We all know it: Tulips are lovely.
April in the Skagit Valley means field after field of brilliant yellow, deep red, pure white or hot pink, with those snow-capped mountains and historic barns as background for your photos. But we also know it means hundreds of other folks clomping about in the mud taking selfies and endless lines of cars. And really, how many hours can you spend looking at flower fields?
Luckily, there’s plenty of other fun stuff to do there, from petting pigs to sampling cheese. Here’s our guide to five other ways to do the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
Just 10 miles north of the tulip fields near Mount Vernon is a tiny town that, unbelievably, the tulip hordes haven’t yet discovered. It’s called Bow, and along with nearby Edison, it’s home to some of this part of the world’s tastiest food. You could make a whole day-trip hunting and gathering artisan bread, farm eggs and local oysters. (In fact, there’s a Bow-Edison food trail already laid out for you at bow-edisonfoodtrail.com.) But if you have a tulip agenda too, you’ll want to focus on one thing: cheese. Three creameries are within a 10-minute drive of each other, and at least two will be open whenever you visit.
Samish Bay Cheese is the one for a lazy weekend afternoon. Tucked away just west of the Bow Road-Chuckanut Drive intersection, the 20-year-old farm has new digs for its tasting and production rooms. You can peek inside the production building on a self-guided tour that includes the contented cows in the feed alley, the pig pasture and a useful “Talking Field” sign with a QR information code for your phone.
Inside the tasting room, you can step back into a country past with lovely painted wood tables, soft cotton napkins tied with string and 25 types of cheese behind vintage green fridge doors. Friendly staff, including co-owner Suzanne Wechsler, will cut you samples of most things: the soft, fresh, award-winning Ladysmith and its tangy aged version, a creamy Gouda and garlicky herb variety, the fluffy vache (chevre) or the intensely hot diablo fresco with flecks of habanero. The Edison Slough Plate comes with labneh (midway between the salty vache and the bland Greek yogurt), zingy pickled blueberries and ciabatta from the legendary Breadfarm in Edison.
Samish also has a fridge full of their own beef and pork cuts, plus yogurt, kefir, and local wines to taste.
If you’re up on a weekday, Golden Glen Creamery is open instead, with cheddar, feta, Parmesan, mozzarella, fresh cheese and butter.
But for sheer adorableness, stop by Gothberg Farms, where a 24-hour honor-box fridge is stocked with spicy chipotle cheddar and tangy chevre, and the Lamancha goats that make it crowd the fence with intelligent eyes and irresistibly cute bleating.
Also: We Love Bow Cheese Tour, 1-4 p.m. April 22. Self-guided tour of Skagit Maid Creamery, Gothberg Farms and Samish Bay Cheese, with cheese-tasting social 4-5 p.m. at Samish Bay. $30. firstname.lastname@example.org.
With fresh water from a dozen sloughs and rivers meeting the salt of Puget Sound, the shoreline west of the Skagit tulip fields is unusual. A handful of state parks dot the area. But at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, you’ll find a sweeping curve that’s sometimes sheeny water, sometimes vast mudflats covered with eelgrass, depending on the tide. About 13 miles northwest of Mount Vernon, Padilla Bay makes a nice round trip back down from Bow, taking you through impossibly green fields soaked with giant puddles that reflect the sky. At the bay, turn at the interpretive center and follow the drive under the road to the parking lot. You can hike, fly a kite or just wander among the driftwood. Looking out for the herons, eagles, otters and seals that flock to eat the food supported by this 8,000-acre eelgrass meadow.
Padilla Bay reserve: Trails and parking lot are always open. Visitor center hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Closed on state holidays. Free. 10441 Bayview-Edison Road, Mount Vernon. 360-428-1558, padillabay.gov.
Also: Hike nearby state parks like Bayview, parks.state.wa.us. No Discover Pass needed April 22 (Earth Day).
Get out on the water with a whale watch tour. Island Adventures is beginning full-day and 2.5-hour evening tours out of La Conner, with a lunch stop in the San Juan Islands. Full-day tour departs 9 a.m. most days; $109 adults; $99 AAA, senior, military; $69 kids. Evening tour departs 6 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; $29. 800-465-4604, island-adventures.com.
Pet a pig (or goat, or sheep, or chicken, or rabbit)
Tulip fields aren’t just for tourists. Plenty of families live in the area, keeping animals for pets or 4-H projects. On April weekends, the Beaks, Noses and Bills 4-H Club will let you meet and greet their pigs, sheep, chickens, rabbits and goats. Oh, and a pony.
Kids ages 5-15 take shifts in the barn at the back of a home along Avon Allen Road, eagerly talking to visitors about their animals and how they look after them. Last weekend, Jacob and Codi Darling had their silky bantams, some just 1-month-old, with ever-so-soft gray feathers. Bailey Ackermann offered her Holland Lop rabbit Racer for a cuddle, while one of the club’s adult mentors herded some escapee sheep back into a pen. It’s a great way to meet locals and for city kids to get a peek into a different way of life.
Best of all, the host barn is home base for Tulip Country Bike Tours, a local outfit that will rent you a bike and a tulip map. As a way of seeing the flowers, it beats driving hands-down: These roads are calm and flat, with reasonable shoulders for cycling. With the canals, flat fields and flowers, you can pretend you’re in Holland, and unlike the car drivers, you can stop whenever you want and take photos.
Beaks, Noses and Bills 4-H Petting Farm: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends in April. $5 donation. 13391 Avon Allen Road, Mount Vernon. 360-202-5023.
Also: Tulip Country Bike Tours, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $40 adults; $10 child trailer or tag-a-long bike per day. Group tours available. 13391 Avon Allen Road, Mount Vernon. 360-424-7461, countrycycling.com.
Hear a historic Wurlitzer
When Glen Des Jardins plays the organ in Mount Vernon’s Lincoln Theatre, the walls rattle. No, really, they do — because behind them is a full set of sound effects that include marimba, cymbal and something best described as dinner gong. The 1926 Wurlitzer is one of 98 in the country remaining in their original theaters, and one of only two seven-rank, two-manual D-2 Full Unit Orchestra models. Des Jardins, along with his fellow organists, will play it daily during the theater’s open house weekend April 22-23.
“It’s fun,” says Des Jardins, who comes in regularly to give the historic organ a whirl 30 minutes before movie screenings. “I show up and show off.”
As patrons munch popcorn in the plush red velvet seats, Des Jardins puts the organ through its paces. Segueing from 1930s movie tunes to classics like “Home on the Range,” he flips stops with the nonchalant air of an experienced magician. First there’s a tibia/diapason with vibrato you could drive a truck through, then a grand piano. Next he’s swinging along with a xylophone like a Laurel-and-Hardy chase scene, followed by a glockenspiel stop, a steam whistle, a cymbal, a bass drum and finally a carillon that has people twisting in their seats to follow along as the 12 chimes strung along the gold-papered walls light up as they’re struck.
Costing $120,000 at its 1926 installation, the organ was originally used for silent movie accompaniment. It’s kept in shape by head organist Fred Beeks, who at 80 still climbs the ladder to repair the pipes and devices housed high behind the latticed walls next to the stage, says Des Jardins.
And Des Jardins’ favorite stop? The bird whistle, which just cries out for the opening of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”
“I love the bass notes,” he says, “and one day I was playing in my socks and realized I could hold down the low D pedal and hit the bird whistle (switch) with my toe.”
Wurlitzer: The Lincoln Theatre will hold an open house with free tours and Wurlitzer music during Mount Vernon’s Tulip Festival Street Fair April 22-23. Free. The Wurlitzer is played for 30 minutes before most movie screenings (ticket prices apply). 712 S. First St., Mount Vernon. 360-336-8955, lincolntheatre.org.
At the end of a long day chasing tulips, you need to refuel. La Conner and Mount Vernon have many dining options. But for an authentic Italian meal in an unusual building, you want Il Granaio. That’s Italian for “The Granary,” and that’s exactly where it is, inside the ground floor of that tall wooden tower you see from Interstate 5 as you come into Mount Vernon. Sadly, you can’t climb the tower. But Il Granaio has the big wooden beams and dark hardwood floor — plus the unusual circular shape — of the original granary, and a menu full of handmade Italian pasta.
Light and airy, the four-cheese ravioli is pungent with smoked mozzarella, swimming in a zingy fresh tomato-basil sauce. The rigatoni Siciliana comes al dente in a sauce with deep, braised, almost meaty flavor. The house salad is nondescript and the bread too toasty, but the pale orange cream of tomato soup combines rich flavor with melt-in-the-mouth lightness. The extensive menu includes veal, chicken, beef, lamb and seafood entrees; and a wine list that ranges from Italy and Sicily to local.
But leave room for dessert. The house-made creme brulee has the perfect ratio of toffee topping to eggy custard, and the affogato (not an easy-to-find dessert) pours strong espresso over a creamy, in-house vanilla gelato. You’ll be glad you did all that hiking, cycling and sheep-chasing.
Doing the Tulip Festival
When: All of April. Mount Vernon Tulip Festival Street Fair April 21-23.
Where: Mount Vernon, La Conner and fields in between (head west along McLean Road from Mount Vernon).
Cost: Most events free. Some venues charge, such as Roozengaarde and Tulip Town, $7.
Tips: Weekend afternoons are extremely busy, with parking difficult. Try riding a bike for the best tulip viewing. Shop for bulbs and find local history and windmills at Roozengaarde and Tulip Town. Travel along Interstate 5 from the South Sound is also very slow at midday and afternoon — try to leave early morning.
Information: Find maps and events at tulipfestival.org.