When the ferryman directing cars off the boat from Fauntleroy held up two fingers in a “V,” I thought he was flashing the peace sign. Vashon Island, after all, has long had a reputation as a hippie haven. Turns out the “V” meant Vashon; he was just making sure I wasn’t going on to Southworth.
Vashon was indeed my destination for a weekend escape. Islands are especially good for getaways — the boat ride alone makes the trip seem less of a jaunt and more of a journey. Geographically, of course, I wasn’t traveling far. The ferry ride from West Seattle takes a mere 15 minutes, and plenty of Vashon’s 10,000-plus residents go back and forth daily to jobs “over town” as they call the Emerald City.
On a clear day, there are knee-buckling views of Mount Rainier from many Vashon vantage points. In summer, 45 miles of shoreline beckons kayakers. But this was November. The largely rural island, surrounded in fog, appeared to be huddled inside a gray hoodie several sizes too large.
Winter on Vashon, one local told me, is a time to do indoor things. That doesn’t rule out a muddy hike through Island Center Forest, or a misty stroll on the driftwood-strewn beach at Point Robinson Lighthouse, where I saw two young lovers draw hearts with their initials in the pebbly sand.
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But winter gives visitors a good excuse to curl up with a good book next to a woodstove in a former chicken coop that is now a cozy vacation-rental cottage; to see and sample the work of artisans and artists in kitchens, galleries, wineries and distilleries; and maybe even to try your hand at creating something unique yourself.
“Everyone thinks May is a great time to visit Vashon,” said Kurt Timmermeister of Kurtwood Farms. “The weather is nicer then but there’s really nothing much to eat in the spring. Everything is just starting to grow. Vegetables are tiny. Right now I have a pile of produce that will take me through January or February.”
I ran into Timmermeister, a former Seattle restaurateur turned farmer and cheesemaker, at Zamorana eating the Saturday special, pork-stuffed tamales. Jorge and Effie Garnica’s Mexican eatery is so tiny that more than five customers make it standing-room only. But the handmade tortillas, vibrant sauces and fresh, local ingredients make the elbow-jostling worth it. Jorge’s affinity for meat comes from years of tending farm animals, first in Mexico and for the past decade at Kurtwood Farms, so it’s fitting that his “queso fresco” is Flora’s Cheese made by Timmermeister.
The Vashon Farmers Market is seasonal, but a few farm stands operate year round. At Langley Fine Gardens near the southern end of Maury Island (connected by a narrow isthmus to Vashon) I found a produce table stocked with squash and potatoes plus a fridge full of neatly bundled kale and collard greens, stem-down in plastic tubs of water like hothouse flowers. The untended stand runs on the honor system. Langley customers write down what they take, stuff a check or cash into a slit tennis ball and drop it in the mouth of a cartoon chicken whose gullet is attached to a tube that deposits the payment somewhere secure.
Sea Breeze Farm has a retail outlet in the town of Vashon, the island’s commercial hub. George Page and Kristin Thompson Page opened a full-service butcher shop attached to a tiny restaurant, La Boucherie, to showcase their milk, eggs, meat, wine and cheese.
La Boucherie’s menu is almost totally dependent on the farm’s output, augmented by produce from other local farms and bread from a Vashon baker. Head butcher Lauren Garaventa has a talent for charcuterie, one constant on a menu always in flux. Be glad if you chance upon chef Dustin Calery’s luxurious beef stroganoff. He transforms the farm’s dry-aged sirloin, his own crème fraîche and foraged mushrooms into a velvety cloak for pappardelle noodles; the perfect dinner for a chilly night.
At May Kitchen + Bar, a popular Thai newcomer, phad prik khing, a stir fry of beef and green beans in spicy chili and ginger sauce, is sure to light a fire in your belly.
The chowder at The Hardware Store will warm you to the tips of your cold, wet toes. It’s loaded with clams, light on the cream and bolstered with bacon and herbs. And no, you can’t get a pound of nails with that. When Melinda Sontgerath turned the original hardware emporium into a restaurant, the old wooden bins became one of many decorative accents that preserve the antique character of this century-old building.
The Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie occupies an old fir building erected in 1914. Something of a coffee museum, it’s where Jim Stewart started Seattle’s Best Coffee. Stewart has mentored owners Eva and Ken Atkinson, who opened The Roasterie in 2003 and built their own Heirloom Coffee brand.
Eva’s son, Casey Deloach, is the head roaster. “I’m an arm of that machine,” he says, pointing to SBC’s original roaster, a big, red, German-made monster that can handle 140 pounds of beans at a time. “It’s all hand-operated. There are no buttons or timers.”
“This is a storytelling place,” says Eva, describing The Roasterie and its adjunct, the Minglement, an organic market and health-food store. “The elders come every day.” Their personalized coffee mugs hang next to their table right by the front door. A group of knitters meets every Saturday in a back room called “The Library.” A Methodist prayer group, a book club and string orchestra for fiddlers gather there at other times.
Self-serve thermoses on The Roasterie’s front porch dispense brewed coffees. Try Front Porch French, if you like a dark, mellow roast. Ask the barista if you want something fancier, like a lavender mocha. Browse the shelves displaying jars of custom-blended loose tea, spices and dried herbs. Sniffing is encouraged. Organic sandwiches and salads fill the cold case and it’s worth noting that every Friday is Pie Day.
Vashon lacks hotels but offers unique bed-and-breakfasts. Here are three:
When Bonnie & Dean McCallister renovated and expanded a 100-year-old waterfront structure to create Villa Vashon, they chose an Asian theme, groomed the garden for summer parties, and added a private, 650-square-foot studio apartment upstairs for overnight guests. A deck overlooks the bustling ferry landing, the kitchen is fully equipped and the serene, Balinese décor features carved wooden doors leading to a luxurious bath.
With her braided hair and bluejeans tucked into knee-high boots, Judith Lawrence could be a character imagined by “The Egg and I” author Betty MacDonald, who once owned these acres, still called The Betty MacDonald Farm and just a five-minute drive south of the ferry landing.
Lawrence regales guests with tales of resident eagles fledging their young and visiting whales chasing salmon, all observed from the sprawling red barn MacDonald had built in the 1950s. Lawrence’s many arts and craft projects fill the barn’s lower level. At the top is a rustically romantic loft bedroom where billowing amber curtains frame paned-glass windows overlooking the eagles’ condo and the whales’ passageway. The homier cottage below sleeps four. A wood stove heats the living room, a claw-foot tub has its own private, windowed nook in the bathroom, and a refrigerator magnet sums up the rules: Bed & Breakfast: you make both.
At Triplebook Farm off the island’s Westside Highway, proprietor Molly Green, smartly dressed in what she calls her “city clothes,” gave me a tour. Molly and her husband, Hal, restored the1890s-era red barn and turned the former chicken coop into a cozy, three-bedroom guest cottage. The furnishings — oriental rugs, handmade quilts, books and games — have the stylish touch you expect from a woman who takes care to iron her trousers when she wears them to the city.
Creativity abounds on this island of artists and artisans. Visitors can see and taste their wares, or even join their ranks.
A former garage is the home of Ignition Studios & Gallery, where a handful of artists share studio space that is open to public viewing. Owner Lisa Hurst’s medium is encaustic, a technique that uses molten wax. She offers weekend workshops for ages 14 and up — no experience necessary.
Even if you’ve never threaded a needle, Island Quilter is worth seeing. There is no better antidote to winter’s gray than losing yourself in the store’s 8,000-bolt labyrinth of vividly hued fabrics. A 2,000-square-foot gallery doubles as a classroom where anyone can learn basic quilting techniques in an afternoon, says staffer Paul Robinson.
At Palouse Winery, the winery and tasting room are in one snug building. Visitors watched as vintner George Kirkish punched down the cap on a batch of fermenting grapes, a glass of his finished product in their hands. George and Linda Kirkish source grapes from Eastern Washington’s Palouse. They produce several varietals but only 1,000 cases a year. Virtually all of it sells on Vashon, so if you taste something you like, buy it. You won’t find it anywhere else.
Seattle Distilling Company has been putting the finishing touches on its new distillery and tasting room. Their handcrafted spirits will include vodka, gin, spiced rum and whiskey. CEO Ishan Dillon says the tasting room will be open beginning in January. They even have a swing set outside for the kids.
is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Contact her at email@example.com