Bellingham: Gateway to the San Juans, Mt. Baker
By STEVE FRENZL
Just over 100 years ago an extraordinary thing happened on the shores of Puget Sound a few miles south of the Canadian border. Maybe it was the area’s primordial beauty and the profoundly calming peace about the place that did it. Or possibly glass-clear water and pure sweet air possessed citizens of four competitive towns – Whatcom, Bellingham, Sehome and Fairhaven – to cast aside personal agendas and merge their communities into one. Why? To attract a railroad center – like Chicago’s – to northwest Washington State.
The name they agreed on was the City of Bellingham, for the surrounding bay named by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 in honor of his friend Sir William Bellingham.
But alas, a railroad was not to be and in time a somewhat larger town to the south stole the dream away. Still, all the pristine qualities that compelled Bellingham’s citizens to join in peaceful union remain for the sharing today.
Not becoming a sprawling megalopolis does have its blessings after all. Ask any Bellingham denizen to describe their city and you’ll probably hear these words: Adventuresome. Authentic. Beautiful. Bountiful. Free-spirited. Natural. Relaxing. Wholesome. Welcoming.
Indeed, welcoming. Case in point: we believed we were en route to the Chrysalis Inn & Spa which is a couple blocks north of the Fairhaven Historic District…then realized it wasn’t where it’s supposed to be. I saw someone parked on the street and stopped for directions. The man recognized the lost look on my face and offered, “Follow me, I’ll lead you there.” That, I happily discovered during my stay, is still the selfless nature of Bellingham’s descendants today.
The Chrysalis Inn & Spa
That friendly guide made the Chrysalis Inn www.thechrysalisinn.com easy to find. And when you get there, it is so-o-o-o-o-o worth it! An elegant contemporary design, the building’s blend of reflecting glass and polished wooden beams perched atop a ridge overlooking Bellingham Bay is a sight to see. And from its vantage point the waterfront views are stunning, mixing modern and historic features in an eclectic recipe that plays games with your head.
For instance, in the water just below the inn sits a big brown “rock.” The legend posted on the scenic pedestrian boardwalk that passes near it explains that the rock is actually a stack of thousands of tin fragments discarded by a factory that supplied 27,000,000 tin cans yearly to the bustling fish-processing plants that occupied the area over 100 years ago. And it went on to say that there were still many more fish than cans. The place must have been…uh…odoriferous. Yep – mix a pound of imagination with a half cup of history, and a century later you can still smell the leftover salmon in your nostrils.
Inside, the Chrysalis is another story. Fresh is everywhere. Elegantly appointed rooms and suites coddle the guests, each with a full or side view of the Bay. Huge king beds, fireplaces, whirlpool baths for two with luxurious spa accoutrements, mini-fridges with an impressive selection of beverages to spur one on to…gasp…romance! That it’s a very indulgent place would be an understatement.
Then there’s the inn’s popular day spa, usually booked months in advance. Walking into the facility is like entering church – everyone speaks in whispers so as not to disturb the guests in their meditation. Every popular spa treatment is offered amidst an environment that exudes peace and solace.
Finally, a full breakfast buffet is served daily for all guests, offering local gourmet coffees and a broad selection of morning fare, all prepared to perfection. It’s a great way to conclude a great getaway at the Chrysalis!
If you wish to stay on the north side of Bellingham, the Best Western Heritage Inn (exit 256) offers spacious rooms in a classy Colonial style www.bestwestern.com/heritageinnbellingham
For a community of just 75,000 souls, this town’s nickname really should be “Bountiful.” Honestly, there is so much more to see and do than any one getaway can cover. Your best bet: visit the Bellingham tourist bureau website www.bellingham.org or call (800) 487-2032. And be sure to stop by their office when you arrive in town (just a block off exit 253). A super-friendly volunteer staff is ready and eager to help you organize a great sightseeing itinerary. In the meantime, here are some highlights:
Enjoy arts and entertainment? Visit the Whatcom Museum of History & Art. Also see great plays and concerts at several excellent venues, including the historic Mt. Baker Theatre. Like alternative works? I saw a young guy sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, a sheet of paper in his lap, biting a pencil and talking to himself. He told me about Bellingham’s Idiom Theater, a local “underground” venue with all productions by local playwrights. They produce 48-hour plays. No, not 48 hours long – 48 hours to write, memorize lines, rehearse and present (whew!). And the troupe produces dozens every season. Sound like fun? At least they are for the patrons! www.idiomtheater.com.
How about shopping? Major retailers, quaint shops, upscale boutiques – the stores and selections are bountiful indeed. Canadian visitors especially enjoy Bellingham’s super shopping; savings on taxes and currency exchange mean money left over for other local essentials…like “Chocolate Essentials”, home of cocoa bean sensations guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.
Dining? Enjoy an elegant repast at the Nimbus, an aptly named restaurant atop Bellingham’s tallest building surrounded by spectacular views of mountains and sound. Or feast on the fancies offered by a wide range of natural and organic eateries, pubs, and cafes all around town – simply too many to mention. Except for one: absolutely visit the Farmers’ Market! Our guarantee: you will not starve during your getaway to Bellingham.
Sightseeing? See the American Museum of Radio & Electricity, explore Boulevard Park and the over-the-water Boardwalk along the waterfront, Whatcom Falls, the Railway Museum, and much much more.
Fairhaven Historic District, a Fair Haven Indeed
Located on the south side of Bellingham proper, this absolutely delightful retail/social center is where it all started over a century ago. Today many original buildings have been restored to their pre-1900 splendor and now house over 200 quaint and charming eateries, pubs, art galleries and shops. The choices are bountiful, indeed! A stroll down Harris Avenue is like stepping into a time machine and spinning the dial to 1885. The people are authentic, the ambiance organic; only the mode of transport has changed – the horses are now nowhere in sight. But like I said before, the place plays games with your mind: the atmosphere is so real you’ll think you can still smell ’em.
Like the good ol’ days and want to stay in Fairhaven? On the north edge of the district is the Fairhaven Village Inn, a cute 1880s-style hotel with elegant, spacious rooms and friendly hosts happy to share the town’s history with you www.fairhavenvillageinn.com
Gateway to San Juan Islands & Mt. Baker
Bellingham is so much more than a cornucopia for local recreation. It is also the launch pad for some of the Northwest’s top tourism treasures. So when you come to visit, plan to stay an extra day or two to experience the full breadth of this magnificent area.
Victoria San Juan Islands Cruises: Daily boat excursions (overnights too) to Victoria via pristine sea passages through the San Juans. Whale-watching, dinner cruises, and Bellingham Bay tours. www.whales.com.
Mt. Baker: On State Hwy 542, this magnificent glacier-cloaked volcano is an awe-inspiring adventure in any season. Hiking, snow sports, eye-popping scenery. You have to experience this sky-piercing place that gives new definition to “heaven on earth.”
Lynden: America’s most authentic Dutch village, on Hwy 539 north of Bellingham. Save air fare to Europe – you’ll think you’re there anyway!
Roadtrips: The tourism bureau has developed an exciting assortment of getaway excursions and packages for girlfriends and romantic couples. See www.girlfriendsroadtrip.com or www.couplesroadtrip.com or call 800-487-2032 to request a brochure.
Hiking & biking: The city boasts dozens of miles of scenic trails, including the Interurban Trail that stretches from north Bellingham to scenic Chuckanut Drive. Road and mountain bikers and hikers will find excellent routes for all abilities. And there are parks aplenty; see in-city Whatcom Falls Park, a short drive and easy walk to a gushing waterfall simply too pretty to miss.
Waterfront: Visit the Bellingham Terminal just two blocks west of Fairhaven, port for the Alaska Ferry, seasonal cruises, Schooner Zodiac, and local excursions. And stroll the boardwalk just below the Chrysalis Inn.
Enjoy the Journey
Finally, when we talk about getaways, the destination is just one part. The journey is also to be enjoyed – and indeed it is on a getaway to Bellingham.
If you’re driving from Seattle via I-5, north of Mount Vernon a towering sign suddenly breaks through tall evergreens and reads: THE SKAGIT CASINO. You have to stop. The Skagit is an elegant gaming resort with plush guestrooms (an entire building is non-smoking) and 24/7 entertainment at the tables and on the stage. Take a break and maybe win some wampum, too. www.theskagit.com.
Then return home via Highway 11, better known as Chuckanut Drive, which starts just south of Fairhaven. The route is like Cherries Jubilee after a few days of delectable entrees in Bellingham. The smooth, gently curving road weaves through long green tunnels of trees, then breaks out to stupendous views of Puget Sound. After r&r stops at Larrabee State Park and several fresh oyster eateries, you’re back on I-5 and homeward bound.
Bellingham Bay, photo by Jon Brunk