If you love the scenery of Seattle and Vancouver (think: sea, snow-capped mountains, and evergreens), you’ll enjoy Bellingham, a much smaller, low-rise version located between the two cities. A mecca for hiking and mountain biking, this small outdoorsy coastal city of about 80,000 is near Mt. Baker, a 10,750-foot peak in the Cascade Mountains famed for skiing, snowboarding, and climbing. In this year-round adventure town, the food and beverage scene will surprise, if not stun, you.
Here's how to get the most out of a weekend in Bellingham.
The Fairhaven neighborhood, a National Historic District, is known for its handsome 19th-century red-brick buildings, which house independently owned shops, galleries, pubs, and cafes. Check out Renaissance Celebration for glass art and jewelry and Skylark’s Hidden Café for a cozy Victorian ambience of handcrafted wood and mirrors with live music on weekends. Walk Bellingham’s South Bay Trail, including the wooden boardwalk over glassy Bellingham Bay and along the grassy waterfront park and blackberry bush-lined dirt trails. Take one of the themed brewery, salmon dinner, or ukulele cruises to Seattle or the San Juan Islands aboard the Schooner Zodiac, a 160-foot wooden yacht built in 1926. For hiking, miles of trails in nearby Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest or the Chuckanut Mountains await.
Don’t miss the savory crepes at Magdalena’s Creperie, where the chef makes all fillings and sauces from scratch. Standouts include scallops with spinach and leeks in cream sauce, and prosciutto with a combination of asparagus, onions, goat cheese, mozzarella, Bechamel, and Parmesan. The Hungarian-style fruit crepes for dessert won't disappoint either. The dimly lit, intimate Temple Bar serves local vino, beers, and elevated snacks from hot chevre-stuffed dates to spiced lamb meatballs. For a DIY meal, buy oysters, clams, or Dungeness crab at Taylor Shellfish Farm’s retail shop, then barbecue them for free on grills at Bellingham's waterfront and dine at the picnic tables looking out at the mountains and a small lighthouse crafted from oyster shells.
For an unforgettable taste of the Pacific Northwest, the restaurant at the Willows Inn (winner of James Beard Best Chef: Northwest award), serves dinners of about 15 exquisite, unusual courses -- all fished, foraged, or farmed nearby. Your feast may feature spot prawns with squash and nasturtiums, a crispy crepe with sockeye salmon roe and chive cream, and baked sunflower roots, perhaps accompanied by a gin cocktail suffused with local flavors of Douglas fir and nettles. It’s on Lummi Island, an eight-minute ferry ride from Gooseberry Point, just north of Bellingham.
For a peek at charming Fairhaven’s sordid past -- which includes divey saloons, brothels, and something called Devil's Row -- take the adults-only Sin & Gin walking tour; a history tour is available for all ages, too. Explore the history of electricity and its early pioneers like Ben Franklin and Nikola Tesla at the Spark: Museum of Electrical Invention. Crowd-pleasers include the Tesla Coil machines, which produce nine-foot lightning bolts on command; a theremin, a musical instrument you “play” by waving your hand above it (its eerie sounds are often heard in sci-fi movies); and a re-creation of the doomed Titanic.
The Chrysalis Inn & Spa offers dazzling views of Bellingham Bay from pillowed window seats, plus gas fireplaces, down duvets, and two-person slate bathtubs (from $199). At Fairhaven Village Inn, situated in the Fairhaven Historic District, 22 guestrooms (from $169) feature views of the bay plus a patio, or views of Village Green Park across the street, which shows movies on Saturday nights in summer and hosts a weekly farmers’ market. Hotel Bellwether, a luxury property with several restaurants, two spas, and a marina, offers bay views and gas fireplaces in most of its 65 rooms (from $189). Its spectacular three-story Lighthouse Suite has 360-degree views of Mt. Baker and the bay.
Bellingham is a two-hour drive north of Seattle or south of Vancouver. Amtrak and Greyhound also connect the cities. A shuttle from Seattle Sea-Tac Airport is 2.5 hours. Bellingham is also a 45-minute flight from Seattle on Alaska Airlines.