and daffodil fields mesmerizing from this vantage point, as you will the opportunity to watch bald eagles fly beneath you for a change. Continue north and west on 20 to Anacortes and the Washington State Ferry terminus. It’s time to introduce you to the San Juan Islands.
THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS
So much has already been written about the San Juan Islands, that tranquil chain of Washington islands (hundreds of them!) that in fact are the tops of a submerged mountain range. Visitors come here to sail, kayak, bicycle, whale watch, bird watch, nap, and just generally slow down. As many as 40 of the San Juan Islands are said to be inhabited, but only four of them are serviced by commercial ferry. Of these four, only three offer accommodations: San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island. Ah, and what accommodations: some of the best in all of Washington!
Ferry Travel: Washington State Ferries make multiple, daily departures to all the islands we cover in this itinerary. These ferries provide inter-island service for vehicles and foot or bicycle passengers alike. Since reservations are not accepted, it is important to arrive at any terminal at least one hour ahead of your scheduled sailing time. Longer waits are possible at peak travel times (e.g., summer and holiday weekends). Local residents are the perfect source for tips on cutting through the mystery that is ferry travel. Your innkeeper can call down to the terminal on the day prior to or the day of your departure, and advise you how early to arrive at the terminal depending on traffic that day. Whatever you do, ask. There’s nothing to spoil your trip faster than arriving at a terminal, only to find that the queue is miles long and the next ferry not scheduled for several more hours!
Fare and seasonal schedule information are available from Washington State Ferries. If you’re in Seattle, you can get timetables at their Information Desk, Colman Dock/Pier 52, between 8:15 am and 6 pm weekdays. Otherwise call 206-464-6400 (from anywhere), 511 (automated information, from Washington only), or 888-808-7977 (from Washington only). Or visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.
Bicycling: Many visitors venture to the San Juans to bicycle. Lopez, where roads traverse pastoral landscapes and provide sweeping mountain and water views, has relatively flat terrain and is the easiest to tour on two wheels. The village is only about 4 miles from the ferry landing. Orcas is the most challenging, especially for those hardy bodies who brave the 5 vertical miles to the summit of Mount Constitution. Eastsound is located mid-island on Orcas; it’s a good spot for stocking up on water and refreshments. San Juan combines flatlands and hills with a good variety of scenic destinations. Stock up in Friday Harbor or Roche Harbor. Most roads are narrow and winding with shoulders that range from barely adequate to non-existent. Wear a helmet, travel single file in small groups, and pull well out of the way if you need to stop along the road, especially near a ferry landing where traffic is most concentrated.
Golf: Private, nine-hole, courses are open to the public for modest green fees. All offer club and cart rentals.
Lopez Golf Club 360-468-2679
Orcas Golf Club 360-376-4400
San Juan Golf Club 360-378-2254
Kayaking: If you are kayaking on your own, it’s important to understand the location of ferry and shipping lanes, and the ever-changing tides and currents. Guidelines are available at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
Whale Watching: Scheduled whale- and wildlife-watching trips are offered from May to October. The Whale Museum, in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, offers the best information about tours and the resident orca population. You can view a list of Whale Watch Operators Association NW members on their website, www.nwwhalewatchers.org/members.html.
Weather Wise: The San Juan Islands get about half the amount of rain that Seattle gets. Summer temperatures range between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. At other times, don sweatshirts and sweaters when temperatures range between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Fall and winter are considered rainy seasons but the sun is often out nonetheless.
Ready then? Get a ferry schedule and plot your island hopping anyway you please. We’ll start at the last stop on the ferry route, on the second-largest and most-populated island: San Juan.
SAN JUAN ISLAND
San Juan Island, once home to fruit growers and farmers, is today the busiest and most populated of all the San Juans. Because it covers only 55 square miles, driving the entire island in a day is entirely doable; but you’ll want to move at a slower pace so you can linger as you go. Here are some of the highlights, listed roughly in a clockwise direction from Friday Harbor, the island’s primary commercial center, home to just over 2,000 residents; and the hub for restaurants, small museums, shops, galleries, and parks.
Now that you are in prime orca territory, The Whale Museum is a delightful must, not because it’s elaborate, but because it offers an informative and heartfelt presentation designed to educate us about whales and the marine ecosystem upon which they depend for survival. This the best place to inquire about whale-watching tours. (62 First Street N in Friday Harbor; open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, Memorial Day to Labor Day, and from 10 am to 5 pm the rest of the year; 360-378-4710 or 800-946-7227; www.whale-museum.org.)
The San Juan Historical Museum holds the unique title of “most northwestern museum in the continental United States.” Located on the homestead of early settler James King, it is actually a small complex of island buildings, some of which have been relocated to this spot. See an original farmhouse, the first county jail, a 19th-century log cabin, a barn, a milk house, and a carriage house. You’ll appreciate the museum if you are keen to know more about local history, or if you happen to be tracing your genealogy back to the islands. (405 Price Street in Friday Harbor; open Tuesday and Thursday, from 10 am to 2 pm, October to April; and Thursday to Saturday, from 1 to 4 pm, May to September; 360-378-3949.)
American Camp (San Juan Island National Historic Park) at the most southeastern point on the island was the American military settlement during the “Pig War” of 1859-72. At the time, there was considerable disagreement about who owned the San Juan Islands: was it the U.S. or Britain? Tensions came to a head in 1859, when an American farmer shot a pig rooting uninvited in his potato patch. As it turned out, the pig belonged to the very British Hudson’s Bay Company. Believe it or not, the U.S. Infantry was dispatched to San Juan Island, as were several British warships. After an initial standoff involving no fighting, joint occupation was agreed upon and lasted until 1872, when Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, invited to serve as arbiter, decided in favor of the Americans.
Today, American Camp is headquarters to the island’s National Historic Park. In a building at the entrance, you can view a brief slide show about the Pig War and pick up a brochure for a self-guided walking tour of the grounds. Several original structures still stand, including a campsite and an officers’ quarters. Along Griffin Bay to the north, a trail guides you through woods above several lagoons. From the trail, you’ll see beautiful broad beaches, and perhaps, a pod of orcas making its seasonal migration.
Easily one of the loveliest spots on the island is the drive along West Side Road. Take it to the tiny Lime Kiln Point State Park (Whale Watching Park),. Poised along De Haro Strait, this section of parkside water is known to be a favorite cruising spot for pods of orcas and minkes who spend their summers in these waters. Park the car and walk along the cliffs and by the tidepools. You are likelier to see whales in summer months, if you time your visit for late afternoon/early evening. This is the time of year when most sightings are documented. The Lime Kiln Lighthouse is now a whale research station. It uses underwater microphones to monitor and study the communications between whales.
Near the northwestern corner of the island, just off W. Valley Road, you’ll discover English Camp (San Juan Island National Historic Park), the other side of the Pig War story. Here you’ll be able to wander past a handful of clapboard buildings and even a formal British garden overlooking Garrison Bay. In the Barracks, photographs tell the story of the early days of the conflict. Check out the English Camp Cemetery, where soldiers, who thankfully never had to fight, lie buried. (Open daily from dawn to dusk.)
Roche Harbor at the north end of the island now stands on the spot first occupied by a Hudson’s Bay Company post. When the U.S./Canadian boundary was settled, it became the Roche Harbor Lime Quarries and changed hands several times until it was purchased by John McMillan in 1886. McMillan was responsible for making this harbor a key port of entry, complete with customs office, and managed what became the largest lime production company in the entire Northwest. It’s that sense of history that brings visitors to this bustling resort community today; with its tailored lawns, cobblestone waterfront, historic hotel, restaurants, and shops.
The relatively new San Juan Vineyards will be fun to watch as it grows. The only commercial vineyard and winery on the island, it was established in 1996 by three island friends with a dream. The very first harvest was in October of 2000, but it yielded unexpectedly little due to the many island birds who got to the fruit first! Hence, only a very limited bottling of its first estate wine, Madeleine Angevine, was made available in June of 2001. A netting system was installed to protect the 2001 crop, with very successful results. Consider stopping by the vineyard to see how they’re doing and report back. A tasting room and gift shop occupy what was Schoolhouse Number 22 on the property, originally built in 1896. (2000 Roche Harbor Road; open from noon to 6 pm seasonally; 360-378-WINE; www.sanjuanvineyards.com.)
Next stop, our personal favorite: Orcas Island. The largest (57 square miles), hilliest, and most forested of the islands, Orcas boasts the kind of terrain that may put you in mind of Ireland or Norway in many spots. The combination of greenery and water here is stunning! Once excellent shell-fishing grounds for the Lummi Indians in summer months, Orcas is home now to a population of about 4,500. We’ve assembled some ideas for things to do while you’re on Orcas.
The commercial center is EastSound to the north, a charming place for browsing through small shops, sampling good restaurants, and learning more about the island. It’s a very small village, so it’s easy to walk around. You may happen upon something that piques your interest, including information on biplane trips, kayaking, and whale watching. Every Saturday from May through September, enjoy the Orcas Farmers Market off North Beach Road, a great way to meet the locals and to sample their produce and crafts.
Rent a bike at Dolphin Bay Bicycles, adjacent the ferry landing. They’ve got a full-service bicycle shop and can give you tips for touring. (360-376-4157.)
Moran State Park is the fourth-largest park in all of Washington State. Totaling over 5,000 acres, it offers about 30 miles of trails, five lakes, beautiful forests of old-growth Douglas fir and cedar, and the highest point in the San Juan Islands: the 2,407-foot Mount Constitution. Take a drive up to the top of the mountain for marvelous views in all directions of the San Juans, Vancouver Island, and the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. Try the half-mile Cascade Falls Trail or the 4-mile Mountain Lake Loop Trail.
As you drive along Orcas Road on the west side of the island, keep a watch overhead as you go. Local sculptor Anthony Howe has hung his copper and stainless-steel art sculptures in the trees near the turnoff to his Howe Art Gallery & Kinetic Sculpture Garden and it makes for a magical touch (¼ mile west of Eastsound on the Horseshoe Highway; hours vary; www.howeart.net).
A visit to Rosario Resort (1 Rosario Way; 800-562-8820; www.rosario.rockresorts.com) on the east side of the island proves an intriguing diversion. Shipbuilding magnate Robert Moran moved to Orcas Island when, at 46 years of age, his doctor told him he had little time left to live. Moran built a mansion he named Rosario (completed in 1909), and was so rejuvenated by the whole experience that he lived another 30 years. Admire the elegant and elaborate Moran Mansion, the focal point of today’s resort. The foundation for the mansion is cut 16 feet into solid rock, walls are made of concrete and lined inside with mahogany, windows are just shy of an inch thick, and the roof is covered with 6 tons of copper sheeting. You’d think Moran was building one of his ocean liners! Local musician Christopher Peacock performs weekly in a wonderful and informal concert in the vaulted Music Room on an enormous 1,972-pipe Aeolian organ. It’s a fun show, in which Peacock interjects bits about the house and its original owner. The room is beautiful with its Tiffany chandelier and stained-glass windows. The private living quarters of the Moran family have been transformed into a museum, with Moran’s own photographs of nature and family life lining the walls. Check out the Spa by the Bay. You don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to enjoy their services. Restaurants are available from an informal café to fine dining.
On to Lopez Island, at one time referred to as “the Guernsey Island” for its exports of cream, eggs, and poultry. While most of the dairy farms have disappeared, Lopez is still very much agricultural in feel. Home to craftspeople, musicians, farmers, fishers, nature lovers, and eccentrics, Lopez maintains its long-standing custom of waving to passersby. Wander the rural roads in peace and quiet, where woods mix with farmland and tranquil water vistas. The island covers an area of less than 30 square miles and its population numbers only about 2,100.
Visitors come to Lopez not for action, but to kayak, to bicycle (the terrain is pretty flat), or to wander back roads and scan the rugged coastlines in search of wildlife. It is possible to rent bikes and kayaks locally.
The tiny village of Lopez, just 4 miles south of the ferry landing on Weeks Road, provides the only sign of commercial life with a few shops, a bakery, and restaurants. The humble Lopez Historical Museum in the village chronicles Indian and pioneer life on the island over the years (call for hours: 360-468-2049).
At Shark Reef Sanctuary (Shark Reef and Burt Roads to the southwest), a 1/5-mile trail through thick, old-growth forest, leads to dramatic cliffs for some excellent island and marine-life views. Visit Lopez Island Vineyards (724 Fisherman Bay Road; call for hours: 360-468-3644), San Juan County’s oldest winery, producing organically grown grapes and fine wines. Agate Beach is a tiny, pebble-strewn cove well suited to taking a sunset stroll.
You may have heard about the friendly Franciscan nuns who operate the ferry landing on the otherwise elusive Shaw Island. Actually, this smallest of four islands, served by the ferry system, is home to three Catholic religious orders, all of them for women: the Franciscans, the Sisters of Mercy, and the Benedictines. In total, there are only about 150 residents who occupy the 5,000 forested acres of this fiercely private place. There is no commercialism of any kind on Shaw: no bed and breakfast inns, no shops, no restaurants, no mail delivery service even-and that’s the way the residents like it. Volunteers run the privately endowed-and marvelous-library, the historical society, and the fire department. Many residents have to purchase their water and have it ferried in from neighboring islands!
There are really only a very few things to do on Shaw, so consider this when deciding if you want to venture over. You might want to put a bicycle on the ferry and head over for a brief visit that way. Visit the Little Portion Store at the ferry landing (open while the ferries are operating). Run by Franciscan nuns, this rustic store is stocked, in addition to the usual items, with a good selection of wines and handcrafted wonders made on the island, including herbal vinegars, teas, spices, Mother Prisca’s Hot Mustard (made by the Benedictine nuns at Our Lady of the Rock Priory), and llama droppings for fertilizer! Inquire in the store about a possible visit to the chapel at Our Lady of the Rock Priory. You’ll be given a phone number to call, and if the timing is right, you might be fortunate enough to be welcomed over for a visit. The Shaw Island Historical Museum on Blind Bay Road (ask a nun in the Little Portion Store for an island map) is located about 2 miles from the ferry landing. It’s very small and rustic, constructed with logs from the original post office, and features items reflecting its proud and quiet history. (Open Tuesday from 2 to 4 pm; Thursday from 11 am to 1 pm; and Saturday from 10 am to noon and from 2 to 4 pm.) The adjacent lending library is excellent. Local residents have amassed an impressive collection of books, and anyone is welcome to browse the shelves. Only Shaw Island State Park at Indian Cove offers picnic tables and primitive campsites, and the spot is spectacular if your needs are few. Take all “No Trespassing” signs seriously.
BACK TO SEATTLE VIA CHUCKANUT DRIVE
Once your island visits are complete and you’ve exited the ferry at Anacortes, head east on Hwy 20 and follow the signs to the town of La Conner. On the National Register of Historic Places, this small town dates back to the late 1860s and is perhaps best known for its annual Tulip Festival in April, when a true profusion of tulips and daffodils are out in force. Farmland washed in spring color is a beautiful sight! Stroll the streets to enjoy the shops and restaurants, or visit the excellent Museum of Northwest Art. This museum showcases a small but outstanding selection of Northwest contemporary art, including a wonderful glass gallery and works by the mid-20th-century artists credited with envisioning the Northwest style: Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, and Mark Tobey. (121 South 1st Street; open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm; 360-466-4446; www.museumofnwart.org.)
Return to Hwy 20 and travel west through scenic farmland; then turn north following Bayview Edison Road as it shadows the coastline and intersects with Hwy 11, otherwise known as the Chuckanut Drive. Park just off the road where you see signs for Padilla Bay Reserve, an interpretive center and state park (360-428-1558, www.padillabay.gov), walk an elevated trail along a dike across the nation’s largest wetland bay, and enjoy the company of hawks, bald eagles, herons, snow geese, trumpeter swans and the occasional sea otter. (For a birding map, call 360-428-8547.) Just past Edison, a town that dates back to the 1800s, turn onto Chuckanut Drive, considered one of the most scenic roads in Washington State and a great alternative to the interstate. From 1913 to 1931, this road was part of the Pacific Highway connecting Vancouver, B.C. to San Diego, California. (If time is short, take Hwy 20 east and take it to I-5 North. Exit I-5 as soon as you see signs to Hwy 11.)
The views of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and the Olympic Mountains are marvelous, as you wend your way along this lush path cut into the rocky hillside to Bellingham. Take advantage of the turnouts for some spectacular views. Let yourself be tempted on roads that wind the short distance down to the water’s edge to enjoy the beautiful coves, inlets, and emerald waters explored often by kayaks. There are also numerous parks whose trails wend their way up the rocky hillside and down through lush foliage. The sandy shores are prime for shellfish, and there are a few restaurants where you can stop to enjoy the view and sample the local seafood. You can also purchase oysters and crabs direct from the fisherman, as well as watch a video that teaches about oyster and clamming. Turn off Chuckanut Drive at the sign for Taylor Shellfish Farm. They even provide picnic tables and barbecues (charcoal is available for purchase) should you want to barbeque your own. (Open 7 days, 2182 Chuckanut Drive, 360-766-6002). The soft light of both early morning and evening are ideal for traveling this memorable route.
Bellingham is a merger of what were once four different districts, each with their own character: the port where the transport of lumber still dominates the piers, the old town, the lovely residential district that encircles the waters of Lake Whatcom, and the quaint community of Fairhaven. A favorite of ours, the Fairhaven Historic District, between 13th and 20th Streets just south of downtown, is good for a self-guided, walking tour. Lovingly restored brick storefronts from the 1890s now mark buildings that house cafés, restaurants, shops, and galleries in an understated, informal atmosphere. Bellingham is also home to Western Washington University, which is well known for the Western Washington University Outdoor Sculpture Collection, arranged across some 190 acres of campus grounds. Also popular in town is the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, devoted to regional culture and art. Bird enthusiasts love the extensive bird exhibit featuring many winged creatures common to the Northwest, while children delight in their very own hands-on museum offering stimulating exhibits and workshops. (121 Prospect Street; open Tuesday to Sunday, from noon to 5 pm, except holidays; 360-676-6981; www.whatcommuseum.org.)
From Bellingham it’s only an 87-mile drive south on I-5 back to The Emerald City (Seattle).