Bellingham hosts a small collection of truly unusual and fascinating museums you just won’t find elsewhere in the Northwest, along with charming Victorian-era neighborhoods, scores of independently owned restaurants and shops, and a culture that equally prizes culture and landscape. Home to Western Washington University, the town is a great weekend escape for couples or families ready for all of the above, and more.
Most of Bellingham’s museums are in the downtown Cultural Arts District, where parking is plentiful. Park and walk from museum to museum for the best experience.
Mindport is perhaps one of the most aesthetically soothing museum experiences in the world. Within the light-filled room, each interactive exhibit is handcrafted, often out of wood, metal, glass or other materials, and offers opportunities to explore the senses — sight, sound, touch — alongside science. Examples include a handsome wooden Morse code machine, mirrors allowing visitors to create giant kaleidoscopic images, and a curious musical instrument or two that literally anyone can play.
The SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention is dedicated to the energy source, from Edison bulbs to a static electricity lab to a nine-foot-tall, 4.5-million-volt Tesla coil. The latter, nicknamed the MegaZapper, is showcased in the weekend’s “MegaZapper Electrical Show,” featuring 12-foot lightning bolts.
The Whatcom Museum plays host to a variety of exhibits for all ages, including the Family Interactive Gallery, and the Lightcatcher Building, so named for its sunlight-infused 37-foot-tall translucent wall running 180 feet long. Right now, the Lightcatcher Building is showing Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Stories of Native American Women; an exhibit from 57 glass artists, and photographs from Duwamish Tribe member Jac Trautman.
If in town on Saturday, visitors can find fresh produce and prepared foods at the Bellingham Farmers Market, including Caribbean dishes, Chinese dumplings, Filipino, barbecue (meat and vegan), wood-fired pizza and tamales, among others. For dessert, head to local favorite Mallard Ice Cream for cones of intense flavor, including root beer, rhubarb, peanut butter whiskey and “Super Vanilla” with the pop of Madagascar and Tahitian extracts.
Downtown Bellingham also offers opportunities to pet a cat at Neko Cat Cafe, do some day-pass bouldering at Vital Climbing Gym, play some old-school video games at Ruckus, and browse comic book shops and used-book stores.
After spending the day in downtown Bellingham, a restful night is in order. While chain motels offer basic options near the freeway, several boutique picks stand out. About 40 minutes north of Bellingham along the U.S.-Canada border, Semiahmoo Resort offers westward waterview rooms of the scenic Salish Sea. Semiahmoo offers a serene experience in winter but is bustling with activities in summer. The resort can help arrange a number of activities on-site or nearby, including spa treatments, golfing, fitness classes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, vintner dinners and many walking trails nearby (pick up a map at the front desk).
About 12 minutes south of downtown Bellingham is the Fairhaven Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Gas fireplaces and rooms San Juan Island-view rooms are lovely at the 22-room Fairhaven Village Inn, as is the fact that it’s easy to walk out the door and explore Fairhaven Village’s streets and park square.
The library lounge’s wingback chairs are a fine place to rejuvenate, as are the second-floor porch rocking chairs. Upon arrival, guests at Fairhaven Village Inn are offered a metal key to bring to the on-site Galloway’s Cocktail Bar for the evening’s special offer, such as a complimentary snack or seasonal discount.
Nearby, the upscale Chrysalis Inn and Spa sits waterside, with remarkable views of Bellingham Bay and direct access to South Bay Trail, which connects downtown Bellingham and the Fairhaven Historic District.
The next morning, explore the Victorian-era neighborhood, rich in architecture and history. Red brick buildings lay on Fairhaven’s sloping hill and host independent shops, cafes and restaurants. Wande the streets for pottery painting, art markets and photo galleries, and food. Breakfast might be taken at Old Town Cafe, and lunch at Boundary Bay Brewery.
Village Books is a two-story granddaddy of a bookstore, selling books, of course — but also a curated collection of locally made items at sister store Paper Dreams, including fudge, bath and body products, cards, candles, journals and kitchenware.
Those seeking a more active vacation — but want to avoid crowds — might investigate the area’s new tours. Moondance Sea Kayak Adventures is taking beginners out on the water to learn kayak-navigation basics and paddling techniques, along with trips ranging from half-day to multiday. Bike Northwest pedals on new agricultural tours through rural Whatcom County, while the organization Recreation Northwest is offering unique small-group tours, including outdoor cooking clinics.
If you’d prefer to go on a self-guided driving tour, the 20-mile Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway, just south of Bellingham, is an ever-popular Northwest cruise. The drive threads along the steep Chuckanut mountains, with gorgeous views of the Olympic range and Lummi Island, past a shellfish farm, farm-to-table cafes, tide pools, art galleries and the Larrabee State Park.
Chuckanut Drive is a bit of a mild nail-biter to navigate, hundreds of feet above sea level — so it’s best if one person drives and the other acts as stop-finder. Be sure to reverse driver-passenger positions for the route back … in case you’ve decided to stay an extra night.
Travel Notes: The pandemic might feel over, emotionally — particularly if you’re vaccinated — but respect local guidance and businesses if asked or required to mask up. Not all attractions or restaurants may choose to open at full capacity. Or they may be very full of post-COVID visitors. To avoid disappointment, make reservations wherever possible, call in advance to confirm open hours and any requirements, and keep your plans open to changes.
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