The historic Belle Baldwin House at Fern Cove on Vashon Island is newly refurbished and available for public rental.

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VASHON ISLAND — Visiting an island allows you to live a metaphor — to surround yourself with a protective cocoon of water, insulation from the pressing matters of existence.

Fern Cove on Vashon is like an island within an island, a 13.5-acre preserve defined by a saltwater estuary with 700 feet of shoreline cushioned by lush second-growth forest. Salmonberries run thick along a coho-bearing stream, and big-leaf maples sweep the sky. Nestled in a clearing set back from the beach and bordered by a sing-songy creek stands a home informed by a century of changing tides.

Thanks to community members who lobbied to preserve the natural and historical significance of this place, Fern Cove’s Belle Baldwin House and its surrounding acreage are now owned by the Vashon Park District, and the land is under the stewardship of the Vashon-Maury Land Trust. And you and your family can spend the night there.

The recently refurbished house was opened this summer as a vacation rental, turned out in period furnishings and décor combined with “green” choices such as organic mattresses and fluorescent light bulbs. A King County Historic Landmark, the 1912 Georgian Revival-style house (designed by architect Harlan Thomas of Sorrento Hotel fame) is named after Washington Territory’s first female physician, who lived there for more than 30 years.

“It’s the best of the island and of the Northwest,” said islander Julie Burman, former director of the Vashon-Maury Land Trust and the Vashon Park District board, who stayed at the house in June. “It rolls together a great saltwater experience and a sense of history. I felt like I could have been there at any time in the past 80 years — there are not many places where you get both the older architecture and the quiet. I see Fern Cove as a jewel of the island; it’s just got everything going for it.”

Future plans include transforming the nearby carriage house into an environmental learning center. People for Puget Sound is partnering with island organizations to make this a hub for nature programs.

The pull of Fern Cove

Belle Baldwin’s father, Dr. Edward Loomis Smith, purchased the 158 acres surrounding Fern Cove in 1890. After graduating from medical school in her home state of Michigan, Belle joined her father’s Yesler practice until his death in 1893. He left the property to his wife and daughter, who went back to Michigan in 1895. Thirteen years later, Dr. Belle Baldwin returned to the Northwest with her mother and ailing husband, moving to Fern Cove in hopes the quiet setting would ease his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. An early “supermom,” Dr. Baldwin held down a surgical practice in Seattle while mothering two children and acting as her husband’s care provider. Just as the Baldwins did, people return to Fern Cove again and again for its palliative qualities.

“It’s a great birding spot because it’s so undisturbed, and you can enjoy being on your own with nature,” said Ed Swan, author of “The Birds of Vashon Island,” who makes Fern Cove a stop on birding tours.

The low tide reveals acres of mud flats, beloved of herons, gulls and killdeer — whose distinct high-pitched “deeyeeee” cries are commonly heard echoing up the beach. Nearby, an old logging road turned trail parallels Shinglemill Creek, where ancient cedar stumps still show the springboard marks inscribed long ago.

“Now I know how H.D. Thoreau felt … a return to better days,” wrote one summer visitor in the home’s guest book. Fern Cove is a place that lives up to hyperbole and inspires poetry: “Walking down the driveway, the perfumes mixed: seaweed, roses, honeysuckle,” wrote another visitor in summer solstice reverie.

An immersion in nature

In warmer months this is a choice spot for a dip. Though Sound temperatures stay chilly year-round, the shallow estuarine bay makes for warmer-than-usual water. Beachcombing, tidepooling, hiking (both shore and woods) and kayaking are other popular Fern Cove pursuits.

“It has a theme, and that’s education, nature and the environment,” said Tim Lafferty, Vashon Parks’ maintenance supervisor responsible for overseeing the renovation. “You get to experience all of these elements here … you’re immersed in them.”

Lafferty made sure everything from light-switch plates to bathroom fixtures echoed the early 1900s, shipping the original tub to Everett for reconditioning. He had a landscaper research popular plantings of the era, so delphiniums, dahlias and violets now accompany an heirloom rose.

“Because the house is located in a nature preserve, we added the green elements in an effort to maintain and enhance the protected areas and build awareness of guests,” said Cynthia Pringle, office manager for Vashon Park District.

Contractors used low-VOC paints and floor finishes, and the house features organic linens and cleaning products. With a focus on reuse, the Park District advertised for antique furniture donations and filled many of the home’s rooms.

“By staying here, you can shrink your carbon footprint because this is probably more environmentally sound than your own home,” added Wendy Braicks, executive director of Vashon Park District. “It supports the ‘staycation’ idea. If you live in the Seattle area, you won’t have to use a lot of gas to get here.”

The house pulls visitors to “sit still for a piece,” as Belle Baldwin might have said.

Freelance writer Kathryn True, a regular contributor to NWWeekend, lives on Vashon Island. Contact her through her Web site,