By CARY ORDWAY
Venture into the northwest part of Washington State and it’s like vacationing on the National Geographic Channel. Without question, you’ll find more picture-postcard settings in this part of the state than any other, which is really saying something, considering the rave reviews about Seattle and other parts of what is arguably one of the union’s most scenic states.
In Northwest Washington, the mountains, the sea, the farmlands, the islands all come together in a breathtaking mosaic of colors and terrain, a feast for the senses that is evident in every direction you look. It’s no wonder that many people who live up here are actually part of the Puget Sound workforce, shuttling back and forth from their Seattle-area jobs but figuring it’s well worth the hours spent in the car each day if they can live where every time they look out their window or walk down the street, the scenery is as spectacular as a painting.
About half way between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. is the little village of La Conner, a town just a bit off the beaten path because you have to take a left here and a right there, and travel a few miles from the freeway on country roads to reach the town’s idyllic setting. If you’re driving straight through to Seattle or Vancouver, this is one of those gems you will miss unless you know it’s there.
When you get to La Conner, don’t expect to find a bustling seaport or a lot of hub-bub- it’s a town in the true sense of the word, a tiny enclave built along the Swinomish Slough- or rather Swinomish Channel as it was later renamed. The channel gives La Conner much of its color and atmosphere, a distinct seaside ambiance that comes from watching the fishing boats and pleasure craft navigating the channel toward Anacortes and then out to the world-famous San Juan Islands. The Rainbow Bridge is the Golden Gate of La Conner, standing like a sentinel over the town and a must-inclusion in any respectable photograph of the city.
With its historic buildings, a colorful downtown assortment of channel-front restaurants and intriguing shops, La Conner is a prime destination for the stroller- i.e. the person who just likes to stroll casually through town, soaking up the saltwater scents and sounds as seabirds sweep overhead or visitors enjoy good conversation and a drink out by the channel. It also will come as no surprise that the local aesthetics are a big attraction for artists of every type including famous residents such as author Tom Robbins.
The best way to savor the town is to spend a little time in La Conner- day trips are nice, but an overnight lets you unwind and start doing things on La Conner time. Things just seem to move a little slower in the village, and we found the La Conner Channel Lodge to be tailor-made for this kind of outing. As the name implies, the lodge is right on the channel and offers great views of the Rainbow Bridge and the frequent boat traffic on the channel.
When they designed the La Conner Channel Lodge, they went with a Cape Code type of shingle exterior that fits the location perfectly. Inside, the units are quite unique and unusual in the way that they are not just rectangular but of varying lengths and widths with distinct rooms and angles. In our room a fireplace with two stuffed chairs and a table were positioned at an angle, while across the room a bench seat was built into the wall. There was plenty of room for a king bed and a window nearby that looked out onto the channel. A small lanai allowed us to sit outside and watch the slow-cruising boats that seemed only a few yards away.
Another big plus at the La Conner Channel Lodge was the bathroom area which offered a Jacuzzi style tub stylishly situated in a room that used dark and gray marble and tiles, as well as dark wood accents to give the room a luxurious look and feel that helped make this getaway seem extra-special.
La Conner’s history is evident in the buildings downtown and the historic homes that are located throughout the residential areas. With just 900 residents, the town is small and visitors can walk the neighborhoods and, because of the town’s hills, get some good exercise doing it. At the top of one hill is the Skagit County Historical Museum, which has many reminders of the city’s past including American baskets, Shirley Temple dolls and a rich collection of historical documents and photographs.
One of La Conner’s most historic buildings is the Gaches Mansion, which was constructed in 1891 by George and Louisa Gaches as their residence. Over the years, the mansion changed hands several times until it was opened to the public as the La Conner Quilt & Textile Museum in 1997. The first floor of the museum is decorated in Victorian era furnishings, while you’ll find the main exhibition space on the second and third floors. The museum offers new exhibits about every eight weeks, and features quilts and quilters from around the world- in fact this is one of only 12 such museums in the world.
La Conner also is a good base of operations for short drives to many scenic locations in the general area. For example, about 15 miles to the west is Deception Pass State Park, a 4,134-acre marine and camping park with considerable shoreline, both freshwater and saltwater. Deception Pass is a popular destination for locals because it’s so picturesque with the rugged cliffs and churning waters below. The old-growth forest and shoreline offer spectacular views.
Just to the southeast of La Conner is the 13,000-acre Skagit Wildlife Area, which is primarily tidelands and intertidal marsh habitat. Visitors can view 180 species of birds, including bald eagles, golden eagles, and osprey. Also seen in the area are coyote, raccoon, opossum, skunk, beaver and muskrat in addition to many other species. Local residents use the Wildlife area for hiking, birdwatching, photography and canoeing. There are six developed access sites and 12 footbridges in this low-lying area.
Larrabee State Park, in the Bellingham area, is an easy drive north from La Conner and features 2,683 acres with a scenic saltwater shoreline on Samish Bay. The park features two freshwater lakes as well as tidelands and coves.
La Conner is a fun and picturesque destination any time of year, but perhaps the most beautiful time to visit is in April when the area comes alive with the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
Acres and acres of daffodils, tulips, irises, and lilies are on display at this special time of the year. The flower-viewing season begins with daffodils in mid- to late-March, followed by tulips in April with irises and lilies continuing into mid-May. Events include a big street fair, parade, quilt walk and many other festivities both in La Conner and in nearby Mount Vernon.
Picturesque town of La Conner, photo courtesy of Cary and Sandi Ordway