Sea, mountains, islands and ferries, with good food and a fun bike ride.

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Editor’s note: Got college loans to pay? Are Seattle rents pinching your pocketbook? This recurring feature, $99 Road Trip, is for anyone on a budget. We’ve taken a day trip from Seattle to see just how much fun two people can have for less than a hundred bucks.


ANACORTES — As the sun started to sink on our day in and around Anacortes, we stood on Sunset Beach in the city’s Washington Park, staring out over bright blue Rosario Strait. Baby waves rose and lapped gently on the rocks and sand. We heard two deep honks and the San Juan Islands ferry appeared, cutting across the water and into the evening.

I declared it the best view of the day, although … maybe it was the second best after Mount Erie, the highest point in the area. From the top, we had a glorious view of white-cloaked Mount Baker to the northeast, and to the south, Mount Rainier, which seemed to float above a bank of clouds.

But then there was the stunning view from Washington Park’s South Bluffs, which overlook Burrows Channel and Burrows Island — a spot so nice that one early resident donated the land for a park, and ordered his tomb be set in a prime spot. We lingered to watch a dozen gulls soar, and what was probably a porpoise appearing and then disappearing in the water below.

If we had visited Anacortes on a gray, rainy day, we still would have found plenty to do. The downtown has historic buildings, a museum, dozens of murals, and many restaurants and shops.

But we’d scored a sunny sky and found ourselves enjoying viewpoint after viewpoint, a day’s worth of million-dollar vistas for $99.

Starting from scratch

We knew little of Anacortes’ scenic riches before we started. Here’s how our day unfolded:

We set out from Seattle around 10 a.m. after sleeping in. (It was a day off, after all.)

Once in Anacortes, we headed straight to Skagit Cycle (1620 Commercial Ave.;, on Anacortes’ main drag. After arranging for a two-hour bike rental, we decided to start our ride on a full stomach, so headed a little further into town to Gere-a-Deli (502 Commercial Ave.,, a cheery breakfast/lunch spot owned by the city’s mayor. It occupies an old brick building with high ceilings, large windows and a museum’s worth of old metal advertising signs for Wonder Bread, Carnation Ice Cream, BubbleUp and a few soft drinks I’d forgotten existed.

Eager to get biking, we split the lunch special, a turkey sandwich with mustard, mayonnaise and apples on a French roll, a very tasty and hearty snack for two of us ($5.65 for the sandwich, $1.50 for a bottle of water for the bike ride, and 61 cents tax).

Back at the bike shop, we paid for rentals ($10/hour for two hours, a total of $40 for two, plus $3.40 tax) and headed toward the Tommy Thompson Trail, named after a railroad hobbyist who built and ran a narrow-gauge train in town for decades. (It starts at 11th Street and Q Avenue.)

Running total for our budget travel day: $51.16

Trail through history

The Tommy Thompson Trail follows the path of an old rail line that, at one time, city leaders hoped would be the hub of a transcontinental railroad. That never came to pass, but local trains ran on it for decades. In the mid-1990s the city turned it into a wide paved path that runs about 3 miles past boatyards and an RV park, and over an old railway trestle across Fidalgo Bay to March Point, where there are two oil refineries. Interpretive signs dot the way, outlining Anacortes’ history.

The view from the trestle was pleasant but not as dramatic as what was to come. Before surrendering our bikes, we rode back through town to Marine Supply & Hardware at 202 Commercial Ave., a 100-plus-year-old institution. It lived up to its reputation as a place stuffed with an eccentric collection of goods — everything needed for operating and living on a boat, and more.

“You have almost everything here,” I said, browsing through the housewares section with shelves full of plates, mugs and cast-iron pots.

“We’ve heard that,” one of the clerks said. So clearly not the most original comment — but true. There were belts of all sizes, oil lamps, bilge pumps, crab pots, buoys, charts, heavy-duty rain gear — even a coffin. Yep, I confirmed it — a real, wooden coffin, hanging from the rafters. And a store cat, of course, a brown feline named Fauna.

And a “mosquito zapper” in a yellowing box, unearthed from the store’s basement. Another clerk declared he would sell it that afternoon, then jokingly tried to get us to buy it for $4, then $2 — or just take it away for free. I was much more tempted by the brass ship’s bells but decided to save money for dinner later.

Running total, despite temptations: Still $51.16

Island’s high point

After returning our bikes, we stopped briefly at the free Anacortes Museum (1305 Eighth St.), housed in a former Carnegie Library, where you can learn that the town was named for Anne Curtis, an early settler whose name underwent a certain blenderization to produce “Anacortes.” We then drove a few miles out to Mount Erie, a must stop on such a clear day (at Ray Auld Drive and Heart Lake Road).

At 1,273 feet, it is the highest point on Fidalgo Island, its summit at the end of a steep, narrow road. We thought about hiking to the top, but abandoned that plan after hearing there were no views along the way and the map was, at best, confusing. So we parked at the top and wandered around several viewpoints looking east and south — more million-dollar views for free; we didn’t even have to pay for a parking pass.

The mountain drops off steeply, so it feels as if you’re looking straight down at Campbell Lake and the surrounding fields and homes. This was surely the grandest view of the day — with Rainier and Baker and more of the Cascades, and the lake and fields and many islands.

By the time we left, it was going on 5 p.m., but we decided to go to Washington Park before dinner — one writer had called it her favorite spot (entrance at 6300 Sunset Ave.). This 220-acre city park, with camping, a boat launch and picnic sites, occupies a peninsula at the end of the road, just beyond the Washington State Ferries terminal, and easily overlooked if you’ve only ever gone to Anacortes to catch a ferry.

We drove the 2.2-mile road that circles the peninsula, with forests to the left and views of the water, the San Juans and Olympic Mountains to the right.

Stopping at the South Bluffs was an afterthought, just to see why others parked there. But the scenery! We had Tonjes Havekost to thank for it, a former hotel owner who donated eight of the park’s acres for public use, and as a place for his tomb. We could have spent much more time there — but hunger was starting to nag.

Before leaving, we stopped at Sunset Beach. The view again drew us in — of Rosario Strait and the islands beyond, dark blue hulks rising out of blue water.

A woman sat on the curb, taking in the scene, with her small, black-and-white dog on a leash. A man with graying temples occupied a nearby bench.

We had to pull ourselves away — and when we reached the parking lot, I looked back. The woman was gone, but the man hadn’t moved.

Running total, counting visual riches: Still $51.16.

Chowder time

It was almost 7 p.m. We drove back downtown, to the A’Town Bistro, a restaurant first recommended by Skagit Cycle’s owner and then by two sets of patrons who were leaving as we perused the menu outside. Three recommendations were enough for us (418 Commercial Ave.,

We ordered the Made to Order Clam Chowder, which had fresh clams from Taylor Shellfish, cured bacon, potatoes, vegetables and a rich, creamy broth ($16 per bowl x 2 = $32 plus $3.72 tax for a total of $35.72).

Running total: $86.88.

If we’d had a few more dollars, we’d have ordered one of the dozen or so beers on tap. Instead, we toasted with our water glasses, thanked Havekost for the South Bluffs, and whoever preserved Sunset Beach and Mount Erie, and all the people who labored on the Tommy Thompson trestle and trail.

To finish our day’s accounting, we added gas costs: $12.93 for 176 miles of driving, averaging 32 miles per gallon, with a cost of $2.35 per gallon (the Seattle metro area’s average price at this writing).

Grand total: $99.81, plus tips where appropriate.

Perfect! A big-value day for a bargain price.

If you go

Getting there

From the Seattle area, take Interstate 5 north to Skagit County. Exit to Highway 20 at Burlington and follow 20 west to Anacortes. About 90 minutes in light traffic.

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Tips, discretionary by nature, aren’t included in this accounting. Keep some extra bucks in your pocket to show appreciation at the tip jar.

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