We could all use a vacation right now. Whether we need a break from a depressing news cycle, home schooling madness, the never-ending workday occasioned by work from home, or a front-line job we didn’t expect would lend itself to battlefield metaphors, the rejuvenation that comes from a getaway has never been more alluring.
Unfortunately, right now isn’t the time.
Washington is still in Phase 1 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington plan, a phased approach to reopening the state’s economy while keeping a lid on the coronavirus. Nonessential travel is not permitted until the third phase, which the state could reach June 22 at the very earliest, provided public health data and metrics suggest it is safe.
So as travel restrictions eventually loosen, what will trips look like?
When that much-awaited day comes, Washington’s hospitality and tourism industry — hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, as has been the case for the international travel industry — will be ready to accommodate Seattleites and Washingtonians, because everyone expects this will be the summer of the staycation.
“With interstate and international travel down for a few years, one way you can help Washington and also have a great family vacation is to rediscover your own state,” said Anthony Anton, Washington Hospitality Association CEO.
So when it is safe to do so, where should the Seattleite desperate for a vacation go, and how can they be respectful of visitors when they get there? Largely by focusing on the outdoor destinations that define the Pacific Northwest’s stunning natural beauty; considering self-contained lodging like cabins and camper vans alongside the region’s locally owned and operated hotels and resorts that are taking extra cleaning precautions; and by following public health guidelines in the counties they visit.
“In what other place in the world can you go on a wine tour, hike on a glacier, climb near an active volcano, fish incredible lakes, watch for orcas and visit a rainforest? You can fill your summer with some pretty amazing weekend road trips,” Anton said. “People got used to the ability to go to Disneyland or Hawaii for a vacation, but a lot of people haven’t really experienced Washington yet. My own kids have never been to Mount St. Helens.”
Rediscovering Washington state
With fewer out-of-state and international visitors expected this summer, the peak travel season in the Pacific Northwest, easier-to-snag reservations should abound when people start to venture out from home. The Methow Valley, nestled at the eastern end of the North Cascades Highway (state Route 20), cleared and reopened for the year May 12, is one place that expects visitors to come back in force this summer for hiking, biking and horseback riding on local trails, plus fishing in the mountain-fed rivers.
Methow Reservations, a Winthrop company that manages 130 nightly rentals, has canceled $700,000 worth of bookings since the pandemic started. But that hasn’t stopped a daily barrage of inquiries about when it will reopen booking cabins and vacation homes — the type of escape perfect for a family to have a self-isolating vacation.
On May 13, Okanogan County gave the green light to nightly rentals after a two-month pause. “We are going to be slammed,” said co-owner Kathleen Jardin. “People love the Methow Valley and they want to come so bad.” With the rise in remote work options, Jardin said she has fielded many requests for multimonth stays.
Each property owner that rents through Methow Reservations already hires a professional cleaning company. Jardin hopes Okanogan County Public Health eventually hands down a cleaning checklist in order to standardize how lodging is kept hygienic. For example, the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce is putting together a 23-page set of protocols for lodging, retail and restaurants based on industry recommendations and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Up in the air
TreeHouse Point, the collection of whimsical treehouses available for nightly rentals in Fall City, about 30 minutes outside Seattle, hopes to reopen by the end of June. In addition to adopting a more rigorous cleaning program, the property is canceling its in-room refresh during stays so no staff member enters during a guest’s reservation. Instructions and maps will be sent ahead of time to facilitate contact-free check-in, which imperils the personal touch of hospitality professionals like innkeepers and concierges. Unfortunately, this is likely a new trend.
But the notoriously difficult-to-book treehouses may be easier for locals to snag this summer, as manager Bree Monahan says out-of-state cancellations are way up. Mindful of tighter budgets heading into a recession, Monahan says TreeHouse Point will consider waiving its two-night minimum.
On the islands
Popular but more remote destinations like the San Juan Islands are still an open question. Fearful of increasing its low COVID-19 case count, San Juan County is prohibiting all nonessential stays in lodging until at least May 31, when Inslee’s current stay-home order is set to expire.
Anna Maria de Freitas, who owns the San Juan Inn Collection and Coho Restaurant in Friday Harbor, expects weekends will be full but weekdays less so, more akin to shoulder season than a typically packed summer. Even though island life will likely be more subdued than normal — fewer or no events like Living History Days at the San Juan Island National Historical Park or Doe Bay Fest on Orcas Island — visitors will be grateful for the respite.
“I believe they are less concerned about activities once they are here but looking for much-needed mental meditation from the media,” de Freitas said.
That said, visitors should still mask up when venturing to island downtowns or shuttling to activities, when that day comes. San Juan County adopted a mandatory masking ordinance May 15. Such local policies are reminders that, unfortunately, all communities are vulnerable to COVID-19, and a getaway does not mean a vacation from public health vigilance. The new normal is here to stay. Or, as Anton said, “You might have someone serving you ice cream in shorts, T-shirt and a mask — but it will still be great ice cream.”
In case canned goods and toilet paper are not reliably stocked once nonessential travel resumes, bringing those items from the mainland would be an appreciated gesture. Produce, however, will be abundant during the summer months with gardens and farms in full swing.
Another popular summer destination typically reached by boat, tiny Stehekin at the head of Lake Chelan welcomes visitors. The slow but stately Lady of the Lake and the faster, sleeker Stehekin Ferry are both up and running this month for the summer season, albeit with reduced passenger capacity to accommodate physical distancing and mandatory temperature checks, according to Discover Lake Chelan customer experience director Krissa Jester. The surrounding North Cascades National Park remains closed as of this writing (Mount Rainier National Park remains closed to private vehicles and Olympic is reopening in phases), but local lodging like Stehekin Valley Ranch will open Memorial Day weekend, as will the mouthwatering Stehekin Pastry Company.
For those missing the ambience of main street, Leavenworth hopes it will be able to deliver a less-thriving version of its Bavarian charm this summer, even if that means biergartens won’t be packed shoulder to shoulder. “We’re working with the city to get traffic blocked off from the downtown core so that it opens up wide areas for people to walk with safe distancing and allows small shops to spill out onto the sidewalk,” said Paula Helsel, who is on the board of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce.
Helsel is also general manager of the Sleeping Lady, a rustic chic resort on the outskirts of Leavenworth that hopes its 67 acres will entice visitors looking for elbow room. The resort will take advantage of its ample outdoor space to allow some on-site dining to move outside with servers replacing buffets while creating extra space for dining and lodging. Lounging is sure to be a popular pursuit this summer at the resort’s newly renovated pool, but how to limit access while accommodating all guests is still a work in progress. In addition to spacing out guests, the resort is instituting heightened sanitation practices for services and lodging.
Hot springs, camper vans and more road trips
Those kinds of shared relaxation amenities are likewise a challenge for the main attraction at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Detroit, Oregon. While setting a strict time limit on the fabled soaking pools would be anathema — says marketing director Brinton Foy Reed, “the vibe at Breitenbush is not about checking your watch” — bathing parties will be asked to adhere to a 15-to-20-minute rule, especially if other groups are waiting. The cooperatively owned and managed retreat center intends to build a number of individual and dual tubs to allow more unfettered access. Near Snoqualmie Pass, Goldmyer Hot Springs, one of Seattle’s best outdoor day trips, plans to reopen after June 15 with dedicated time slots for visiting groups holding reservations, but no overnight camping.
When and whether state and federal campgrounds will reopen this summer is unknown, but Wallingford resident and Peace Vans owner Harley Sitner is confident that his 20-strong fleet of rental Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz camper vans will, as he puts it, “save summer.”
Between the company’s own campgrounds on the Olympic Peninsula or private ones that are reserving spots for Peace Vans, Sitner has crafted five custom Pacific Northwest loops leaving from the company’s Sodo berth. He has reduced booking minimums from six to four nights and shortened the cancellation policy from 30 to 14 days. Campers are available starting June 15 now that a slew of summer cancellations have opened up the calendar. He filmed a 30-minute tutorial to orient customers on how to operate the van without needing an in-person, close-quarters tour, and he runs ozone machines for two hours as part of deeper cleanings between rentals. He is even considering a rental option where the van comes prestocked with supplies.
“We’re trying to make it so easy for stressed-out parents to rent a van with one click,” said Sitner, the father of a 10-year-old daughter. “Even if you only get four nights in a camper van, they’re going to be a magical four nights. We’re just trying to save people’s summers and give them something to feel good about.”
How to get around this summer
As the transportation hub for the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is blessed with multimodal options galore — from seaplanes to ferries to everything in between. But a lot of those conveyances are going to operate differently this summer. For those looking to get around through some option besides their own private car, here is a brief rundown on the current state of play.
Rental cars are available in abundance right now with so much out-of-state travel to the region canceled. Memorial Day weekend rental costs are down 52% from usual as of this writing, according to search engine Kayak, and companies have upped their already robust cleaning game to disinfect high-touch services. But be careful about making rental plans far into the future: industry giant Hertz is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and industry analysts worry rival Avis may not be far behind. In-town hourly rental service Zipcar does not clean cars between every driver, so users are encouraged to sanitize high-touch services themselves. However, it has launched a new service available in Seattle called Dedicated Zipcar that allows users to rent a car for their exclusive use from Monday-Friday (starting at $249/month) or Monday-Sunday (starting at $650/month), which includes gas, insurance and parking.
Just last year, a Washington state commission was debating the need for a second airport to alleviate overcrowding at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Today, our once busy airport is down to 5% of its passengers from the same time last year. Despite a slow start to adopting new public health protocols to protect the traveling public, masking is now mandatory for passengers and employees, lines have been stretched out, hand sanitizer stations have been installed and temperature checks are on the way. All of the major airlines that fly out of Sea-Tac, including our hometown carrier Alaska Airlines, now require passengers to wear masks to board. Airport amenities remain limited, however, with many eateries, shops and lounges closed until further notice.
JetSuiteX has canceled its Seattle service out of Boeing Field, but locally based seaplane operator Kenmore Air will be back up and running for nonessential flights starting June 15. Scheduled service will be limited as flights will be capped at 50% capacity, but the airline is pushing special charter pricing, which could be an economical way for a large family to experience this best-of-the-northwest way to travel.
Regional ground and water travel has likewise been affected, especially as the U.S.-Canada border remains indefinitely closed to nonessential travel, which puts British Columbia off the table for now. Black Ball Ferry’s M/V Coho has suspended all sailings between Port Angeles and Victoria, B.C., until at least July. Due to reduced demand, Washington State Ferries is operating its winter schedule until June 21, which nixes the Port Townsend-Coupeville and Anacortes-Sidney, B.C., routes, the latter of which is also dependent on the border reopening. WSF requests all passengers remain in the vehicle, and that walk-on passengers practice physical distancing. Galleys are closed for the time being, but high-touch services are disinfected regularly.
Amtrak Cascades service between Vancouver, B.C., and Eugene, Oregon, has been reduced to just one round trip per day with no service north of Seattle. Long-distance service on the scenic Coast Starlight (Seattle-Los Angeles) and Empire Builder (Seattle-Chicago) is still running, however, and Amtrak has adopted enhanced cleaning protocols and adopted a mandatory masking policy.
Flix Bus is not operating its low-fare routes from Seattle until at least June 4. Greyhound service remains normal in the Northwest, but subsidiary BoltBus has suspended service south of Portland. Cloth face masks are now required on BoltBus and Greyhound. Even so, hopping on the bus or train for a weekend trip to Portland frankly won’t offer much to do this summer without live music, outdoor festivals and bustling breweries. The city’s famed dining scene faces the same uncertain future as Seattle’s — even some food truck pods have closed down. But one strip club has gotten creative; Lucky Devil Lounge started a drive-thru takeout service (must be 18 or older).