The ferry ride lasted a little more than 20 minutes after leaving Point Defiance, but the misty breeze had me feeling as though I was crossing an endless sea. Clearly, I’ve been a landlocked captive in Utah if the short crossing of Puget Sound’s south end had me feeling like I was Shackleton with a sextant, but I’m unashamed to admit how pleasant the ride was. After disembarking on Vashon Island, I hit the pavement and started turning the pedals aboard a moderately loaded bicycle with an ill-fitting frame bag and a cranky derailleur. The faintly rural vibe of the quiet tree-lined streets felt lightyears away from the relative metropolises of Tacoma and Seattle, buzzing with activity just across the sound.
I’d set out with few plans other than to cycle around Vashon, stopping intermittently at various locations around Maury Island—an island within an island connected to Vashon by a causeway—and Vashon’s downtown, which is comprised of a single four-way intersection with an unlikely concentration of delightful food and drink establishments. On the route I was immersed in the classically moody Pacific Northwest atmosphere with a moist haze—never really rain, but never not rain—that’s a refreshing respite from the, at times oppressive, aridity characterizing much of the Intermountain West.
Washington’s alchemy of natural beauty and distinct culture, defined by seemingly indulgent food and drink at every turn and an influential music scene that very much soundtracked my youth, overwhelms, inviting you to lean in, breathe deep and enjoy. Embrace it.
The Sound of Northwest History
Vashon Island was named for James Vashon, a Royal Navy Admiral who, as far as I can tell, never visited the area but served as superior officer to George Vancouver, who commanded the Pacific Northwest expedition in the 1790s. Vashon, it should be noted, went on to marry Sarah Rainier, the sister of his former shipmate Peter. One needn’t be a geography or history scholar to decode the region’s naming conventions while recognizing the absurdity of doling out monikers for people obliquely related to “great discoveries” made some 10,000 years after native inhabitants, including the Marpole, Salish and S’Homamish, called the land home.
After European settlement came some logging and then a 50-year stretch where Vashon became an island of endless strawberry fields, farmed primarily by Japanese Americans until the population was forcibly relocated to internment camps during WWII. Suburban development has squeezed the commercial farming out of Vashon, but the island is still home to many independent growers and an annual strawberry festival hosted each July. Like the other islands dotting the sounds throughout Washington’s coast, Vashon has a turbulent history but is nevertheless a stunning place. It’s a community and escape wholly distinct from the mainland just a short ferry ride away.
What To Do
Bike touring around Vashon Island requires a bike, obviously. If you’re not like me and didn’t bring a disheveled touring bike to ride around Vashon, you can stop in at Spider’s Ski and Sport (17624 Vashon Hwy., 206-408-7474) to rent a bike. If you are like me and brought a poorly maintained relic in need of some love, Vashon Bikes (9926 SW Bank Rd., 206-999-1551) will get your bike in tune.
Starting from the southern end of Vashon, I headed northeast towards the causeway near Portage to Maury Island. Maury is named for an American naval officer on the 1841 Wilkes Expedition who later went on to raid Union ships on behalf of the confederacy, but don’t let that anecdote distract you from the gorgeous undeveloped shoreline. Locking up my bike at the Maury Island Marine Park, I hiked the Maury Island Viewpoint Trail, a leisurely two-mile jaunt through forest and wildflowers to the water. I saw neither bald eagles nor whales on the hike, but many are luckier than I. There’s an orca tracking website, orcanetwork.org, you can use to see if there have been recent orca sightings in the area, too.
Back in the saddle, I pedaled a short distance to the Point Robinson Lighthouse, an iconic 19th century structure on the easternmost point of the island overlooking the sound. The lighthouse, with its overtly New England aesthetics, sits on a 10-acre park and marine conservancy where the former keeper’s dwellings are offered as weekly rentals.
From there I settled in for a ride up towards Vashon’s main drag for a stop at the Vashon Maury Island Heritage Museum (10105 SW Bank Rd., Vashon, 206-463-7808). Inside, the island’s history, both its complex human machinations and fascinating natural origins, is explored in nuanced detail and depth. The extent of the riding combined with the alarming amount of food and drink I consumed—more on that later—meant I cut short my circumnavigation of Vashon and turned in for the evening. In the morning, I headed to the island’s North Terminal and took the Fauntleroy Ferry to West Seattle.
Any semblance of rural vibes evaporated as I rode to Alki Beach, which is a little slice of southern California beach life, replete with volleyball, rollerblading and the like. After soaking up a bit of Seattle semi-sun I rode around West Seattle, which is chock full of hipster-adjacent niceties you’d expect in Seattle from bohemian coffee shops to indie record stores.
Where to Eat and Drink
The coffee culture percolating through the Northwest is hardly a secret, and the birthplace of specialty coffee is located right in the center of Vashon Island. The Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie (19529 Vashon Hwy., 206-463-9800) serves some of the finest artisanal coffee you’ll ever taste in a historic building made of old growth island fir. The building was previously owned by Jim Stewart, who’s known as the grandfather of specialty coffee, for being the first person to roast artisan coffee in Seattle and for starting what would eventually become Seattle’s Best Coffee right from that building on Vashon. Though the SBC logo still adorns one side of the building, the roasting inside is unique and innovative as ever.
After a caffeine infusion to get going, head over to Snapdragon Bakery and Café for brunch (17817 Vashon Hwy., 206-463-1310). The pastries are incredible and massive, and the rotating menu of wonderful vegetarian cuisine changes daily with creative options like a spinach and arugula pesto omelet with a yogurt dill cucumber sauce or a beet Rueben with house made sauerkraut, roasted beets and gruyere on house focaccia.
For a different experience later in the day, try the Ruby Brink, a combination bar and whole animal butchery (17526 Vashon Hwy., 206-408-7795). Artisan meats and cocktails don’t get any better than this. The bar features a variety of local beers and craft cocktails to choose from. The oak-aged sour from Propolis Brewing Wild Ales is outstanding. The menu consists of delectable items like humbly named braised beef meat and noodle—which has beef, a soft boiled egg, noodles and local vegetables in a 24-hour bone broth—and house-made chicken liver mousse on toast. And yes, there is an outrageously good butcher shop on site for your home chef needs.
Where to Stay
Stay within striking distance of the water at the Burton Inn and Spa (24007 Vashon Hwy., 206-910-4520). The Inn, which is just a short walk from the Quartermaster Marina right on the sound, has a handful of charming rooms and even a glamping tent for those looking to dip their toes into experiencing the famous PNW weather. The Inn also has a spa and guitar lessons every Wednesday for people of all skill levels.
Crash a little closer to the action at The Lodges on Vashon (17205 Vashon Hwy., 206-641-4717). Chic, minimalist 570-square-foot lodges are scattered across the property which also features communal geodesic domes and an open-air pavilion. The Lodges are pet friendly and a stone’s throw from downtown Vashon’s restaurants, breweries and shops.
Once back on the mainland, enjoy a classic Seattle experience by staying at the Ace Hotel (2423 1st Ave., Seattle, 206-448-4721). Just a short distance up S.R. 99 from West Seattle and Alki Beach, The Ace Hotel has deluxe rooms as well as more economical shared bathroom options all featuring west coast bohemian-lite trappings like painted exposed brick and artwork from Shepard Fairey (the artist who designed the iconic Obama “Hope” image). It’s the perfect home base to explore Seattle’s historic Belltown neighborhood.
ROAD TRIP 1: MOUNT RAINIER MOUNTAIN ESCAPE
Mount Rainier is a fixture of the Pacific Northwest skyline, and the mammoth 14,411-foot active stratovolcano is the perfect centerpiece of adventure. Explore the outdoors on foot, on skis and from horseback, all while indulging in some local cuisine and culture along the way.
1/ Hike Pinnacle Peak Loop Trail
Kick off exploring the Rainier region with a hike on the Pinnacle Peak Loop Trail. The three-mile loop includes an observation tower providing remarkable views if the weather is cooperating. Even if it isn’t, the spring wildflowers won’t disappoint.
2/ Eat at Il Siciliano Ristorante Italiano
Refuel with authentic Italian cuisine prepared by the Brancato family, which relocated to the Enumclaw from Italy in 1995. The Porcini Sacchetti is outstanding.
3/ Horseback Riding with Echo River Ranch
Mount up for a guided horseback ride through gorgeous timberlands surrounding Echo River Ranch. Guides will shower you with local naturalist knowledge, including on available foraging tours for wild mushrooms and berries.
4/ Explore Federation Forest State Park
Boasting a landscape blanketed with old-growth Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and western hemlock, Federation Forest State Park’s hiking trails are the perfect place to lose yourself in the immense evergreen labyrinth that defines the region.
5/ Visit Wapiti Woolies Outdoor Shop
World-famous mountaineer Ed Viesturs—the only American to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks—had his pick of the litter for outdoor gear, but chose only one hat, from Wapiti Woolies. Visit the home of the legendary headwear and leave with a unique hat of your own.
6/ Stay at Alta Crystal Resort
Turn in at the Alta Crystal Resort for a little rest amid adventure in the mountains. The resort is the closest lodging to Mt. Rainier National Park and has shuttle service to the lifts at Crystal Mountain. Enjoy the hot tubs and chalet-style suites you expect at a mountain retreat.
7/ Shred Crystal Mountain
Arguably the best skiing and snowboarding in the Northwest is at Crystal Mountain. 2,600 acres of terrain and stunning views of Rainier are a recipe for great times on the slopes each spring.
ROAD TRIP 2: Uniquely Pacific County
Connect the dots with visits to iconic attractions down Washington’s coastal beaches. Hidden gems, roadside hits and quirky curiosities await on an evergreen journey through oceanside villages.
1/ Washaway Beach
Explore one of the fastest-eroding places in the Western Hemisphere at Washaway Beach. The beach, planned as a luxury destination in the 1800s, loses 150 feet per year to the ocean and had a clam cannery, a lighthouse and a Coast Guard Station, all of which fell into the sea. The ocean is relentless.
The oldest hotel in Washington, the Tokeland is a house of history. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and sits adjacent to the stunning Pacific seashore.
3/ Wildlife-Heritage Sculpture Corridor
When driving through the town of Raymond, the streets come to life, lined with silhouetted sculptures of deer, bears and other wildlife. Unexpecting drivers will do double takes, so best to take it slow and enjoy the art installations along the way.
4/ World’s Largest Oyster Shell/Oyster Capital of the World
South Bend, Washington, nicknamed the “Oyster Capital of the World,” is home to Willapa Bay where oysters are plentiful. It’s also home to a sculpture of the world’s largest oyster shell as well as plenty of wonderful oysters to dine on if you take the time to stop for a shuck.
The North Head Light was built in 1897 to aid mariners approaching Cape Disappointment from the North. Situated at the mouth of the Columbia River, the historic relic is managed as part of Cape Disappointment State Park where marshes and oceanside tidelands create a magnificent coastline.
6/ Waikiki Beach
The beach where Lewis and Clark actually reached the pacific was morbidly named for when a Hawaiian sailor’s body washed ashore after his ship wrecked trying to cross the Colombia River Bar. Today it’s a dramatic, rock-lined cove more suitable for picnics and swimming than shipwrecks.
ROAD TRIP 3: Olympic Peninsula Paradise
Immerse yourself in the pristine scenery of remote mountains, lush rainforest and rugged ocean beaches on the Olympic Peninsula. Discover rich local culture and enjoy farm-to-table meals that are enthusiastically paired with local ciders and spirits.
The Lake Quinault Lodge is the perfect base camp to explore the Olympic Peninsula. Built in 1926, the rustic lodge’s grand scale is matched only by the natural wonders surrounding it. Immerse yourself in the surrounding lushly green forest on the 31-mile Quinault Rainforest Loop Drive around the lake.
2/ Olympic National Park
From glaciated peaks to old-growth forest to the pacific coastline, Olympic National Park is home to numerous iconic ecosystems to explore depending on your appetite.
3/ Ruby Beach
Dramatic sea stacks jut from the ocean on this coastal section of Olympic National Park. Piles of driftwood and a moody marine layer lend Ruby Beach a heavy northwest vibe.
4/ Hoh Rainforest
The Hoh Rainforest is the wettest forest in the contiguous United States. Since it’s situated within Olympic National Park, the forest surrounding the glacially created river is uniquely pristine and protected from commercial exploitation.
The story of non-native settlement in the Pacific Northwest is entwined with the timber industry. Forks was once known as the “Logging Capital of the World,” and today a museum housed in a log cabin tells the history of homesteading, farming and logging in the region.
6/ Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge
At nearly seven miles long, the natural sand spit at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge is one of the world’s longest and narrowest. The refuge is a birder’s paradise, a migratory stop for myriad species of birds which breed from Alaska to South America. It’s also home to high concentrations of shellfish and harbor seals.
7/ Cider Tasting Route
The country’s best hard ciders are born on the Olympic Peninsula. Stop at a trio of tasting rooms near Port Townsend—Finnriver, Alpenfire and Eaglemount—to enjoy the amazing bounty from the local orchards.
8/ Ludlow Falls
Wash down the cider with a short hike to scenic Ludlow Falls in the nearby town of Ludlow. The well-maintained trail is lined with enormous cedar trees leading to falls.
ROAD TRIP 4: Yakima Canyon Scenic Byway
Load up one of those eponymous roof boxes and hit the road. Experience central Washington’s scenic lake and mountain vistas, dive into diverse recreation and taste the highlights of wine country along this scenic byway.
Stop in at Red’s for information, gear and guided trips to make the most of the world-famous fishing on the Yakima River. The riverside location and deep local knowledge are tough to beat.
Spend the night at Canyon River Ranch for luxurious accommodations right on the Yakima. In the morning head out for some more fly fishing, hike through the central Washington landscape and even try your hand at some whitewater rafting. It’s your home base for adventure on the river.
3/ Umtanum Creek Recreation Area
Springtime sees the basalt-lined canyons of the Umtanum Creek Recreation Area bursting with color as sunflowers, larkspur and geraniums come to life. A variety of trails to suit any ability level all feature incredible vistas.
Sample the fruits of the fertile Yakima Canyon by visiting the Ellensburg Canyon Winery. Riesling, Rose, Cabernet Franc du Blanc and Cab Franc and Malbec port style wines are all available for your tasting pleasure. Each glass comes with an incredible view.
Turn in at Hotel Windrow, a boutique hotel located in downtown historic Ellensburg. The building melds modern amenities and rustic charm right in the heart of town, making it a perfect launching point for everything from fine dining and nightlife to outdoor adventure.