One of the most scenic autumn drives in Washington — maybe the entire country — is to travel west on Highway 20 across the north portion of the state. Take it from Spokane, and the North Cascades Highway will lead you to another fall treasure: the city of Bellingham.
Those who dismiss Bellingham because of its rainy reputation miss out. Its climate can be pleasant — especially in September and early October — and the dining, shopping and recreation are worth the six- or seven-hour trek west.
“Fall is kind of an ideal time to be traveling here,” says Caroline Kinsman, director of marketing for Whatcom County Tourism. Lodging prices also drop after Labor Day even though warm weather usually lingers for weeks, so there are bargains to be had.
Bellingham is 90 miles north of Seattle on Interstate 5. About 79,000 live there, making it the 11th most populated city in Washington.
Like many U.S. cities, Bellingham turned its attention from its downtown core to a shopping mall on the edge of town in the 1980s and 1990s. Bellinghamsters never fully abandoned downtown because of historic treasures like the Mount Baker Theater and the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, but there were years when it wasn’t a desirable place to be. Not anymore.
Today, downtown is abuzz with activity. Locally owned shops and eateries draw diverse patrons, from young families enjoying ice cream at Mallard Ice Cream and 20-somethings grabbing wood-fired pizza at La Fiamma to retirees shopping for fine furniture and kitchen gear at The Greenhouse to bargain hunters antiquing in a shopping district called “Old Town” near the city’s core.
The Bellingham Farmers Market is a major downtown feature—both visibly and culturally. It’s held Saturdays on the west end of downtown, across from the lively and popular Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro.
On a typical Saturday, 105 vendors sell fresh produce, baked goods, handmade crafts and other items in stalls under a permanent, glass-walled structure owned by the city called Depot Market, or from booths covered by white tents in the adjacent parking lot. The building makes an attractive setting, and enables the market to run from early April until mid-December, regardless of weather.
Be sure to check the market’s Web site for special events, including a twice-monthly series called Chef in the Market when a local chef demonstrates a meal using seasonal ingredients.
The market is on Railroad Avenue, a street that could be written up as a success story in urban planning. Twenty years ago, it was better known as a place to panhandle than select pumpkins. Though there are reminders that Bellingham struggles with homelessness as much as any other city, Railroad Avenue is now a safe and bustling district.
Outdoor restaurant seating spills onto the sidewalks and clothing shops offer everything from affordable vintage treasures to cutting-edge shoes and handbags. “Within the last four years, boutiques have opened all over (downtown),” says Michelle Millar, owner of Mi Shoes.
The Fairhaven District
Two miles south of downtown is the Fairhaven District (www.fairhaven.com), a brick-paved shopping hub. Fairhaven offers spectacular views of Bellingham Bay, and 19th and early 20th century buildings—many of which sport lush flower baskets and charming signage.
Fairhaven was once its own city, but it and three other towns merged in 1903 to form Bellingham. It still retains an independent spirit, and a strong sense of community among shopkeepers, restaurateurs and residents.
Twenty years ago, when downtown businesses struggled to retain customers heading to Bellis Fair Mall, Fairhaven’s anchor establishments, including Village Books, Tony’s Coffeehouse and the Colophon Café, enjoyed a faithful following.
“Fairhaven was ahead of its time,” says Taimi Dunn Gorman, one of Colophon’s original owners. “When we opened (in 1985), we were the third to have an espresso machine in Bellingham.”
No one had outdoor seating until the Colophon opened either, she says. “We’d just been to Paris and thought it was a good idea,” Dunn Gorman says. “Fairhaven took on this fun European feel no one else had.”
Fairhaven retains this quaint feel, despite now including 325 businesses over five blocks.
For many, Village Books, a three-story independent bookstore, is Fairhaven’s biggest draw. Locals visit for author readings, book suggestions from well-informed staffers or beverage from the shop’s café overlooking the bay.
Behind Village Books is Fairhaven’s Village Green, a rectangular lawn that hosts outdoor movie nights and live music. On Sept. 19, Fairhaven’s Fall Salmon Festival—a tradition that started as a neighborhood event in the 1980s—takes place, and it will be the site of Halloween festivities, when hundreds of costume-wearing residents search for ghosts haunting the district, according to local lore.
Over the years, Bellingham has gained a national reputation for outstanding outdoor recreation. Whether you enjoy whitewater rafting, kayaking or mountain biking, there’s something for everyone.
“The advantage in Bellingham is that we sit on the water,” Kinsman says, adding that “Outside” magazine has named Bellingham the best “Paddle Town” in the country.
For Class IV and V whitewater kayaking, check out the Nooksack River, a 30-minute drive east. Inquire about restrictions, since there are times when the river is closed to recreation to protect spawning salmon.
Mountain bikers might enjoy Mount Galbraith, a privately-owned piece of land that’s open to the public for recreation. Trails have been built and are maintained by the Whatcom Independent Mountain Pedalers, a volunteer group committed to improving bicycling in Bellingham. “There are some easy-going trails and then some really gnarly extreme stuff that I can’t imagine doing,” Kinsman says.
To get there, take Samish Way past Lake Padden, and then turn left on Galbraith Lane.
September and October are great months to walk and hike in Bellingham, too, whether you prefer a leisurely jaunt on a 2.6-mile loop encircling Lake Padden or a more adventurous trek on Mount Baker, 56 miles east of town. “Snowfall (on the mountain) starts in mid-October, so you can (hike) to the summit of Baker until early October,” Kinsman says.
Driving on the Mount Baker Highway is a treat in the fall, with leaves changing colors, she says.
Other scenic spots to include are Whatcom Falls Park, a 241-acre park with four sets of waterfalls in the heart of the city, and Fragrance Lake, a lake with a 5-mile trail around it and views of the San Juan Islands.
Where to eat, sleep
Bellingham’s culinary offerings should satisfy any palate.
Favorite restaurants include Pepper Sisters, The Bagelry, La Fiama, and Mount Bakery. Worth tasting are Scotty Browns; Anthony’s at Squalicum Harbor and Anthony’s Hearthfire Grill for seafood and stunning views; Cicchetti’s, for family-friendly atmosphere and hearty Italian cooking, and Rocket Donuts, where customers swear that the maple bars covered in bacon are out of this world.
In recent years, upscale hotels have opened in Bellingham, including The Chyrsalis Inn & Spa (www.thechrysalisinn.com) and The Fairhaven Village Inn (www.fairhavenvillageinn.com), in Fairhaven, and Bellwether Hotel (www.hotelbellwether.com), on Bellingham Bay close to downtown.
Fall rates start at about $200, $130 and $200, respectively.
If that’s more than you can afford, Kinsman recommends the Guesthouse Inn off Lakeway Drive. The recently remodeled hotel has rates starting at about $80.
For seclusion, consider the Semiahmoo Resort (www.semiahmoo.com), 30 minutes north of Bellingham in Blaine. The resort sits on a 1-mile spit jutting into Puget Sound. The British Columbia town of White Rock is visible across the water. Nature lovers will enjoy examining sea life on Semiahmoo’s beaches during low tide or walking along the resort’s trails as bald eagles, blue herons and other shorebirds fly overhead. The resort also boasts an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course.
Although Semi-ah-moo has a reputation for upscale dining, hospitality and spa services, rates are reasonable. Fall specials start at $89 per night and include lectures, kids’ activities and nightly movies.
For more information on Bellingham and ways to save, visit www.bellinghambestbuys.com.