My phone died halfway around Lummi Island, and I didn’t even care. I had just picked my way along deserted beaches, watched sailboats drift through a misty blue seascape and was now contemplating brunch from an international chef on a wisteria-laden deck.
Sure, I had no way of telling my family I’d be catching a later ferry due to chilled-out contentment. But who needs a phone when you have paradise?
Just far enough away
You can see why Lummi Island is a world away by the time you arrive at the ferry dock. Just off the coast near Bellingham, Lummi isn’t technically hard to get to. But by the time you’ve driven a few exits north of Bellingham, taken the 20-minute Slater/Haxton Way road through the Lummi Nation and pulled up at a dock with not much to see except crab pots, you realize this is going to be quite a different kind of island.
Lummi (rhymes with “tummy”) is named for the tribe that used it as fishing and foraging grounds for centuries, and which still lives on the mainland opposite. Now, though, the arrow-shaped island is inhabited by those in the slow life: vacationers, artisans, microfarmers. There’s one general store, a tiny post office, library, church, gallery, winery and two restaurants — and not much else except forests, beaches and gentle roads.
Even the ferry seems to come from a calmer, slower era. Fitting about a dozen cars on the open-air deck, it chugs across Hale Passage like a character from “Thomas the Tank Engine.”
(Be warned, though: Despite extra unscheduled trips, the weekend lines on the island side can get long.)
If, like me, you failed to get coffee before leaving civilization, you’ll want to head right from the ferry dock to where the Beach Store Café offers an oasis of food, caffeine and warmth. The coffee is strong and smooth; the cocktails are inventive (a house margarita includes crushed strawberries) and the brunch is delicious. Scrambled eggs came carefully folded with a pesto made of lovage — an herb on the wild side of parsley — with fresh-tasting roasted potatoes. There’s lunch and dinner, a deck if the weather’s fine, a potbelly stove if it’s not, and tranquil views back to a mist-swathed mainland.
Out the back, picnic tables beckon for summer near the herb garden. Or you can take a picnic across the road to a little look-out, with steps down to a seaweed-strewn beach.
Country lanes, driftwood beaches
Belly filled, I began to explore the island. The southern end is forested and largely uninhabited, with hikes like the ferny Baker Preserve up Lummi Mountain for views over the San Juans. Circle around the arrow-tip end, though, and you’ll find a sleepy little community that will draw you into its slow rhythm. Just south of the ferry, Legoe Bay Road winds gently up past leafy driveways and open fields to the New England-style church with white clapboard, arched windows and simple spire. Here’s where you can park your car or bike and wander through the church’s trail and stone labyrinth circle to a wide pebbly beach, where the citizens of Lummi have used the abundant driftwood to build lean-tos of impressive complexity (doors, lawn chairs, camera tripod).
“It’s such a low tide, you can probably make it around the bluff,” said a passing dog-walker in helpful tones.
Seeing a couple of “Private Property!” signs I asked him if anyone would mind.
“Oh, they probably won’t say anything,” he said cheerfully and took off the other way.
So I picked my way over the rocks, now the only person on the entire beach. Across the white-capped water rose the mountains of Clark Island State Park, wrapped in mist like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” Sure enough, I had about 12 inches of pebbles between the black volcanic rock and the lapping water, and soon I was walking past low-slung fishing cottages and home-made dry docks into the pretty curve of Legoe Bay.
As I found a rusty, sagging gate to climb and began ambling back up the road to the church, the dog-walker appeared around the corner.
“Great rock formations, aren’t they?” he smiled, as if we’d known each other forever.
And that’s how it is on Lummi — equal parts solitude and friendliness.
Five-star deck dining
On I went, past the Legoe Bay marina where you’ll find a gallery full of island craft, a boutique winery and Lummi’s only public boat launch. Driftwood piled high, seagulls soared and sailboats tipped in the wind against a San Juan Islands background. Cows gazed placidly from a roadside field.
And then the road curved up to reveal The Willows Inn. If you’re a foodie, you’ll have heard of this place: a century-old inn taken over by five-star chef Blaine Wetzel of Noma, Copenhagen fame and turned into a dining destination covered by the likes of Saveur magazine. If you haven’t made a dinner reservation at this 26-seat restaurant, you’re probably out of luck. But the next best thing — and the smart thing, if you’re on a budget — is to stop in for lunch on the deck.
Dripping with wisteria and humming with bees in the garden below, the verandah has perfect views over blue Rosario Strait to Orcas Island. From the outdoor kitchen halfway up the drive comes the hiss and crackle of the wood fire they’ll be using to cook the salmon. And on your plate will be a wealth of local tastes that fire up in your mouth like sunlight on water: three local mainland cheeses (a rich aged sheep’s milk, a tangy goat’s milk and a creamy blue), crumbly rye toast, zingy picked apples cut like stars, bright pink radish quarters, the soft, woodsy crunch of pickled fiddlehead ferns and honey on the comb, luscious and grassy. Add in a roasted squash soup that marries creamy with smoky and you have a perfect excuse to toss your dead phone back in your bag and lose yourself in that dreamy view.
Meet the locals
There are only three shops on Lummi: a grocery (find the local Legoe Bay wine), a gift shop full of Lummi-knitted beanies and island-made jewelry, and Mary Sews, a tiny shack where Mary Barstow sells her hand-made quilts.
But visit Lummi this weekend (May 27-28) and you’ll get to meet all the other creative folks on the island in the annual Artists’ Studio Tour. Over three dozen artists at 23 locations show and sell everything from sea-glass ornaments to art made of kelp — locally harvested, of course. You can check out the flower essences at Tree Frog Farm and see Lummi landscape photography from a fisherman’s perspective at the Heritage Trust Resource Center. It’s the perfect chance to peek into the Lummi lifestyle and get off the main road.
Yes, Lummi Island is a good three hours from the South Sound, plus that cute ferry ride. You might want to tag it onto a trip to Bellingham, or make it a long weekend with a vacation rental or Willows Inn stay. But that distance is what helps Lummi stay slow and dreamy, a place where good food, beautiful landscape and friendly people are really the only things that you need. If Puget Sound has an island paradise, this might just be it.
How to do Lummi Island
Get there: From Interstate 5 north, take Exit 260 Slater Road to Haxton Way and on to the ferry dock. Ferries cost $13 for car and passenger, $7 for bike and rider, free for kids. They run on the hour.
Get around: There are few roads on Lummi, and they’re perfect for bikes, with a 25 mph speed limit. Rent them at Beach Store Café or borrow from outside Mary Sews quilt, both near the ferry dock. It’ll also make the ferry journey cheaper and quicker without a car.
Eat: The Willows Inn has fine dining breakfast, lunch and dinner Thursdays-Mondays (May 29-July 4), then also Wednesdays through Aug. 31. Reservations recommended for dinner. 2579 W. Shore Drive, 360-758-2620, willows-inn.com.
The Beach Store Café is open 4-8 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, 4-9 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays. 2200 N. Nugent Road, 360-758-2233, beachstorecafe.com.
The SauseBurger Stand offers organic, hand-made burgers and sausages right by the ferry dock, plus breakfast and drinks. Open breakfast and lunch Fridays-Sundays. 2106 N. Nugent Road, 360-319-0155, sauseburger.com.
Artist Tour: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. May 27-28, various locations. Map available online and at grocery store near ferry dock. 360-758-7121, lummi-island.com.