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Travel: Think Bellingham for the Best of the Pacific Northwest

Overlooking Bellingham bay

Problem: When international visitors come to explore the incredible Pacific Northwest they usually run themselves ragged trying to fit in visits to Vancouver, Seattle, the beaches lining the Oregon coast and a few San Juan Islands.

Solution: After spending an eye-opening week in Bellingham, WA. I was amazed to find that you could experience the very best of all the above in just one easy stop. Bellingham oozes small- town charm, sprinkled with some surprisingly sophisticated big-city offerings, all wrapped up in the most magnificent scenery.

Mt Baker offers best snow sports

If you’re an outdoor adrenaline junkie some of the country’s best hiking, mountain biking and kayaking can be found here. If you’re or more the cultural type, leave it to the obliging “Bellinhamsters” – as they refer to themselves- to conveniently group their world-class museums and theaters in a handy-dandy walkable Arts District. Alternatively, if you just want to kick back and enjoy some world-class food and wine, Bellingham delivers the goods.

Top 10 “Only in Bellingham” things to see & do:

1. Foraging for your food

Once you’ve spent an afternoon with wilderness woman, Jennifer Hahn you’ll never look at a bunch of weeds quite the same way.

The woodland expert gently guides you through the forest, pointing out one edible shrub, fern, tree bark, or wild berry after another, while rattling off delicious sounding recipes. Jen makes several spontaneous stops along the way, at one point to recite a poem by E.E. Cummings, at another to bless the weed in question for sharing its bounty with us.

Jennifer is author of “Pacific Feast- A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine”. Be sure to ask her about her 750-mile solo kayak trip she took through the Inside Passage from Alaska to Washington. She can be reached for private tours at solopassage@yahoo.com.

Jen sharing some foraging tips

2. Forest to Table dinner

Jennifer dropped off our bundles of freshly foraged nettles, wood sorrel, salal berries, Douglas fir pines, at Ciao Thyme, where hubby and wife, Jessica and Mataio Gillis, were magically going to turn our greenery into a gourmet feast.

After spending seven months eating their way around Europe, they decided to replicate the best of their European discoveries in Ciao Thyme, a catering company that also serves as a cooking school, private dining room and unconventional supper club. The serve what Mataio describes as “craftsman food”.

Occasionally they offer “Incognito” prix-fixe dinners with changing themes held at convivial, communal tables. The themes are a mystery until you show up…but we had the inside scoop since our foraging finds were the backbone of our six-course ““Wet, Wild, Woodsy” supper that night.

Standouts included the clam raviolini topped with wood sorrel pesto and the main course of tender braised rabbit, with a tangle of sautéed mushrooms sprinkled with Douglas fir oil, ending with an amazing apple galette topped with dandelion root ice cream and a drizzle of madrona bark caramel.

Chef Gillis preparing our foraging dinner

3. Lightning hits SPARK

Plan on spending at least a couple of hours at SPARK: the Museum of Electrical Invention, located in the Cultural Arts District.

Co-founder, curator and engineer geek John Jenkins, was born in Bellingham and spent the last 40 years collecting priceless electrical objects beginning with early experiments from the 1600’s up through the Golden Age of Radio.

John built his own telephone network at the age of 13 and his archive includes Edison’s first light bulb.

Compelling, interactive exhibits will keep kids of all ages electrified for hours.

Spark meets Frankenstein

*Don’t miss the new Spark spectacular MegaZapper show. You’ll feel as though you’re entering Frankenstein’s laboratory.

*Afterwards, walk over a block to see the Whatcom Museum’s silver-level LEED Lightcatcher building, built in 2009.  The Lightcatcher is named after the unique, 37 feet high and 180 feet long translucent wall that harnesses Bellingham’s precious sunlight. The museum hosts various traveling art exhibitions such as the current show on American Quilts.

Whatcom Museum Lightcatcher

4. Fairhaven’s heaven for shoppers

Bellingham’s Historic Fairhaven District is a charming, turn of the century neighborhood offering six-square blocks of beautifully preserved red brick Federal buildings, filled with art galleries, outdoor cafes, and indie- boutiques. Several of these are from the 1890’s when the town was referred to as the “Chicago of the Northwest. An ex-rum-runner turned developer, named “Dirty Dan” led the building boom and almost overnight the town was filled with dozens of hotels, restaurants, taverns and brothels.

The most entertaining way to learn more about this area is to sign on for one of the “Good Time Girls” walking tours led by two “ladies” with a rather shady past. These bawdy babes delight in sharing stories about Fairhaven’s seedy past involving famous madams, bootleggers, scallywags, while pointing out old brothels, saloons and gambling halls.

Goodtime Girls share tales of the city

5.  Shellfish straight from the source

Taylor Shellfish Farm is a fifth generation, family-owned shellfish company – the largest in North America.

It is the best place to try a unique, local delicacy, geoduck  (pronounced gooey duck).

Taylor’s is perched on the shores of picturesque Samish Bay. It has a handful of weathered picnic tables next to a big, black BBQ (free for all to use) and a retail store, filled with locally harvested Dungeness Crab, a variety of Oysters, Manila Clams, mussels and the geoduck, a sincerely ugly but extremely pricey bivalve. One of these suckers costs over $200 in Japan where it’s mentioned in the same breath as truffles and caviar.

The store also sells mini-bags of briquettes for those who want to BBQ on the spot. Any of the workers at Taylor’s will be more than happy to show you how to debeard, shuck, crack, slurp and bbq your meal.

What could be better than a sunset seafood picnic at Taylor’s?

6. Beautiful Bellingham Bay

Bellihamsters spend almost much time on the water as they do on land. Since boating is such an integral part of the local life, you’d be remiss if you didn’t spend at least one day on the water.

The best seafaring choice, hands down (or on deck) is a sailing cruise on the Schooner Zodiac.  Built in 1924 for the Johnson & Johnson heirs, this gorgeous 160-foot classic wooden yacht has the largest working mainsail in North America. She offers a variety of sailing experiences ranging from spending the afternoon sailing around the iconic lighthouses, picking up some new skills on a photography tour, to the popular brewery tours.

Brewskie sails include four days at sea bobbing among the stunning San Juan Islands with stops at various micro-breweries, on-board food and beer tastings led by professional brew masters and you can even help make a batch of ship-brewed ale on board.

At least half the fun is pitching in to help raise and lower the mainsail, or take a turn at the helm. Don’t worry, the patient crew will show you everything you need to know, from reading tide charts to tying different nautical knots.

All hands on deck!

7.  Hike it off

Since Bellingham is surrounded by a beautiful bay, the San Juan Islands, and Mount Baker, it is virtually impossible to take a bad picture. Some of the most stellar views can be found hiking the trails in Larrabee State Park off Chuckanut Drive. One of the easier trails is a gorgeous path through the forest to Fragrance Lake (bring a suit if you want cool off) or for a more strenuous workout, you can attempt Oyster Dome. The pay-off for this up, up and away trail is breathtaking views of the San Juan Islands.

Hike to Fragrance Lake

8. Agritourism is alive and well

Immerse yourself in the artisan food, dairy and farm culture by taking a farm tour. You can pick your own fruits and veggies at the Cloud Mountain Farm Center, sip apple vodka at Bellwood Acres, learn how cheese is made, taste wines and wash it all down with some local brew at North Fork Brewery and Beer Shrine.

Samson Estates Winery makes a succulent raspberry wine-which is no surprise since Bellingham is the nations largest producer of red raspberries.

Whatcom Food & Farm Finder offers a comprehensive agritourism resource guide to help you plan your day.

Farm country

9.  Six minutes to foodie heaven

Chef Blaine Wetzel

Escape “big-city” life with a six-minute ferry ride to Lummi Island. If you remotely consider yourself even a bit of a gourmand, then you’ll want to make reservations at least a couple months in advance for a life-changing dinner at The Willows Inn.

Although it has been around since 1910, the big draw here is 26 year old, wunderkind Chef Blaine Wetzel who, not only trained at Noma, which is considered the world’s best restaurant, but he was just awarded 2012 Best New Chef by Food & Wine. After my recent dinner there, I’d vote to have him canonized.

My epicurean experience opened with a chartreuse tinted, Woodruff Martini. The next couple of hours unfolded in a haze of cedar smoke, still-life artistic masterpieces and flavor profiles that lesser chefs could not even imagine let alone produce. Chef Blaine humbly gives credit to the local treasures his people garner from the sea, forest, and farms, and respectfully allows the flavor of the food to belong to itself. Of course, the fact that he brings insanely good cooking skills to the kitchen doesn’t hurt!

The minute I finished my 20 courses I was already plotting my strategy for scoring another reservation ASAP. He really is “all that”.

Chef Blaine’s interpretation of the lowly onion

10. Home away from home

Mike Keenan, who says the mission of the Chrysalis Hotel is to “provide a tranquil, nurturing environment, a home away from home and a sense of well being providing a memorable experience to all who enter.”

Just a few of the ways that he ensures an an enjoyable stay is by offering many thoughtful amenities such as the complimentary steam and sauna available at the full-service spa. Once you snuggle into the cozy window seats, which overlook all the activity on the Bellingham Bay boardwalk, it’s going to be real hard to leave.

Oversized bathrooms with deep two-person Jacuzzi bathtubs are also a big hit, as well as flick-of-the-switch fireplaces. A bountiful buffet breakfast is included.

Mike has big plans (including a liquor license) for his new resto, Keenan’s Waterfront Grill, which is due to open in October.

Love watching all the action from my cozy window seat

*Try and reserve one of the 5 corner suites since here the Jacuzzi tubs are placed in front of the window.

When to go:
Anytime is a good time to visit. Winter brings great snowboarding and skiing, while summer offers water sports and mountain biking. For a small town, Bellingham is BIG on Festivals, which run the gamut from music festivals, arts and crafts, sand sculptures, to a plethora of food and wine events.

How to get there:
Bellingham is 90 miles north of Seattle, 50 miles south of Vancouver, British Columbia, and 58 miles west of the Mount Baker ski area.

By Air: Known for their extra-low fares, Allegiant air now offers direct flights to Bellingham, including recently added nonstop service between Oakland International Airport (OAK) and Bellingham International Airport (BLI), a gateway to British Columbia, Canada.

I was most impressed with Allegiant’s oversized, comfy, leather seats – reserve an exit-row seat.

By Bus: Greyhound Depart from the Fairhaven Station four times a day to downtown Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.

By Train: Amtrak service connects Seattle, Bellingham (two times daily) and Vancouver, B.C.

For more information: check out the Bellingham Mount Baker website http://www.bellingham.org/

To order a Visitors Guide: email tourism@bellingham.org

One gorgeous sunset after another

About Janice Nieder

Janice Nieder
Janice Nieder could be the love child of Indiana Jones and Julia Child. Previously a specialty food consultant in NYC, Janice is currently a SF-based culinary tourism writer who has wined & dined her way through 80 countries

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One comment

  1. We have family in Bellevue, Wash so we vista most summers since
    we’re now located “across the pond.” This is a wonderful guide for a driving get away fairly close…we are a large bunch so I really like that it
    sounds like there is something to keep everyone happy, entertained
    and well-fed.Can’t wait to see these “belly-hamsters” next trip.

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