Discover Bellingham: the gem of the Northern Cascades

Travels with Deb
June 10, 2024 at 6:00 a.m.
Photo by Debbie Stone
Photo by Debbie Stone DEBBIE STONE

Most travelers to Washington typically focus their visit on a few notable destinations like Seattle, Mt. Rainier National Park, the Olympic Peninsula and Mt. Saint Helens. With more time to explore, some might mosey east and check out the mecca of wineries or perhaps go further north to cross the U.S.-Canada border enroute to Vancouver. If the latter is your plan, the city of Bellingham is on the way and makes a convenient stopover.

Photo by Debbie StoneThough this is certainly the case, I’d like to encourage you to view Bellingham as more than a brief break in your journey, as it’s a destination worthy in and of itself. The town and surrounding Whatcom County is a gem of the Northern Cascades. Here you’ll find picturesque coastal views, verdant forests and abundant nature, outdoor adventure, a vibrant arts scene, historical attractions and plenty of good food. People are friendly and their enthusiasm for all that makes this place special is contagious. And as it’s home to Western WA University, you can expect an upbeat, youthful vibe.

Bellingham is about an hour and a half drive from Seattle. To add a scenic element to your route, get off I-5 N. at exit 231 for WA State Highway 11 or Chuckanut Drive. This is Washington State’s original scenic byway, initially completed in 1896. “Chuckanut” is a Native American word meaning “beach on a bay with a small entrance.” The route winds through the peaceful countryside strewn with fertile farmlands, past historic towns, along the shoulder of the Chuckanut Mountains and follows the shoreline, as it continues twenty miles north to Bellingham.

Along the way, you’ll enjoy dramatic coastal views and if it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see the San Juan Islands, the Olympic Mountains and Lummi Island. The route passes through the Bow-Edison area, two tiny villages; the latter which was named for inventor Thomas Edison and whose most famous resident was journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Photo by Debbie Stone Take the short detour to Edison if only for the Breadfarm, an artisan bakery. You can’t miss it, as there’s usually a line of people standing at the order window and the heavenly aromas wafting from inside will propel you forward. Order a loaf of one of the handcrafted breads, like the Mezza-Ciabatta or the Chuckanut Multigrain. Add a package of Chocolate Ginger Spice cookies or maybe the Coconut Shortbread. Then go next door to Slough Food, a small deli and gourmet grocery, for some local or imported cheese. Now all you need are some fresh oysters!

Photo by Debbie Stone You’re in luck as Taylor Shellfish Farms is your next stop. After passing the oyster bars, head down over the railroad tracks to Taylor Shellfish’s shop at the water’s edge. Taylor’s has been here since the late 1800s and it mainly raises oysters and clams. Interesting to learn is the fact that it takes three to five years to grow an oyster and about the same time to grow a Manila clam. And the hundreds upon hundreds of oyster shells you see all piled into stacks on the beach are a part of the farm’s recycling operation. Once the oysters have been removed, the shells are pressure washed and then reutilized in the reseeding process.

Photo by Debbie Stone Buy your shellfish, perhaps some smoked oysters, at the onsite shop, then take it over to one of the picnic tables next to the ocean where you can feast on your goodies. Nearby is the only lighthouse made of oyster shells. Of course you’re going to take a pic!

Photo by Debbie Stone Next, stretch your legs at Larrabee State Park. Located on nearly 3,000 acres along the shores of Samish Bay, Larrabee is the oldest state park in Washington. There’s eighteen miles of trails to explore, beach access, grassy fields, picnic areas and more. Paths take you through evergreen forests down to the water, where you’ll find that perfect perch to sit on and take in the beauty.

Photo by Debbie Stone After the park, you’ll soon reach Bellingham’s historic Fairhaven Village. I recommend making this charming locale homebase during your stay. It’s known for its Victorian-era, red-brick architecture and unique local businesses, including an eclectic array of stores, art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops, pubs and one of the best independent bookstores in the country. And better yet, everything’s walkable.

Photo by Debbie Stone 

Photo by Debbie StoneThe center of Fairhaven is the Village Green, where all ages hang out, either on the expanse of grass or the benches surrounding it. Grand Mural by Lanny Little graces a building wall on the south side of this pocket park. It depicts the Fairhaven of 1920s yore, trolley car and all. People pictured are folks who have contributed to the Fairhaven story over the years. Nearby, sitting on a bench, is a statue of the founder of Fairhaven, Daniel Jefferson Harris.

There are several stores around the perimeter of the Village Green, including my favorite – Village Books & Paper Dreams. I could have easily spent hours perusing the bookshelves of this fabulous literary haven. And on the top floor of this multi-level building is Evolve Café + Chocolate in case you need some sustenance or a caffeine boost…or a delectable piece of chocolate!
Photo by Debbie Stone Legendary Colophon Café is another beloved Fairhaven spot. Set in a 100-year-old building that also flanks the Village Green, Colophon is known for its creative, award-winning soups, fresh salads and sandwiches, savory quiches and pot pies. And then there’s their famed peanut butter pie!  

Photo by Debbie Stone Other favorite Fairhaven shops include Good Earth Pottery, specializing in handmade pieces by local and regional potters; A Lot of Flowers, with colorful bouquets, gifts, home and garden décor; Baby Greens, featuring plants and plant-related goodies in a cute, airy space; and Bay to Baker Trading Co. for everything Bellingham.

Photo by Debbie Stone 

Photo by Debbie Stone 
Photo by Debbie StoneFor accommodations, Fairhaven Village Inn is tops. This 22-room boutique property is centrally located with views of the bay and steps from the Village Green. Rooms are spacious with fireplace and harborside options. Start your day in the cozy Library with complimentary locally made pastries, breakfast cookies, fruit, coffee and tea. Choose to grab-and-go as you head off on your adventures.

Photo by Debbie Stone Later in the afternoon, return to the property for Hospitality Hour. As a guest, you can stop by the Front Desk to enjoy a complimentary glass of house wine. Take it upstairs to the outdoor porch for great views, especially at sunset. For more libations, step into Galloway’s Niche Bar through a connecting doorway from the inn. Choose from a selection of classic and zero-proof cocktails, wine and craft beer, along with a selection of light bites and shareables.

Photo by Debbie Stone Active travelers can get their steps right in Fairhaven with nearby Taylor Dock and Boulevard Park. A one-quarter mile, elevated boardwalk that starts at Taylor Dock provides a trail link from Fairhaven to the park, which then continues all the way to downtown Bellingham. As you stroll over the open waters of Bellingham Bay, soak in the views. In the distance, provided it’s a clear day, you can see the Canadian Border Peaks rising above the skyline. This is also a great place to watch sunsets.

Photo by Debbie Stone Parks are plentiful in this area, offering opportunities to take to the trails and get a dose of nature. One afternoon, I spent some time in Whatcom Falls Park. After you’ve checked out the waterfall with its grand stone bridge, take to the trails. With 241 acres, there’s space for everyone to find a little slice of paradise.

Bellingham is known for its outdoor fun, and its inhabitants appreciate the ability to hike, cycle, paddle, explore lakes, mountains, forests and more. In a short time, you can feel worlds away.

Further afield, you’ll find prime adventure playgrounds in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park.

Photo by Debbie Stone  Art abounds in Bellingham, not only in museums and galleries, but also outside where sculptures and murals dot parks and streets. One of the top ten outdoor sculpture collections in the nation resides right here, at Western Washington University. Over 29 pieces are located throughout the campus by renown artists such as Bruce Nauman, Isamu Noguchi, Alice Aycock and Richard Serra. Visitors can download a guide to locate these treasures. And if you get a bit lost, as I did, ask a student for directions – they’re happy to help.

Highlights include “For Handel,” by Mark di Suvero. It occupies a prominent position on campus, near the music building, with views of the water, mountains and sky. It’s a soaring, red, steel-beamed creation dedicated to the composer George Frederic Handel.  

Photo by Debbie Stone Bruce Nauman’s “Stadium Piece” takes centerstage amid a grassy expanse. This massive bridge-like structure is made to be used and you’ll see students lounging on its stair steps. “Log Ramps,” by Lloyd Hamrol, evokes references to ceremonial architecture. It, too, attracts students’ use with its log risers.

Photo by Debbie Stone Another, Richard Serra’s “Wright’s Triangle” tempts viewers to enter and walk through its enclosed sections. In similar fashion, “Skyviewing Sculpture” by Isamu Noguchi invites you into its interior. Once inside, you can measure yourself against the ginormous scale of this cubic-shaped piece that’s balanced on three points.

Photo by Debbie Stone Big Rock Garden Park is also a lovely place to find outdoor sculpture. It’s actually a city park nestled in a grove of evergreens. Once you go through the gate, you’ll feel like you’re in a secret oasis. Meander the paths that wander through this serene landscape, where nature and art complement each other.  

Photo by Debbie Stone Museumgoers will be impressed by Whatcom Museum and its three state-of-the-art venues: Old City Hall, the Lightcatcher Building and the Syre Education Center. Located in Bellingham’s growing Arts District, the museum’s collection boasts close to 30,000 objects of art and history and more than 200,000 images and related ephemera in its photo archives. The latter are housed in the Syre Education Center, which is open to the public for research by appointment.  

Old City Hall is the original home of the museum and is the first site in the state to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s an iconic city landmark with its Victorian cupolas and central clock tower. The focus here is on historical exhibitions that tell the stories of the building’s architecture, the city’s early days, logging history and waterfront industry.

Photo by Debbie Stone The John M. Edson Hall of Birds is located here, too. I was fascinated by the collection of taxidermy – a nod to the culture of the Victorian Era when this type of business flourished and mounted animals often decorated interior spaces. The exhibit provides educational opportunities for all ages to learn about bird migration, conservation and birds in danger via informative panels, video clips of birds in local habitats, audio of Puget Sound-area bird calls and other interactive activities. Tucked into and around the displays are handsomely carved birds by artist and conservationist Rand Jack. The amount of detail in each is impressive, informed by the artist’s close observation and understanding of these creatures.

Photo by Debbie Stone Currently, also on display is “Unearthed: Art & Science Survey the Fossil Record.” It presents the work of renowned scientific illustrator David W. Miller with his largest-ever collection of paleoart on display. Wild creatures from the past alongside their fossil counterparts are brought back to life through Miller’s talented creations. Dinosaur fans, this one’s for you!

Photo by Debbie Stone The museum’s Lightcatcher Building hosts a rotating schedule of art exhibitions and houses the Museum’s Family Interactive gallery and museum store. The building is named for its focal point – a spectacular, translucent wall that captures sunlight. “The Greatest Wildlife Photographs” is the featured exhibit. The photos are taken from the pages of National Geographic magazine and are captivating in their images, which showcase the innovations in camera technology. Such advancements have given photographers unprecedented access to wildlife in their natural habitat.

“People of the Sea and Cedar,” a permanent exhibit, gives visitors an in depth view into the historical and contemporary perspectives of the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe – their traditions, cultural preservation, contributions, fights for recognition and equity and environmental stewardship.

When your stomach grumbles, know you’ll have a variety of choices when it comes to eateries. Bellingham and Whatcom County is a foodie mecca, boasting everything from award-winning restaurants to budget-friendly fare. And the emphasis is on using locally sourced ingredients for an authentic farm-to-table experience.

Photo by Debbie Stone 

Photo by Debbie StoneIn Fairhaven, Avenue Bread, a neighborhood café, has a reputation for its “Eggenues,” egg-centered creations on English muffins. Lunchtime, make a beeline for Port Fairhaven Fish & Chips inside the Bellingham Cruise Terminal. I will go as far as to say the beer-battered, halibut fish and chips here are probably some of the best I’ve eaten – and I’ve had my share over the years! Sit outside on the expansive deck with the shipping scene as your backdrop. This is the gateway terminal for the Alaska Marine Highway, where you can hop on a ferry that travels the Inside Passage to the Last Frontier.Photo by Debbie Stone The Black Cat, also in Fairhaven, is popular with locals and visitors alike. Located in the old-world Sycamore Square building, this sophisticated, lively tavern has real character with its exposed brick, original hardwood floors and windows overlooking the town and bay. It offers a classic bistro menu and full bar fare with burgers, salads, fish and prawn tacos, wild sockeye salmon and my personal fave, the Dungeness crab mac & cheese.

For that special dinner, make a reservation at The Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive. This intimate restaurant not only has exceptional food and impeccable service, but features stunning views of the San Juan Island from every seat. The menu features seasonally inspired dishes with locally sourced produce and an award-winning wine list for pairings.

Photo by Debbie Stone Start with the Smoked Halibut Chowder – a must in my book! If you’re a pescatarian, you’ll be in heaven with such offerings as Fresh Idaho Trout stuffed with shrimp, Oyster Bar Crab Cakes with mango chutney, Wild Gulf Coast White Prawns or Northwest King Salmon. And of course, there are oysters – six to ten different varieties which are rotated on a weekly basis.

Photo by Debbie Stone The steak and Filet Mignon will certainly appeal to meat eaters, or you can do a surf and turf combo for the best of both. Entrees are accompanied by a mini cheese souffle and seasonal veggies. And there’s also an intermezzo to cleanse the palette. The night I dined at the restaurant, it was a refreshing meld of quince sorbet and sparkling wine.

Aim to enjoy your memorable meal at sunset, for a scene akin to an Impressionist painting.

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