Ferried Away

Get on board for a weekend of bike touring on bucolic Vashon Island.

By Ariana Dawes September 16, 2009 Published in the October 2009 issue of Seattle Met

I’VE TOOLED AROUND SEATTLE for the past four years without a car—after all, I’m a native New Yorker. And when vacation time comes, I seek travel that requires only my bike and my bus pass. Last year, while planning a three-day weekend trip for me and my travel partner, I discovered Vashon Island, only 20 minutes away by ferry. A little research revealed artists’ studios and quaint shops in the town of Vashon, rugged mountain-biking and hiking trails, a nine-hole golf course, 45 miles of shoreline…and, best of all, a rustic cottage at the Artist’s Studio Loft Bed and Breakfast.

I asked longtime Seattleites for their take on what looked like an ideal vacation spot. It’s nice! one insisted. It’s mostly farms and suburban homes, another stated flatly. Noncommittal near-recommendations that suggested no crowds and a casual environment where you could get away with wearing jeans and bike gear.

To locals, a trip to the island, located between Seattle and Tacoma in the Heart of the Sound, might be akin to spending a vacation in your own backyard with a kiddie pool and a portable TV. But my apartment doesn’t have a backyard or a kiddie pool, and farm-filled, bridgeless Vashon beckoned. (Residents of the island have resisted bridges for fear their rural enclave would “Mercerize.” When one was proposed in the early 1990s, a young King County councilman named Greg Nickels wrote a letter supporting the islanders and opposing the bridge.)

A bus can get you from Belltown to Vashon on the Fauntleroy ferry in an hour. When the ferry pulls into the slip at Vashon’s north end, downtown’s towers disappear behind the green peninsula of West Seattle, and you are transported. The five-mile ride to town, like most on the island, provides an excellent workout with many ascents and descents amid moderate to light traffic. From the landing, the tree-shrouded road winds uphill for two solid miles. (If that sounds daunting, stay on the bus, which continues into Vashon.) At the three-and-a-half-mile mark, you can hang a right at Southwest 156th Street and take a breather at the Vashon Winery (call in advance). When you arrive in the town of Vashon—which boasts roughly two blocks’ worth of retail shops, restaurants, galleries, a bookstore, a tearoom, and a farmers market—car traffic grows heavier but moves at a bike- and pedestrian-friendly small-town pace.

We leaned right at Southwest Gorsuch Road and carved the final, curvy, mostly downhill mile to the Artist’s Studio Loft Bed and Breakfast, spotting a deer at one turn and waving at the occasional passing car (a habit we picked up while touring Lopez Island). The B&B’s hand-carved shingle hung at the edge of a pasture. A bay-colored horse grazed in the neighboring field, flicking its tail and emitting low, sibilant snorts. The innkeeper, Jacqueline Clayton, greeted us, and we exchanged pleasantries as we padded alongside her—over stepping stones she made herself, in the shape of rhubarb leaves—to the meadow behind the main house, where the B&B’s four cottages are set.

Clayton, a painter and glass artist, bought five acres of what she calls “empty pasture with falling-down chicken coops” in 1993, and then began planting hundreds of trees and crafting gardens on the land. An avid traveler who’s now staying put, Clayton reconnects with her wanderlust here, through the guests at her inn. The original art studio, above the carport, became the first guest room; the cottages followed. Clayton and two other artists have decorated the rooms and grounds with their stained-glass art and mosaics, oil and watercolor paintings, handcrafted barn-wood furniture, and metal ivy gates.

She warned us not to let the inn’s cats in the cottage, no matter how much they begged. Then, smiling, she wished us a good stay and left us to our devices—a TV with DVD-VCR combo, a whirlpool tub, and a gas fireplace.

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The living’s easy at the Vashon Tea Shop.

We left our abode to amble amid the humble splendor of the grassy grounds and gardens, where maple, birch, cedar, alder, and cypress trees hide robins and woodpeckers and songbirds. We hoped to catch a glimpse of blue herons or eagles (we didn’t). From a pond behind the cottage, a lone frog chirped a lullaby at night.

In the mornings, the inn provided breakfast: muffins, cereal, granola bars, and fruit. (Clayton makes a sit-down breakfast for guests staying in the main house.) One of the inn’s cats, Myra, every bit as insistent as Clayton had warned, purred as we stroked her soft gray coat. She prowled the cottages for human attention and stalked the field.

For lunch we tucked in at the Hardware Store, the place to eat. Set in Vashon’s oldest commercial building, the restaurant charms with a worn wooden floor, exposed brick, a full bar, and deep booths. At the back of the room, a coffee bar steams and whistles out Americanos and lattes. Families with young kids and teenagers, techie business lunchers, day tourists, couples, old friends, and regulars convene to enjoy pancakes, scrambles, and home fries at breakfast and tasty items like a portabello or an open-face fish sandwich, which are satisfying for lunch. Or, for a more intimate midday meal, diners can order a bottle of wine to wash down a porchetta sandwich at La Boucherie, a seven-table restaurant and butcher shop serving lunch—and five-course dinners—on Fridays and Saturdays.

The Icon burger at the Hardware Store.

An afternoon tour of the east side of the island includes sights such as the famed Bicycle Eaten by a Tree—a Douglas fir that’s grown around a rusty Schwinn—and, near the town of Burton, the Judd Creek Bridge, which provides a tree-framed view of Quartermaster Harbor, Maury Island, and the Sound beyond. Peer down into the muddy bank of the creek where a mysterious, massive wooden barge decays, apparently abandoned. From here, Maury Island’s picturesque Point Robinson Lighthouse is another five miles to the east.

We’d had enough exertion. So the next day we avoided all nonessential physical activity and slipped into the Vashon Bookshop, where I fished an impeccable used copy of Ken Kesey’s Sailor Song from the shelves, then walked a few steps to the Vashon Tea Shop to lounge and read in a wicker chair for the rest of the afternoon. A French-speaking couple with kindergarten-age kids read from a guidebook at a table behind me. Girlfriends chatted quietly to my right, and what looked like the same 10 locals paraded outside the windows, wishing each other good day and patting each other’s dogs.

Back at the cottage that night, we set out on a starlit walk. But bright as the stars were, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces, let alone navigate a path. Instead, we sat on the porch in the inky darkness. Seattle felt farther away than ever, our closest companions unseen crickets and that frog chirping away in the pond.

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