Part farm town, part artist colony, this village on the Swinomish Channel meshes two seemingly contrasting sensibilities against the technicolor...
Part farm town, part artist colony, this village on the Swinomish Channel meshes two seemingly contrasting sensibilities against the technicolor backdrop of the Skagit Valley’s springtime tulip fields. But it’s a great destination on its own.
Even the name “La Conner” is a fascinating hybrid. In the 1870s, town founder John S. Conner gave this trading post along a slough a new name by joining his wife’s first initials — L.A. for Louisa Ann — with his own surname.
Today, fine-art galleries and casual taverns co-exist with boutiques and marine businesses, while just across the sweetly named Rainbow Bridge, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community offers a convenient foray into the culture that precedes even the old trading-post days.
South First Street, which runs parallel to the waterfront boardwalk, is the best place to soak up La Conner’s unusual history and atmosphere. On this charming, pedestrian-friendly strip, many brick and wood storefronts from the late 1800s to the early 1900s are on the National Register of Historic Places and carry plaques explaining their previous incarnations.
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The old Palace Meat Market at 619 S. First St. (circa 1890), for instance, is now one of several serene pocket gardens along the thoroughfare, with a waterfall streaming from a rocky bluff whose streets are lined with Victorian homes fronted by shady porches. The old August Stoud Cobbler Shop (circa 1905) today houses a dainty tea café.
Art pops up in strange places all along the thoroughfare, thanks to La Conner Sculpture Walk, a program of rotating public exhibits to promote the region’s sculptors and metalworkers.
La Conner’s birth as an artist colony started humbly enough when, in 1937, the late painter Morris Graves moved into a burnt-out house with dirt floors and invited fellow Northwest School artist Guy Anderson to come be his roommate. Painters, sculptors and writers, such as Tom Robbins, have been setting up shop in the town ever since.
Don’t be surprised to spot a group of wild turkeys strutting in the streets and clucking like an avian street gang. They, too, have discovered La Conner, having migrated here from the surrounding woods.
“They came in a couple of years ago and took over the place,” said a local who feeds the mean-looking but harmless gobblers.
At tulip time, of course, day-trippers stage their own invasion.
Do it in a day
Start with brunch at Calico Cupboard Café and Bakery (720 S. First St.), which occupies a cozy corner spot at the far end of La Conner’s main street. In front, display cases show off hulking, decadent baked goods, including frosted cinnamon buns ($3.50) the size of bricks. To the side is a bright, country-flavored dining room with clever sayings like “Forget Love … I’d rather fall in chocolate” painted on the walls. Hashes, scrambles, pancakes and toasts fill out most of the menu. The excellent smoked salmon scramble ($11.49) with local smoked salmon comes with a dollop of sour cream and pan-roasted potatoes.
Work off some of those carbs with a stroll along quaint South First Street, which is lined with small shops offering wares clearly aimed at tourists that range from chintzy to practical. The items for sale at The Wood Merchant (709 S. First St.) — think handcrafted wood rocking chairs, game boards and jewelry boxes — may not be everybody’s thing, but some pieces, like the $26 wine-bottle stoppers made of luxuriously polished cocobolo wood ($26) and the inlaid wood salt and pepper shakers ($28) make nice gifts.
Pop into the old August Stoud Cobbler Shop, where La Conner’s Finest Tea Shop (623 S. First St.) has a wide selection and a few tables for sit-down customers. Or take away a hot cup of tea to hold back the morning chill while walking a few paces to the former site of the town’s meat market, where a lovely little garden with a waterfall beckons. The garden is maintained by the owner of Caravan Gallery (619 S. First St.), whose entrance is discreetly located just inside the gate. Caravan is packed with crafts and jewelry from around the world, including woven raffia Kuba cloths from Africa (mostly between $55 and $275). The characteristic geometric patterns inspired the likes of Picasso and Matisse, who used the cloths as wall-hangings in his studio. Across the street, Two Moons Gallery & Gifts (620 S. First St.) sells scented candles, unique jewelry, vases, wall art, fine toiletries and cool, leaning cordial glasses by German glassware maker Schott Zwiesel ($12 each). Sharing space in a former mercantile building with two oriel windows protruding from the upper floor, The Ginger Grater and the adjoining Olive Shoppe (604 S. First St.) offer enticing kitchen goods, from fine olive oils and vinegars to Moroccan spices to colorful ceramic French presses ($34). At South First and Morris streets, where a public boardwalk offers views of boats plying Swinomish Channel, a warehouse-style shopping complex houses Hellams Vineyard (109 N. First St., Suite 101), which sells wine and beer from around the world, with an emphasis on Washington state offerings.
Take a culture break at one of La Conner’s museums. On the bluff overlooking South First Street, and up a public staircase from the shopping district, the La Conner Quilt Museum (703 S. Second St., 360-466-4288, www.laconnerquilts.com, Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday noon-4 p.m., $5 for adults, free for members and children under 12) occupies the historic Gaches Mansion. Exhibits change every few months. Two blocks farther up the bluff, in a windowless concrete building that works against the site’s million-dollar view of the valley, is the Skagit County Historical Museum (501 S. Fourth Street, 360-466-3365, www.skagitcounty.net/museum, Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and kids age 6-12, free for kids 5 and under). What you get for the slog uphill is an interesting perspective on the farming, seafaring and native cultures that made the area vital to Western Washington. The photo exhibit “Harvesting the Light: Images of Contemporary Skagit Farm Life,” runs through Nov. 4.
Back on the waterfront, La Conner’s modern-looking Museum of Northwest Art (121 S. First St., 360-466-4446, www.museumofnwart.org, daily 10-5 p.m., $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $2 for students, free for members and kids under 12) pays homage to regional artists such as Graves and Anderson, Lanny Bergner, Jay Steensma and Deborah Butterfield. “Raiment,” featuring works by Adrian Arleo, Gail Grinnell and Bernadette Y. Vielbig, runs through June 10.
Take a late lunch at one of the moderately priced eateries on the main drag before hitting the flower fields. The laid-back La Conner Brewing Company (117 S. First St.) offers good pizza along with its ales, while Boardwalk Fish & Chips (101 N. First. St.) also offers smoothies and espresso. Or have a sandwich and salad in the café at the La Conner Fruit and Produce Market (116 S. First St.), where some tables look out onto the channel.
Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or email@example.com