Once known for outlet malls and Trader Joe’s, this Vancouver border town is channelling Portlandia of late, thanks to a dozen craft breweries, college-town energy and an earnest embrace of Washington state’s legalized marijuana status.
There’s a corner booth I covet at the Old Town Cafe in downtown Bellingham. Over a mushroom omelette, home fries and a biscuit (thank you, America, for biscuits), you gain an appreciation for our neighbours just over the border. Most look dressed to take a quick loop of Lake Padden Park post-brunch, some are down for the weekend visiting their kids at Western Washington University, and nearly all lack the pretension of bigger cities: it’s a ponytails-and-fleece crowd.
And it’s one of my favourite day trips for just that reason (though, Trader Joe’s and Target play into it, too). Both downtown Bellingham and neighbouring historic Fairhaven are designed for a wander on a Saturday afternoon, ideally with a gluten-free chocolate peanut butter bar from the Community Food Co-op in hand. (Chocolate and peanut butter may be a theme here: you’ll also find a slice of PB and C pie at the Colophon Cafe that’s a local legend.) It’s where a pint at a craft brewery during happy hour is a shocking $4 and a decent dinner is just over $10. And where the sweetest little espresso huts dot parking lots, should caffeine levels require more than a double double. And yes, I’ll likely be crossing back over the border loaded up with Joe-Joe’s cookies and Gilligan and O’Malley underwear, but also with lowered shoulders, the salty breeze in my hair and a big smile. —Anicka Quin
The area is cross-hatched with hiking trails ranging from strolling to sadistic. Start light (and enlightened) at Bellingham’s Western Washington University, a sprawling historic campus tucked into the thick rainforests above the city. Paths take wanderers through stately redbrick halls to one of the top 10 outdoor university sculpture collections in the U.S., with around 30 pieces by Bruce Nauman, Isamu Noguchi, Alice Aycock, Robert Maki and many others scattered around the campus.
Start your day where the locals do: at Mount Bakery, a downtown café cleverly named after the sleeping volcano east of town, where breakfast is locally sourced with organic options. Whether it’s sweet or savoury, the artful crepes, waffles or egg riffs are as Instagrammable as they are delicious.
Here for the beer? Grab one of the best pub lunches on the West Coast at Aslan Brewing Co., where kale salads are mountainous and the poutine is anchored by waffle fries…waffle fries! Show up between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. and closing for a generous happy hour that makes you forget all about the Canadian peso. Not hungry? Have a drink instead. The dozen-plus beers on tap are experimental and daring, and, as one of the few certified organic brewers in the country (and the first and only one in Bellingham), their nectars push boundaries while preserving the purity of the brewing tradition.
Fat Pie Pizza brings Chicago-style pizza (Detroit-style, too) to the Pacific Northwest. With an obsession with crust quality and considered, original toppings like pulled pork, caramelized onion, house-made barbecue sauce and smoked ham, Fat Pie insists you finish your pizza.
The rooftop patio serves up some of the best al fresco dining in town.
For dessert (or blood-sugar replenish-ment), queue at Mallard Ice Cream downtown on buzzing Railroad Avenue. This being a boutique town in the PNW, organic and local purveyors are table stakes. But it’s the hand processing and traditional ice-and-salt preparation that coax out some of the most intense ice cream flavours you’ll ever savour (even during the winter months).
There’s no better place to be when happy hour calls. One of Bellingham’s newest craft breweries, Wander Brewing welcomes thirsty adults (and their kids and dogs) to the amply sized 1920s-era shipbuilding space, where food trucks serve as the kitchen. Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro is the local beer scene’s godfather, open since 1995 and winning buckets of awards while most local brewers were in grade school (don’t leave without trying their yam enchiladas alongside a Best Bitter ESB, made with no fewer than three local hop varieties). Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen is what most international beer nerds (and judges) think of when they think about Bellingham beer. A dedication to classic European brewing means the Chuckanut Brewery pilsner is likely the best you’ll ever taste. Kulshan Brewing Co. is also new, but expanding faster than any other in town. It also exudes a decidedly West Coast mellowness, eschewing an on-site kitchen and allowing thirsty customers to bring in their own food.
The Must-Do Drive
Just south of Bellingham snakes Chuckanut Drive, the predecessor to the I-5 completed in 1896. Previous to the road’s completion, the town was accessed by boat due to the impenetrable ancient forest stretching from the mountains down to the sea. With its mystical fern and old growth–choked curves and cliffs, it’s a slice of Big Sur without the isolation and prolonged white knuckles.
The Chrysalis Inn and Spa is where captains of means would have slept and recharged after weeks out at sea. The 43 guest rooms overlook the Salish Sea, while window seats, fireplaces and down comforters keep things luxury in the great indoors. Hotel Bellwether is equally appointed and tucked in the Bellingham waterfront, yet central enough to stroll to dinner. The waterfront location means a front-row seat to Bellingham’s famous sunsets and dawn light shows.