The Bellingham, WA Renaissance A 7-day Foodie Tour

Story by Linda Kissam
Bellingham, WAThere was a time when Bellingham area was booming, then a time when prosperity was only a faint memory. But a quick trip to Bellingham just a few short weeks ago tells me, its back bigger and better than ever. Whoever is responsible for the thoughtful mix of college town and foodie mecca should get an award. There’s enough to see and do for even the most demanding of food and wine diva’s – me included.

Some interesting facts about Bellingham set the scene. It’s about 2.5 hours by car from Seattle. It is Bellingham, WAhome to Western Washington University, so it has an authentic college town feel to it. It is a highly celebrated outdoor recreation haven. It’s also America’s raspberry capital. It is home to the largest Manila clam producer in the US. The Bellingham Mt. Baker region is #1 in the nation in milk production per cow. And…my favorite “brag” about Bellingham…Gading.com named Bellingham as one its “…top 25 greatest cities for sipping on vino thanks to its wine bars, boutique wineries, subdued vibe and stunning scenery. Ya gotta know I‘ll sip to that!

A true foodie tour is a mix of trying the ultra-fabulous and local’s favorites. Foodies love food for the experience, preparation, and promotion of it all. We want to learn everything about food and wine; both the best and the everyday, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food. My 7-day trip to Bellingham was that and more.

A quick puddle jumper from Seattle (about 40 minutes) brings you into Bellingham Airport. Love this airport. It’s clean, simple and has rental cars. The first thing you’ll notice after getting your rental car – opt for the GPS – is that everything you’ll want to see and do is no more than 15-30 minutes from each other. Man, I love “The Ham,” as locals call it.

Fairhaven, WACheck into your hotel. I tried three while I was there. Each was perfect in its own way. First two nights I stayed at the Chrysalis Inn in Bellingham. Can you say, “Light, airy, elegant and a glorious spa?” The views were to die for and it was just a short breezy walk to the quaint town of Fairhaven. Bags dropped off, I was on my way to a sunset BBQ at Taylor Fish Farm. This is a working shellfish farm and a local’s favorite for its picturesque rugged Northwest location and fish market. Bring your own picnic supplies. Purchase oysters, clams and geoduck and do a scenic shore-side BBQ. It’s memorable to say the least.

Perhaps the highlight of my foodie-thon was a foraging event. Working with local wilderness guide celeb Jennifer Hahn my group went foraging for food in the morning in a near-by forest. That collection of herbs, flowers, and berries was sent over to Ciao Thyme on Unity St. in Bellingham. That evening we were treated to a dinner featuring the fruits of our labor. I cannot begin to describe the “wholeness’ of this experience. A delicious multi-course dinner made by owner Jessica and Mataio Gillis served at elegant community tables with classic Washington wines brings the term farm to table to life. This is a must do.

Switching hotels, I find myself at the Fairhaven Village inn. Large, well appointed, comfortable rooms, easy access to downtown and a friendly staffBelllingham, WA make this a great place to stay. For breakfast, walk about 50 feet to Magdalena’s Creperie. Owner Magdalena came to Bellingham from Poland. Her menu is certainly inspired by her Polish roots, but expect a definite French influence as well. Any dish you order is lovingly prepared, delicious beyond expectation, and generous in portion. I don’t think you’ll have a favorite because everything you order will be your favorite. The espresso drinks are also killer. This is a must stop for anyone on a quest to taste excellent local-run restaurants.

A quick tour around town with the Goodtime Girls Walking tour will give you some background on this once wild and wooly town. Or if you wish, try their Sin & Gin Tour. Both tours run about $20 bucks and end up with a free drink at a local bar. Its good fun and fun times with the ladies. Highly recommended.

For the more artistic types head off to the Whatcom Museum and Mount Baker Theater for some lessons in art and architecture. Both are breathtaking, unique and a joy to visit. Call ahead for a private tour. Both sites have a lot to offer from LEED awards to Moorish style architecture which come to life through a docent tour. Have lunch at the Cheese Meat(s) Beer café located in the Museum. I think you’ll enjoy this fresh take on comfort food. Expect the unexpected through the many influences and inspirations of owners Travis Surmi and Annalou Vincent.

BellinghamFor dinner, The Table in downtown Bellingham might just have your number. It certainly had mine. This is an edgy, trendy, energetic restaurant. The food is served family style with a view to using locally produced products whenever possible. Known for its healthy gourmet food attitude, expect really good food served in an upbeat but noisy atmosphere. Our dinner included freshly made Beet Caprese, Fattoush Salad, Sockeye Salmon Primavera, Moroccan Chicken Linguine, and Pink Vodka Penne. Yum!

Take a breather as we did and stroll over a few blocks to Chocolate Necessities. Owner Kevin Buck treated us to a guided chocolate tasting helping us to better understand the differences in quality of chocolates and cocoa content. Best to call ahead to see when the chocolate and wine pairings are happening. You’ll thank me later.

Switching hotels again, this time to Hotel Bellwether located in Bellingham, WA. This 65-room upscale view property is lovely and is again centrally located. One of Bellingham’s most popular seafood restaurants, Anthony’s, is located just a quick stroll away. A waterfront view of Bellingham Bay, delicious creative cocktails (try the cucumber cooler), and some of the best seafood in Washington is served up in casual elegance. Both hotel and restaurant are highly recommended.

BellinghamHopping on a shuttle tour with Whatcom Wine Tours the group was out for a glimpse into what the area wine scene has to offer. Our stops included Glacial Lake Missoula Winery, Vartanyan Estate Winery and Dynasty Cellars. Since there are another six to try, your tour might be different. Although not world class wineries as of yet, there is certainly potential. We had a lovely picnic lunch at Vartanyan. Owner Margarita is so passionate and visionary, you can’t help but sense success is just around the corner for her. At Dynasty Cellars, owner Peter Osvaldik greeted us with lots of charm and a dynamite food & wine pairing. Peter seems to be mixing Old World winemaking techniques with Washington varietals. My guess – we have a winner here. Watch out for this guy – he’s a rock star in the making. The reds are killer.

Last up on the foodie tour was the grand slam of it all; a 16-course dinner at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Under the quiet and confident direction of young Chef Blaine Wetzel this was a chance to indulge Bellingham Foodieand delight in the foods, taste and culture of Washington cuisine. Tiny bite-sized courses paired with Washington wines made this the ultimate foodie experience and best of all it’s an affordable indulgence.

During the dinner, our group was treated to the texture, sights and tastes of exquisitely prepared and presented courses. Our server patiently explained each unique course: Baked Sunflower Roots, Crispy Crepe with Sockeye Roe, Pickled Oyster with Sorrel, Toasted Kale with Black Truffle and Rye, Wild Berries and Grasses, Albacore with Horseradish, Shitake over Fire, Smoked Sockeye Salmon, Bread with Pan Drippings, Crispy Halibut Skin with Razor Clams, Flax Seed, Aged Venison Leg, Grilled Onions, Spot Prawns, Charred Frisée, and finally… Blueberries with woodruff and malt.

Washington wine pairings at the dinner included Wescott Bay Traditional Apple Cider, 2010 Ross Andrew Winery Meadow Pinot, 2011 Mount Baker Vineyards Madeline, 2011 Lachini Vineyards Rosé of Pinot, and 2009 Brian Carter Cellars Opulento Port.

Hard to top that, so I won’t try. Goodnight Bellingham. Nice to see you’re back – and a great place for foodies.

Helpful Resource

Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism

Places I’ve Lived #11 – Bellingham, Washington

Bellingham, WashingtonThinking of Bellingham, Washington always makes me happy. I’m not going to lie and tell you that my life there was always happy, but for me, Bellingham was a magical place. I rolled in during the worst blizzard in decades. I wasn’t worried, I had a huge 4×4 and had first learned to drive on mountain roads in blizzard conditions up in Big Bear Lake.

I’ll never forget those moments on January 2nd, 1996, of driving up I-5 and seeing frozen waterfalls on the side of the highway as I blasted Rusted Root and the Grateful Dead on my far too expensive car stereo system. My dog was next to me, everything I owned was in the back of the truck, and the world was good. I’d left my terrible childhood memories, my troubled times in the Marine Corps, and all the drama with the girl in Raleigh behind. I’d been the one pushing for Bellingham when we were talking about moving together. She’d wanted either Boulder or Las Cruces – this was my town.

My dark blue 1988 full size Ford Bronco with big ass tires had brought me through the Rockies and across the continent. I’d passed through and by Redding, Canyonville, Myrtle Creek, and Tacoma without stopping. I had no idea where I would live, what work I would do, or what would happen – but Bellingham would be home for the next five years except a couple of small breaks in Juneau, Alaska and London, England in 1998.

Bellingham, WashingtonI got a coffee at a hippie coffee house on High Street and began looking for work and a place to live using The Echo – a free classified newspaper – it was like Craigslist but in newspaper form. I quickly fell in love with KISM 92.9 FM Independent Rock – the most amazing radio station I’d ever listened to. Great DJs, amazing announcers, absolutely amazing music programming, and superb fun shows. The morning show DJ, Dave Walker, would end every show with his tagline “You live in the coolest place in the world, go out and enjoy it.”

He wasn’t lying. Bellingham has everything. The San Juan Islands, Mt. Baker, the Northern Cascades, the Alaska Ferry system, great music and art scenes, Western Washington University, amazing literary talent, beautiful gardens and forests, spectacular beaches, and four glorious seasons.

Those first months in Bellingham weren’t easy. No one wanted a new roommate with a dog but finally, I found a house full of heroin addicts who rented me a room. I got a job at a saw mill in Ferndale, Washington. The junkies were too much for me – it was a constant threat situation and it came down to either living with the junkies and having my dog or finding my dog a new home so that I could find a new home. Using The Echo, I found a cool guy with a cool family who loved my dog. It was heartbreaking, but it was my only option. After that, I found a very cool roommate situation in the hippie burg of Fairhaven on the south side of Bellingham. The guy who adopted my dog helped me to find a job with the company he painted for. I escaped from the mill and the heroin house. It was a tough decision, but it was the right one.

Bellingham, WashingtonAs a painter I made a bunch of new friends. I also made new friends through my new roommate, Alyssa. Every day, I listened to 92.9 FM while I was working. One day, I told my co-worker – I’m going to get a job at that radio station. At a blues festival hosted by the station, I saw my chance. I met the programming director, a guy named Ken Richards who was also one of the DJs – I cornered him in the beer tent and told him “I want to work for 92.9 FM, I don’t care what it takes – I’ll clean toilets if I have to.” He gave me his card and told me to call him the next week. I did. He offered me a job as an producer/intern on ‘The Morning Deal’ – I would have to quit my painting job and it was a serious pay cut, but I took it.

Over the next year, I managed to take every job that came available. I took the late night DJ slots, became the full time producer of The Morning Deal, did part time work for the station’s engineer cleaning the garage, cutting brush, wiring new equipment in – anything – then I took a job as a commercial copy writer. Radio didn’t pay great, but I loved it. That guy who I’d heard when I first rolled into town “You live in the coolest place in the world, so go out and enjoy it” – he became one of my best friends. I started writing a weekly column for The Echo called Rambling Man. Between the radio and The Echo, I was suddenly kind of famous. I had also enrolled at Whatcom Community College. My life was full and beautiful. I met a great girl and we began seeing each other.

Bellingham, WashingtonThe girl was great but she had two children from previous relationships and I wasn’t ready to be anyone’s dad. Then, one day, I met a girl I fell head over heels for – she was all I could think about for years. I pursued her with a single minded determination that utterly failed. All she ever wanted from me was my friendship, but I wanted more. That desire (the root of all suffering) destroyed me, destroyed my ego, and left me disjointed and dis-satisfied. It left me completely unsettled despite my very cool life, great friends, minor fame, and decent income. I wanted her and since I couldn’t have her, I wanted more from every other aspect of my life.

In 1998, I bought a 1976 VW bus, left my job at the station and moved out of my apartment. I decided to go to Alaska and see if I could shake the sickness that had enveloped my soul. It didn’t work. I sold the bus and went to London, England to pursue something else – but it didn’t work. My desire for her was like a fungus that had grown inside me and wouldn’t let me do anything else. In both places (and in Bellingham) opportunities were presented to me like golden apples – but I could see nothing but her. I kept coming back, trying to impress her, trying to win her. It didn’t work.

Bellingham, WashingtonBack in Bellingham, I started a magazine and co-founded an early internet startup. Once again, there were plentiful opportunities presented to me in work, in life, and in love – but she was all I saw or wanted. It was a sickness, this love and obsession – and whenever I would find myself healing from it – then she would appear – at a party, a call out of the blue, in the street, at a coffee shop, or showing up at my door. She wanted me in her life and yet, the one thing she didn’t want was a romantic relationship with me. It was all I wanted. Finally, I realized, I just had to get away from her. She wasn’t doing it on purpose, but she had eaten my soul.

I took a tech job at a start-up in Seattle. The first months involved a four-hour commute each day from Bellingham but eventually, I rented a house in Green Lake with new co-workers. The girl would show up still or she would call me – but I was healing – I was recognizing that I needed to end the friendship and put some emotional distance between us. It still amazes me that she never wanted me – and I still wonder what the world might have been like if she had. She’s the one part of Bellingham that doesn’t make me happy when I remember that place.

In any event, that’s what led to me leaving Bellingham, abandoning my startup, and changing my life – again.

Bellingham, Washington

Bellingham, WashingtonBellingham is a treasure. It sits 20 miles south of the Canadian Border and 90 miles north of Seattle. It is sandwiched between the San Juan Islands and the North Cascade Range of mountains. There are about 92,000 people who live in Bellingham and it is the northernmost city in the USA with a population of more than 50,000. There are numerous lakes, streams, waterfalls, and great hiking, mountain biking, and outdoor recreation of all kinds in the area. Summers don’t get hotter than about 90 Fahrenheit and winters can get incredibly cold – well below zero if caught in a Nor’easter. The population of Bellingham has nearly doubled since the time I arrived there – I’ve heard that Fairhaven is now more of a retirement community than a hippie burg – which is too bad. As a side note – I’ve just looked at the cost of buying or renting a family home in Bellingham due in no small part to nostalgia in writing this – it turns out that the increase in population has led to a housing shortage – good old B’ham, which used to be cheap – is now way out of range for nearly everyone with rents nearly as high as in Honolulu and Seattle…All I have to say is it’s a damn shame…

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