Eat well. Take a nap. Read a book. And enjoy the beauty of Washington’s tiny, bucolic Lummi Island.
Lummi Island doesn’t seem to know it’s famous. Just five years after chef Blaine Wetzel came from Copenhagen’s vaunted Noma to the island’s Willows Inn, many consider the restaurant there the finest fine-dining in the Pacific Northwest, if not among the best restaurants in the country.
But you still get to Lummi Island, bordering the San Juans west of Bellingham, by a tiny, open-air, anti-pretentious and adorable car ferry. The crossing takes 5 minutes, and the island is only 9 square miles.
Lummi has one resolutely ungentrified general store, with patchy linoleum and the most basic stuff in stock; people lean their bicycles up against the building, not bothering with locks. It has two restaurants besides the Willows, one of which is open five days a week, the other only three.
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The island isn’t exactly rife with amusements: no bars, no theaters, no attempts to soak up some of the money that travels with those who patronize the Willows Inn. A website for one of the island’s private vacation rentals suggests, under “Island Activities,” that you write postcards and mail them from the Lummi post office — not exactly sizzling entertainment.
But Lummi is an incontrovertibly lovely place, with lush firs, verdant farms and sparkling or befogged water views (which sometimes, if you’re lucky, include pods of orcas). For those who are content with a view and a book, a bike or a hike, it’s a quiet paradise, the kind of place that the year-rounders and summer-place owners probably wish you’d stay away from.
If you’re driving on the island and people walking along the road slowly flap their hands at about waist-height at you, it’s not a special Lummi Island wave: They’re telling you to slow down. (The speed limit, by the way, is 25.) And why not? There’s nowhere to which to race, and relaxingly little to do.
Here are five suggestions for Lummi activities beyond The Willows Inn and besides writing postcards — almost all I could find.
1. Eat at Beach Store Cafe
In a sweet little old-fashioned house very near the ferry dock, this place has a clear-day view of Mount Baker that’s majestic. The room is airy, with hardwood floors and an open kitchen, plus a very pleasant porch-deck.
The evening I stopped by, a pickup pulled up in front, then confidently and rapidly reversed, attempting to round the corner of the building but instead connecting with it. There was a bang and a shake, followed by peering out and concerned clucking among the clientele.
“I can’t believe you guys came in here after that,” laughed one of the servers when the guys who’d just smashed into the porch came in. They laughed, too, blamed their power steering and picked up a pizza, expressing the hope that word wouldn’t get out about the incident.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not going to stop in these walls!” the server said.
There was no damage of substance, but it still might be the most exciting thing to happen on Lummi all summer.
A very fresh and tasty small house salad with apples, yellow beets, pumpkin seeds and blue cheese cost $5, and cioppino loaded with shrimp, cod, salmon, mussels, tiny clams, orange-caper gremolata and grilled bread was a bargain at $14 (especially compared with the prices at The Willows Inn). beachstorecafe.com
Tip: The Beach Store Cafe is closed Tuesday and Wednesday; Lummi’s other moderately priced restaurant, the (very small) SauseBurger Stand (sauseburger.com), is open Friday through Sunday only; and, as aforementioned, the grocery store’s selection is limited. Bring your own food and drink accordingly.
2. Ride a bike
A two-lane road with little traffic, only a few gentle hills and almost unbearably pretty scenery — with the smells of fields and forest and ocean — make Lummi a cyclist’s dream. You’ll very likely see deer and rabbits, and those interested in birds should take care not to run off the road craning their necks at all the species flitting or soaring about.
If you set out for a sunset ride, make sure you’ve got it timed right to be back before dark — Lummi doesn’t have streetlights, and failing a full moon, nighttime makes for hazardous biking.
On the up side, if you get caught by nightfall like I did, some nice islander will probably take pity on you, throw your bike in the back of their truck and give you a ride. And if you’re staying, as I was, at Jacques’ Point Cottage, your temporary landlady will probably have left you both a voice mail and an email expressing concern about your safety. People on Lummi care, even about stupid tourists.
Tip: Check to see whether your lodgings have bikes; otherwise, you’ll need to BYOB. If you prefer hiking, find details about the three preserves maintained by the Lummi Island Heritage Trust online (liht.org) or just ask around.
3. Look for the petroglyph
It’s said there’s an ancient rock carving somewhere at Lummi Island’s westward-facing Sunset Beach, apparently of a face. It’s said that it may mark a spot where long-ago Lummi natives kept a lookout.
I walked up and down the beach, and also climbed around extensively on the rocks at its north end — the tide pools that form in their deep cracks are filled with gorgeous sea anemones and all manner of other creatures. No one else was around. I never found the petroglyph, but I didn’t much care.
Tip: The entrance to Sunset Beach is across the road and a very short walk south from the Willows Inn — the path down to the water is marked by a sign. Be careful walking on seaweed on the rocks; it’s extremely slippery.
4. Contemplate existence
Lummi invites contemplation overall, but two places there are particularly suited to it.
A.) The labyrinth at the Lummi Island Congregational Church: Back in the woods behind this very picturesque white clapboard church is a labyrinth, which the congregation is generous enough to share with those of any (or no) faith.
No spoilers, but if you’re imagining a hedgerow affair, your expectations will be confounded. Keep going, and you’ll find a path down to the church’s beach, which it also magnanimously makes available to all. (If you’d like to contemplate the nature of the end of existence, the Lummi Island Cemetery — established 1914, but with some headstones older than that — is adjacent to the church.)
B.) Windy Hill Art Sculpture Park (windyhillart.com): In the field behind the red barnlike building of Windy Hill Art is an 8-acre sculpture park, which is open to anyone who’s interested in wind, hills, art, sculpture or parks.
Given a breeze, the metal sculptures make strange noises, and you might surprise birds that’ll explode up out of the grass. When you find “Gazing Maze,” a shiny box mounted on a pole, be sure to look in its holes and flip its switches around.
Tip: One can only imagine that visitors to both the labyrinth and Windy Hill have been partaking in marijuana since long before it became legal in Washington state.
5. Meet your dinner
Not many people would plan this as part of a getaway, but if you’re not like many people and you eat chicken, you may want to consider meeting — and meating — your dinner.
Riley Starks is the former owner of The Willows Inn; since 1992, he’s run Nettles Farm (nettlesfarm.com) up the hill, where he raises heirloom-breed chickens. His butchery workshops give hands-on experience in humane killing, plucking and gutting. He doesn’t deny that it can be difficult.
“I’ve had people cry,” Starks says.
But he’s also had many people thank him for deepening their understanding of, and respect for, the birds that they eat.
Tip: If you’d just like to buy a Nettles Farm chicken that’s ready to cook, that can be arranged instead. Starks could probably also give you guidance in finding Lummi Island’s petroglyph.
If you go
Take Exit 260 from Interstate 5 and head for the Gooseberry Point terminal for the 20-vehicle Whatcom Chief ferry ( co.whatcom.wa.us/382/Ferry), which crosses to Lummi in 5 minutes (car with driver, $13 round-trip). Note: Due to maintenance, ferry service will be passenger-only Sept. 10-30, 2015, with bicycles allowed. See website for details.
• Beach Store Cafe, 360-758-2233 / beachstorecafe.com
• SauseBurger Stand, 360-319-0155 / sauseburger.com
• The Willows Inn, 360-758-2620 / willows-inn.com.
Lummi by the numbers
• The island is 9 square miles.
• About 1,000 people live on Lummi.
Tour artists’ studios
Lummi Island Artists’ Studio Tour is Sept. 5-6, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tour maps will be available at The Islander Store, just south of the ferry dock.
Where to stay on Lummi
The Willows Inn offers seven cozy, recently updated rooms in its main building ranging from $240 to $485 a night.
Nearby accommodations it rents out include a cottage, beach house and more, ranging from $385 to $645 a night.
More information: 360-758-2620 or willows-inn.com.
Jacques’ Point Cottage is a well-appointed studio cabin. It’s walking distance from the ferry with an impressive water view. From $125 a night; vrbo.com/442341
Accommodations at quiet, bucolic Nettles Farm include a farmhouse suite and a farmhouse for $149 or $185, depending on the season. 360-758-7616 or nettlesfarm.com.