Whatcom Falls Park. Photo by Debbie Stone

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Most travelers to Washington focus their visit on notable destinations like Seattle, Mt. Rainier National Park, the Olympic Peninsula, and Mt. Saint Helens.

With more time to explore, some might move east and check out the mecca of wineries or perhaps go further north to cross the U.S.-Canada border en route to Vancouver. If the latter is your plan, the city of Bellingham, Washington, is on the way and makes a convenient stopover.

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Bellingham, WA Is More Than a Stopover

Though this is certainly the case, I encourage you to view Bellingham as more than a brief break in your journey, as it’s a worthy destination. 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.

Take Chuckanut Drive, a Scenic Byway

Views abound along Chuckanut Drive. Photo by Debbie Stone
Views abound along Chuckanut Drive. Photo by Debbie Stone

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. It follows the shoreline and continues twenty miles north to Bellingham.

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

First Stop: Edison

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 handcrafted bread, 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 store, for some local or imported cheese. Now, all you need are some fresh oysters!

Add Oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms to Your Picnic Fixings

Check out the lighthouse made of oyster shells at Taylor's Shellfish Farms. Photo by Debbie Stone
Check out the lighthouse made of oyster shells at Taylor’s Shellfish Farms. 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.

It is interesting to learn 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 reutilized in reseeding.

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Buy your shellfish, perhaps some smoked oysters, at the onsite shop, then take it 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!

Take to the Trails at Larrabee State Park

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 are 18 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 enjoy the beauty.

Make Fairhaven Village Homebase

After the park, you’ll soon reach Bellingham’s historic Fairhaven Village. I recommend making this charming locale home 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.

Check Out the Village Green

Fairhaven Village Green. Photo by Debbie Stone
Fairhaven Village Green. Photo by Debbie Stone

The center of Fairhaven is the Village Green, where people of all ages hang out, either on the expanse of grass or the benches surrounding it. A 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 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.

Several stores are 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, a caffeine boost…or a delectable piece of chocolate!

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 their famed peanut butter pie!

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, WA.

Stay at Fairhaven Village Inn

For 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 and have fireplaces 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.

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.

Step into Galloway’s Niche Bar through a connecting doorway from the inn for more libations. Choose from classic and zero-proof cocktails, wine and craft beer, light bites, and shareables.

Get Some Exercise, Along with Picturesque Views as You Stroll Taylor Dock to Boulevard Park

Active travelers can get their steps right in Fairhaven with nearby Taylor Dock and Boulevard Park. A one-quarter-mile elevated boardwalk at Taylor Dock provides a trail link from Fairhaven to the park, which continues 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.

Outdoor Fun Is Easily Accessible

Parks are plentiful in this area, offering opportunities to take to the trails and enjoy 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, WA, is known for its outdoor fun, and its inhabitants appreciate the ability to hike, cycle, paddle, and 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.

Outdoor Art on Western WA University’s Campus

The Grand Mural at the Fairhaven Village Green. Photo by Debbie Stone
The Grand Mural at the Fairhaven Village Green. Photo by Debbie Stone

Art abounds in Bellingham in museums and galleries. Outside, sculptures and murals dot parks and streets. One of the nation’s top 10 outdoor sculpture collections resides here at Western Washington University.

Over 29 pieces are located throughout the campus by renowned 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.

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

Another, Richard Serra’s “Wright’s Triangle,” tempts viewers to enter and walk through its enclosed sections.

Similarly, Isamu Noguchi’s “Skyviewing Sculpture” invites you into its interior. Once inside, you can measure yourself against the ginormous scale of this cubic-shaped piece balanced on three points.

Big Rock Garden Park is a Charming Oasis

Big Rock Garden Park is also a lovely place to find outdoor sculpture. It’s 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.

Art, History, and More at Whatcom Museum

A statue of Daniel Jefferson Harris, founder of Fairhaven sits on a bench at the Village Green. Photo by Debbie Stone
A statue of Daniel Jefferson Harris, founder of Fairhaven, sits on a bench at the Village Green. Photo by Debbie Stone

Whatcom Museum and its three state-of-the-art venues—Old City Hall, the Lightcatcher Building, and the Syre Education Center—will impress museumgoers. 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 and are open to the public for research by appointment.

Old City Hall is the museum’s original home 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 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 the waterfront industry.

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.

Handsomely carved birds by artist and conservationist Rand Jack are tucked into and around the displays. The detail in each is impressive, informed by the artist’s close observation and understanding of these creatures.

“Unearthed: Art & Science Survey the Fossil Record” is currently on display. 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!

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 of 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.

Great Food in Bellingham

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.

In Fairhaven, Avenue Bread, a neighborhood café, has a reputation for its “Eggenues,” egg-centered creations on English muffins. Make a beeline for Port Fairhaven Fish & Chips inside the Bellingham Cruise Terminal at lunchtime.

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.

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.

Dinner and a View at The Oyster Bar

Make a reservation at The Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive for that special dinner. This intimate restaurant has exceptional food and impeccable service and features stunning views of San Juan Island from every seat. The menu features seasonally inspired dishes with locally sourced produce and an award-winning wine list for pairings.

Start with the Smoked Halibut Chowder—a must in my book! If you’re a pescatarian, you’ll be in heaven with offerings like 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 varieties rotated weekly.

The steak and Filet Mignon will 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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Author Bio: Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.

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