The right pace of change — somewhere between none and too much too fast — can be a hard balance to strike. But in La Conner, it seems just about right, with expanded dining options and a lively new waterfront.
The right pace of change — somewhere between none and too much too fast — can be a hard balance to strike in a small town that thrives on visitor dollars. But in historic La Conner, population 900, the pace seems just about right.
On the no-change side: There are still no traffic lights. The splendidly turreted, 127-year-old Gaches Mansion continues to dominate the town’s skyline. And the Volunteer Firefighters Museum, built in 1963 in the middle of the town’s shopping district, is still there, allowing you to peer in from the sidewalk at a circa-1850 horse-drawn pumper that helped fight San Francisco’s Great Fire of 1906 before ending up in La Conner (which to this day still has a volunteer fire department).
On the “change” side? La Conner hasn’t always been the place to get the best pierogi in the Northwest, until Anelia’s Kitchen, a Polish restaurant, opened here four years ago. And until one of the Northwest’s best boardwalks opened up every building on the waterfront, it wasn’t a place where you could sit outside at pretty much every restaurant and dine in rock-skipping proximity to the scenic Swinomish Channel.
Nor has La Conner always had so many fine museums. Now, the Gaches Mansion houses the Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, which gracefully melds old and new, spotlighting both classic quilts like the ones your great-grandmother made and the most innovative textile arts of the day (703 S. Second St., $5-$7). Add to that the Museum of Northwest Art, currently exhibiting contemporary Native American artists (through Sept. 23, 121 N. First St.; free). And while the Skagit County Historical Museum is celebrating its 50th year, it still makes its mark, garnering statewide honors for a recent exhibit on how famed Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves came to live and create in the Skagit Valley (501 Fourth St., $4-$5).
What to eat
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In the early 1980s, my wife, Barbara, was La Conner’s town librarian. In those days, the library was a one-room building (it now houses the teddy-bear shop on First Street). The nearby Lighthouse Inn’s outdoor salmon grill sent billows of mouthwatering wood-fired aromas into the library every time the door opened. For the librarian, it was a kind of delectable torture.
The restaurant closed years ago, but its landmark miniature lighthouse remains. Happily, a new tenant, Bob’s Chowder Bar & BBQ Salmon, fired up a grill in the same sidewalk location last fall (512 S. First St.), and La Conner once again smells delicious. As we walked past during a recent visit, the grillmaster offered a free taste of wild-caught sockeye roasted over cherry wood rather than the traditional alder. “We think the oil in the cherry wood gives it a sweeter flavor than alder,” he said.
Hooked, we proceeded to lunch on their deck, where I devoured a salmon wrap with lemon dressing and a sprinkling of wild huckleberries ($9.95). From our table next to the boardwalk, we glimpsed the graceful arch of the town’s trademark Rainbow Bridge. On the narrow saltwater channel separating Fidalgo Island from the mainland, the Swinomish Tribe’s crab boats scuttled past their community’s waterfront park, with its covered pavilions shaped like the tribe’s traditional woven-cedar hats. It was a pleasant place to linger, but we decided to take a pass on Bob’s dessert offering of deep-fried s’mores.
And the pierogies are what will draw me back to La Conner. They’re among the treats at Anelia’s Kitchen and Stage, which opened in 2014 at 513 S. First St. The creation of former Pittsburgh residents Matt Farrell and Jennifer Ferry, the restaurant was inspired by the Polish recipes of Ferry’s grandmother, Anelia.
And oh, the pierogies.
Get them filled with potato and cheese, or mushrooms, or try a Polish/Northwest fusion creation called the Sasquatch, with elk meat, mushrooms, bacon and blue cheese, topped with blackberry sauce ($6-$9 for two). At dinner time, the soft dumplings came with just the perfect light-brown touch of crispness.
“We started using flour from a local mill and it’s just been a game-changer,” said Farrell, who was our server and also tends bar.
Skagit Valley-brewed Farmstrong lager washed down the comfort food nicely. There’s also a choice of innovative cocktails, many featuring house-infused Polish vodkas. Flavorings range from rose to juniper. A small corner is reserved for frequent live music, leaning toward acoustic folk/rock and blues.
Where to shop
Full? There are plenty of galleries and shops worth a browse.
I lost count of the art galleries on First Street. Some of the locations are themselves worth a look, such as neighboring Caravan Gallery and Courtyard Gallery, both in rustic old buildings with small courtyards abutting the natural rock wall that divides First Street from the rest of town on the hill above.
This is a National Historic District, and the Courtyard Gallery occupies what was originally the Bohemian Bar (circa 1898), later the headquarters of a longtime newspaper, the Puget Sound Mail. When we visited, whimsical metal sculpture filled the courtyard. A tiny replica of a Mini Cooper pulling a tiny house trailer lacked only some tiny IT workers wearing Patagonia.
With a newborn great-niece in mind, my wife pulled me into a shop with bunny puppets, bunny onesies and plush bunnies, called Bunnies by the Bay, 719 First St. It wins points for alliteration but not for geography (it’s on a channel, not a bay).
As a travel fiend, I was drawn by Step Outside, 101 S. First St., specializing in shoes for “travel, adventure and coast.” I briefly experienced shoe lust over a pair of $195 Old World-looking hiking boots by Josef Seibel, billed as “the European comfort shoe.” But I suspected I’d strayed into the wrong department when I found the boot style was called “Sandra.”
If you pick up a pair of Sandras, they might go with the smashing leopard-print dress in the window of the Africa Mama gift shop, a recent addition at 105 S. First St. The proprietor, Atiena Kombe, came from a tiny Kenyan village with no electricity or running water.
The local weekly newspaper quoted her about La Conner: “It’s like being in my village but with modern conveniences. People are kind.”
Near the street’s south end, an old favorite shop proves that some good things don’t change. The Wood Merchant, in business for 35 years, continues to offer superb woodwork from artisans from across North America. I drooled over a massive, sturdy rocking chair of South American jatoba wood — they call it Brazilian cherry — made by a Puyallup woodworker.
What to see
In the Museum of Northwest Art’s exhibit of Native American artists, Colville Confederated Tribes member Joe Feddersen’s work titled “Charmed” was captivating. A wide wall of hanging fused-glass figures ranged in subject matter from birds and deer to present-day high-voltage towers, biohazard symbols and a cocktail glass. It was an intriguing juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, dripping like shimmering icicles from the ceiling.
We finished our day beyond the shopping district, visiting something old next to something new. Following Maple Avenue toward the Rainbow Bridge, we turned off and circled through wooded Pioneer Park, an old La Conner landmark that is home to an annual Pioneer Picnic.
Continuing downhill brought us to Conner Street and the year-old Conner Waterfront Park in the bridge’s shadow, a pleasant new strip of picnic tables with grills and a playground on the site of a defunct cannery, demolished for environmental and safety reasons.
A pocket beach for launching kayaks is planned. A highlight for children is a hollow 13-foot-long figure of a salmon with a slide inside. Kids slide in the mouth and come out, well, the other end.
Now there’s a change that’s easy to smile about,
If you go
Getting there: La Conner is about 65 miles from Seattle. From Interstate 5 in Skagit County, take Exit 221 (signed for Conway and La Conner), go through Conway and follow signs to La Conner (via Fir Island Road, Best Road and Chilberg Road).
More information: La Conner Chamber of Commerce, lovelaconner.com