You can get from Seattle to Bellingham, Wash., by driving straight 90 miles onto the Interstate, but you shouldn’t. The best route to this small town, tucked between the mighty Cascade mountain range and the sea, can be more beautiful and pleasant. Cruise along Interstate 5, about 15 miles south of Bellingham, to make the final approach via Chuckanut Drive, one of the state’s more than 20 Official Scenic Byways.
The highway exit to Chuckanut will take you first to the town of Bow. It’s part of Bow-Edison, which is split between two small commercial districts, but for a pastry lover like me, passing by both is imperative. In Bow, Farm To Market bakery, opposite a vintage pale blue cinder block post office, offers triple chocolate pecan brownies, polenta cakes and other treats over freshly brewed coffee on brightly painted tables in the bakery’s rhododendron garden. Two and a half miles down the countryside from Bow Hill Road West, the Bread Farm in Edison offers sweets and fresh bread at the bakery counter. A handful of galleries and shops invite visitors to linger in the city.
Returning to Chuckanut Drive, the Skagit Valley farmlands lie at sea level with views of the west of the San Juan Islands before the road begins to ascend. Over 10 winding miles hug the cliffs of the Chuckanut Mountains, offering flashy views of the bays and islands of the Salish Sea as you make your way through the towering evergreen forest. The route was used by bootleggers coming from Canada during Prohibition.
Chuckanut ends north in the historic Fairhaven area of Bellingham, with its eclectic shops, restaurants and Victorian architecture. But if it’s Saturday, the priority should be to get to the lively farmers’ market before it closes at 2pm, houseplants, artisan crafts and handmade clothing. The stalls run over the official market footprint on and around the nearby sidewalk. Samples of beef jerky from Carnal, a local restaurant, tempted me to buy both regular and spicy versions to take home.
Exploring by land and sea
Bellingham has increasingly become a magnet for people looking to escape the rapid development and expense of Seattle. But the compact coastal town is also an ideal place for a weekend away. On a recent trip there I easily enjoyed two full days with just a one night hotel stay.
Bellingham is popular with outdoor enthusiasts and has wonderful walking, hiking and cycling trails. Whatcom Falls Park is minutes from downtown and offers easy hiking on its four-mile network of trails. Along the salmon farm and playground, a WPA-era stone bridge and a splashing waterfall await. The sweet scent of Douglas fir forests, moss-covered rocks and an abundance of sword ferns add up to an excellent session of “forest bathing”.
For more structured recreational activities, nearby Cornwall Memorial Park is home to a disc golf course, horseshoe pits and pickleball courses, a playground and a spray park. If you don’t have your own gear, it’s still fun to watch the players there, or just explore hiking trails through soaring forests.
Another great place to wander is Western Washington University. The hilltop campus, with expansive views of Bellingham Bay, was founded in 1893 and now houses 15,000 students. It also houses 70 species of trees and a world-class collection of outdoor sculptures. You can’t miss Mark di Suvero’s bright red, 27-meter-tall steel creation or Isamu Noguchi’s giant cube, but there are many other works by artists, including Richard Serra and Beverly Pepper. Washington State takes its trees seriously, and the university offers online tree tours so you can learn about campus flora, including the umbrella tree with its 20-inch leaves. One of the largest giant sequoias in the state stands there at 120 feet.
Getting on the water in Bellingham is also easy. The Community Boating Center near the Fairhaven district rents out small craft and organizes guided kayak tours. The search for luminescent sea creatures marks the evening excursions. For a longer water adventure, there are five to six-hour whale-watching trips from the adjacent Bellingham Cruise terminal, which also has ferries to destinations such as Juneau and Sitka in southeastern Alaska. Ferry drivers will need to be patient though – the first stop, Ketchikan, is a 36-hour drive.
Local dishes with a lot of flair
When you’re ready to relax, it’s easy to enter the area’s robust ecosystem of craft brewery cafes. At Gruff Brewing Co. visitors can sample a rotating cast (about nine at a time) of homemade brews, including Trash Bird Hazy IPA and Viva Verano Mexican lager. “Guest taps” from nearby beverage companies, including the Bellingham Cider Company, round out the choices. Gruff’s backyard overlooks Bellingham Bay and is outfitted with fire pits, cornhole games and brightly colored chairs that give even a cloudy day a festive feel. Gruff doesn’t serve food, but the Brothers Bus Bistro’s parked food truck offers some great choices, including a plate of hummus, goat cheese, veggies, and pita bread.
A wealth of marine life such as Pacific oysters and geoduck, a homely clam whose neck is so big it can’t close its shell, are harvested by Taylor Shellfish Farms and other local businesses, making Bellingham ideal for seafood lovers. Rock and Rye is one of the higher end restaurants serving oysters, but don’t miss the halibut or chocolate cake. The bustling eatery, with exposed red brick walls and high ceilings, has a second-floor terrace for outdoor dining.
Tasty breakfast options in central Bellingham can be at ease or go fast. For something quick, try a cranberry cardamom rose scone and latte at the trendy Camber coffee shop. If the wait for tables at popular brunch spots Horseshoe Café and Old Town Café is too long, queue up at Makeworth Coffee Roasters to order egg sandwiches and waffles. The space exudes a modern industrial vibe: white walls, light and airy with seating areas on the second floor overlooking the ground floor.
Bellingham is surrounded by affordable chain hotels, but to stay downtown and within walking distance of the restaurants and leisure options, we chose The Hotel Leo. Built in 1929 as the Leopold Hotel, the building along with the rest of central Bellingham went through hard times in the 1980s. In 2019, it reopened as a hotel (starting at about $259 for a Saturday in July) and features a social space from a bygone era — a wood-panelled library, pool table, and fireplace. Guests can stream movies in a small theater.
More for the mind
All northwestern trips need a rain plan, of course, and my weekend was no exception. As the drops fell heavily, I ducked into the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, densely packed with antiques and hands-on activities. Visitors can view a light bulb made by Thomas Edison and headgear used by quacks to shock patients, and experiment with an electronic musical instrument, the Theremin, that is controlled without physical contact. A live performance of history and science, the museum’s MegaZapper Electrical Show is a must-see (spoiler alert – disturbing amounts of electrical current are jumping through the air).
A few blocks away, another gem in the city, the Whatcom Museum highlights the art, history, and indigenous cultures of the area. The current show, “Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea,” aims to look beyond the clichés and romantic myths of the West by sharing the perspectives of artists from different backgrounds.