A close-up look at Bellingham's Chrysalis Inn & Spa and the people who run it.
BELLINGHAM — In retrospect, the opening date for the Chrysalis Inn & Spa — April 2001, just a few months before Sept. 11 — was appropriate. It ended up as a year when cocooning seemed like the best idea going.
A chrysalis, for the lepidopteran-challenged, is the pupal stage of the butterfly — the counterpart to a cocoon for other winged insects.
And this waterfront hotel on the edge of Bellingham’s historic (and increasingly gentrified) Fairhaven district is a pretty cozy place to curl up on a window seat (every room has one), read a good book or simply recharge while you gaze out at broad, glittering Bellingham Bay and the brooding hump of Lummi Island or watch pirouetting fleets of butterfly-spinnakered sailboats dodge the Alaska ferry.
If cabin fever strikes, you can join multitudes of multi-sporting Bellinghamsters on the Taylor Avenue Dock and South Bay Trail, right out front.
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The Chrysalis tucks 43 rooms into an elegantly modern three levels designed by McClellan Architects of Seattle. Muted colors counterpoint design splashes such as rooftop skylights reminiscent of upstretched wings — those butterflies again — and a dramatic three-story lobby with soaring, sensuously curving staircases.
Chrysalis owner Michael Keenan, also part owner of Anacortes’ Majestic Inn & Spa, is a hands-on kind of entrepreneur who will often greet you from behind the front desk. Here’s what you’ll find in the rest of the hotel:
Polished hardwood floors make a handsome entry to each room (and are even more expansive in the suites).
Colors are calming. Our full-view deluxe room ($234 rack rate on a July Thursday) came in a palette of what we’ll call Campbell’s Cream of Celery complemented by Sage Stuffing, with a carpet of, uh, Kiwi Fruit (a brown and green blend).
Décor is minimalist modern. A small mantel over the gas fireplace (found in all rooms) held two pieces of simple pottery targeted by an overhead spotlight. Original artwork — some large and colorful — is throughout the inn; in our room was a small charcoal rubbing on parchment and a little abstract pastel, not enough to distract from that expansive view (which would trump most anything).
Which brings us to that window seat, nicely cushioned and large enough to stretch out on, with Roman blinds to lower when the afternoon sun does the klieg-light-in-your-eyes thing. (The inn faces directly west.) The water view from our third-floor room was unobstructed; trees may partially block views from some rooms on lower floors.
A leaf-print spread covered a down comforter on our king-size bed, which had lots of down pillows and a headboard of “pickled” gray wood (repeated in the room’s nightstands, chest and desk).
If you’re a fan of boob-tube-hiding armoires, tough luck: A naked 27-inch television perched brazenly atop the chest in our room. A DVD player was a welcome addition (with movies to borrow at the front desk), and a bedside Sony clock radio also played CDs (bring your own tunes).
Two neo-industrial metal lamps provided light at bedside, with a similar floor lamp next to the room’s single overstuffed chair. A canister light on a dimmer switch lit the window seat.
A mini-bar with a granite-look counter held a motel-issue Sunbeam four-cup coffee maker, with a choice of Torrefazione Italia or Fidalgo Bay decaf, two types of Sir Aubrey’s White Lion teas, plus sugar packets, Equal, Coffee-mate and two packets of “honey pearls.”
A well-stocked fridge had well-padded prices on items such as a half bottle of chardonnay ($26) or a split of Louis Roederer Champagne ($40), plus the usual array of $3.50 cashews, $1.25 Cokes and $4 caramel corn.
Wireless Internet is available in most rooms; look in the hotel guide for the password.
Every room has a two-person tub, and they mean it: Tubs are roomy and deep enough for you and a good friend to squeeze in without requiring plastic explosives to get you out. Suites add jets to the tubs and bump up the size of the separate glass-enclosed shower.
Corner suites, the best in the house, give you a window with a water view from the tub (with droppable blinds for privacy). Other rooms have sliding screens between the tub and the bedroom that can be closed for privacy or opened if bathers wish to (A) peer across the room to see the water view; (B) watch “Saturday Night Live” while soaking; or (C) have a merry conversation with the visiting room-service guy.
Floors are mottled brown slate, and counters have a maybe-granite, maybe-Corian look. Two comfy robes of fleece and microfiber are hung by the shower.
A dimmer switch controlled a spotlight over the tub. Accessories included a shaving/makeup mirror (unlit), a hair dryer and a rattan box of cotton swabs and pads. Toiletries from Essentiel Elements included minty shampoo, conditioner and lotion, plus herbal hand soap and skin-care bar. Plenty of thick white towels, but a shortage of towel racks.
Mirroring the ouchingly-priced mini bar, there’s a “spa bar” basket of bathroom goodies priced to double your room rental if you’re not careful: confetti bubble bath, $5.50; mango aromatherapy candle, $12; B. Kamins Night Cream, $24, and more.
The front lobby isn’t a place to linger — you’ll find only a couple wicker chairs — but that soaring ceiling and those cool staircases set the tone for the place. “It’s my favorite thing about the inn,” said owner Keenan, 54, who moved to Bellingham in 1998. “Rooms are rooms, but the lobby is where you can make a statement.”
That’s not to say there’s no pleasant place to hang. Continue through the lobby to a lounge with big windows overlooking the bay. A mix of wicker and upholstered furnishings surround a large stone fireplace (with real firewood for when the weather cools). Everything’s in earth tones, with more original artwork lining the walls. A Parcheesi game sits on a shelf.
From here, doors open onto a terrace with umbrella tables above the bay and boardwalk. A wisteria-draped arbor fronts the inn next to gardens of dune grass, shore pine and Oregon grape.
Back inside, there are two conference rooms, accommodating up to 50 people.
But the big news is the inn’s elaborate spa, which just finished a major renovation. Down a dim hallway with enough flickering aromatherapy candles to calm even the most overcaffeinated, services range from simple (a visit to the steam room, free to inn guests) to surreal (the new hydrotherapy chamber where couples can paint each other with Turkish mineral mud).
I’m not typically a spa kind of guy. But I had to try the steam room.
After some window-seat snacking on rosemary bread from Fairhaven’s Avenue Bread bakery and organic cheddar from Samish Bay Cheese, I went for a bracing waterfront walk on a breezy afternoon, then bravely checked in for my first-ever spa experience.
They gave me a huge, fluffy robe that felt like wearing an alpaca, and rubber sandals with a footbed of little nubs that simulated a foot massage. I sat in the dark slate-floored steam room where every few minutes a hissing valve opened and steam from the center of the earth gushed forth, reminding me of that Julia Child cooking show in which she tried peeling tomatoes with a blow torch — only in this case the tomato was my calf (too close to the steam vent). After 10 minutes, I burst out of there and took a cool shower. Dressing for dinner, I wallowed in a counter full of complimentary “product” (their word): shaving stuff, hair goo, herbal soaps and lotions.
I left, well blanched but refreshed, and smelling pretty darn good, too.
The inn’s Fino Wine Bar is also a fine-dining restaurant, and while Fairhaven offers a wide variety of restaurants within a five-minute walk, Fino’s combination of good wine, good food and can’t-beat-it view means you need go no further than downstairs at dinner time.
The small restaurant occupies a narrow space on the water side of the hotel next to the spa. The tight quarters can make the open-kitchen concept a bit claustrophobic, but on summer evenings, terrace tables offer a pleasant place to enjoy the bay front.
Named for a famous Spanish sherry, Fino boasts “the flavors of Europe,” delivered in traditional European dishes as well as in its all-European wine list that draws from a 3,000-bottle cellar. Our tapas sampler ($12.50) was hit and miss, with good chicken croquettes and sherried prawns, but Spanish albóndigas (meatballs) reminiscent of Chef Boyardee. Steak au poivre with cognac cream ($30.50) was perfectly grilled with frites crisp and crinkly, and hazelnut-crusted halibut ($27.50) was fresh and tasty, though the brie mashed potatoes were a characterless blob.
Fino serves inn guests a free breakfast buffet — a standard spread of bagels, granola and fresh fruit that adds nice touches such as fresh breakfast breads (cranberry, orange and nut), a hot egg dish and full-linen table settings. A step up from Best Western.
A smart extra in this eye-popping setting: a pair of loaner binoculars at each table.
When they say wine bar, believe it. Don’t try to order a g-and-t before dinner. (European beer is served, though.) Besides wines by the taste, glass or bottle, there is a wine cocktail menu (e.g., “The Fairhaven,” with red vermouth, cold Champagne and lemon, $7).
One clinker: The pre-meal bowl of party mix brought to each table, complete with butter-toffee peanuts, said “Costco” more than “Europe.”
Room service is available, including a sample tray from the free breakfast buffet for a $5 delivery charge. The Fino menu is available at standard prices from noon to 9 p.m. except when the dining room is too busy, with an 18 percent tip added.
This isn’t a destination resort with its own activity center, but there is plenty to see and do in Fairhaven.
Attractions include Village Books, 1200 11th St., one of the region’s best independent booksellers, with its popular Colophon Cafe. Purple Smile Wines, 1143 11th St., offers tastings, a few steps from Avenue Bread (and if you stopped at Bow’s Samish Bay Cheese on your way up Chuckanut Drive, you have all the food groups covered). There are toy stores, a tea room and lots more. Pick up a Fairhaven map at the inn’s front counter.
Or if the “active” part of “activity” woos you, the bay front location has plenty to offer, too, not to mention nearby parks, hikes and scenery along Chuckanut Drive or up the Mount Baker Highway.
A walk or run on the waterfront trail couldn’t be easier from the Chrysalis — just step outside — or you can rent a bike from nearby Fairhaven Bike and Ski, 1108 11th St. ($10 for an hour/$20 per day). Rent kayaks, small sailboats and rowboats at nearby Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center, 501 Harris Ave., starting at $10 per hour (www.sailpaddlerow.org).
Fairhaven Outdoor Cinema shows movies preceded by live music on Saturday nights through August, and there’s a farmers market Wednesday afternoons through September, both at the Village Green at Mill Avenue and 10th Street, behind Village Books.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org