Weekend trips to La Conner and Vancouver

Spontaneity is the twin sister of many of my favorite travel adventures. Taking a trip without planning reminds me of those few times I jumped in the lake nude when I was a kid. The rush feels good.

My better half had some vacation days to burn quick. The weather predictions were for blue skies. I moved a meeting to the following week, and we were off to the north.

We decided on a four-day weekend in Vancouver, for no other reason than we hadn’t been there in the summertime for years. Once Judy learned about Boxer Day sales in Canada just after Christmas, the dye was cast. Shopping along RobsonStrasse and New Year’s Eve celebrations in the Lion’s Gate City have been an almost annual ritual for us.

But this getaway was going to be the opposite of ritual. We had nothing planned. No hotel or restaurant reservations. No one to meet. No “to do” list. No planes to catch. No ferry lines. Our will to the wind and the top down on our Volkswagen bug, we were anxious to see where we would end up.

Our first side trip came at La Conner. More specifically, on the Fir Island shortcut from Interstate 5’s Conway Exit headed toward La Conner. Snowgoose Produce, besides marketing fresh seafood and Skagit Valley produce, sells more ice-cream cones than the rest of Skagit County. Why? These cones are mammoth. Astoundingly gargantuan. I’ve never seen larger, and, believe me, I’ve made a study of the subject.

As luck would have it, our first stop in La Conner at the cottage-cute La Conner Channel Lodge, proved successful. A room was available, which isn’t typical, especially in summer and on weekends. With almost all of its 40 rooms featuring water views with balconies — including ours — we were thrilled. On a previous business trip, I had stayed at its sister property, the La Conner Country Lodge, which offers larger rooms but no direct water views, so our success of getting a room at the Channel Lodge reinforced our spontaneous inclinations.

The Channel Lodge could be the most snugly “Northwest” of any B&B or Lodge on the Sound. Its wood shingles, inglenooks, and clemantis-clinging porticos invite memories of our first home, a Seattle houseboat. Inside, the guest rooms with natural wood accents, stairways, breakfast and reading rooms all have a fantastic atmosphere, thanks to the architecture. There are intelligent nooks and crannies, cozy gas fireplaces, and comfy Northwest furniture throughout.

After a quick tour of the lodge, we threw on our walking shorts and headed off to shop. Given that our 38th wedding anniversary was nearly upon us, Judy and I agreed that the best thing we could delight each other with was a piece of art. As luck would have it, La Conner is among Western Washington’s top vortexes of art.

Our favorite galleries include Serendipity Fine Art, Two Moons Art Gallery, Courtyard Gallery, The Wood Merchant, Olive Shoppe and The Ginger Grater, a true “foodie” paradise. Other stops include The Museum of Northwest Art or “MONA” (entrance fee is $5 for adults, with senior and student discounts, kids under 12 are free), Nasty Jack’s for an impressive collection of antiques, and Go Outside for outdoor living necessities. We enjoyed a well-served dinner at Kirsten’s upscale restaurant, and enjoyed a pre-dinner refreshment in the quiet, sun-splashed, somewhat hidden outdoor patio at the La Conner Brewing Company pub, one of our favorite stops — rain or shine.

An overnight at the Channel Lodge includes a serve-yourself buffet breakfast of hot rolls, muffins, breads and other sinful baked items, various granolas, yogurts, fruits, juices, coffees and teas. After bulking up for another sunny day of exploring, we jumped back in our VW, opened up the top to the warmth of the morning sun, and once again headed north. From La Conner, the best route in that direction is along Chuckanut Drive, SR 11, through the tiny hamlets of Bow and Edison, and along the cliffs that afford grand views of the San Juan Islands to the west. We connected with I-5 at Fairhaven, near Bellingham.

Once across the border at Blaine, we drove straight into Vancouver, with our first stop at Granville Island, located just under the main bridge connecting to the downtown district. Granville Island is an astonishingly successful bit of mixed-use public development which includes the Emily Carr School of Art and Design, a nearly perfect farmer’s market, a fine boutique hotel, a cement factory, several museums, hundreds of yachts bouncing on their moorings, and hundreds of artist studios — almost all open to the public.

Our first stop was at our favorite muffin shop in the farmers market, and our second was a few stalls down, where fresh, picked-yesterday cherries from the Okanagan demanded tasting. Cherries in hand, we started meandering among the art studios.

Granville Island is located within a 10-minute walk of more than 10,000 residential condo units along its False Creek neighborhood. Less well-known are its public tennis courts, and my favorite feature — the kids water park. The water park is public and free. It features fire hydrants that spray soft jets of water, hidden geyser fountains that randomly shoot water into the air, water slides and tunnels, shallow pools, and even hoses for kids to try to spray their parents. It’s a safe design that works for kids just barely walking to about 10 years of age. On a hot day, whether you have kids or not, watching different kids negotiate the play area is one of life’s great people-watching experiences.

Hotel rooms in Vancouver from October to April are a fun exercise in negotiation. With the Alaska cruise ships gone to the Caribbean for the season, visitors to Vancouver plummet, causing hotels to dramatically lower their prices, and compete aggressively for guests. In the summer, hotel rooms are pricier. But rather than spend our spontaneous weekend scouring the town for a bargain hotel, we decided to go the other way. We wanted to splurge a little, and spend our weekend enjoying ourselves. Fortunately, very fortunately, the popular Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver in the heart of downtown had a room for us, and the experience lived up to the reputation the hotel has earned for service and luxury.

The Four Seasons sits 100 yards away from our big draw to Vancouver this summer -- The Vancouver “art gallery.” Not a gallery at all, it is Vancouver’s civic art museum, and it is showing (through Sept. 16) “Monet to Dali — Modern Masters from the Cleveland Museum of Art.” This collection may be the best retrospective of pieces from 1860 to the 1930s this side of Paris’ Musee d’Orsay. For lovers of impressionism to surrealism, a summer getaway to Vancouver is sure a lot easier than Paris. With multiple paintings by Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Picasso and Dali along with massive bronzes by Rodin and Henry Moore, this visiting exhibit is outstanding — and pleasantly accessible. We found time and space to savor every piece.

Having given our eyes a royal feast, we decided to go all the way and provide equal input for our palate. Knowing the Vancouver restaurant scene somewhat, it was now time to get serious and visit what has been consistently among British Columbia’s top five restaurants for years — Chartwell, located at the Four Seasons. Going with the proper British theme, Chartwell took its name from Winston Churchill’s beloved home in Kent, England. “A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted,” according to the prime minister.

Vancouver’s Chartwell Restaurant captured for us the perfect balance of truly professional wait service and yet is not so formal that I had to wear a tie and jacket. Our waiter, Mohammed, was born in Morocco and lived for a number of years in France. While he spends 11 happy months a year at Chartwell, he returns each winter to his village on the Sahara side of the High Atlas Mountains to create a school for the poor children who dream of the earth’s far corners. Mohammed charmed us even before “hello,” with his wise and gracious smile.

Several of the better restaurants of Vancouver have developed an approach, if a dining guest is interested, in familiarizing them in Northwest delicacy pairings with the increasingly excellent wines from Okanagan and Vancouver Island. With longer days of sunshine and heat along the shores of British Columbia’s inland lakes than Northern California, red wines from British Columbia are starting to assert themselves. In fact, the demand is so strong that most of vintages are sold before they are bottled, and Chartwell’s wine experts are typically first in line when they are released. Traveler hint: Buy wines when north of the border. We just can’t get many down here. Hint No. 2: If given a choice between dessert or a glass of British Columbia ice wine, forget dessert.

Chartwell also has fireplaces. To me, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, nothing relaxes me in anticipation of a great meal quite like a fireplace. Chartwell has two.

After our lazy, sunny Sunday morning of coffee and juice by the indoor-outdoor Four Season’s roof-top lap pool (and a few honest laps followed by five minutes in the hot tub) Judy and I checked out and drove over to Stanley Park to see if the cricket match had begun. It’s just darn hard to find competitive cricket here in Western Washington, and even though I haven’t a clue of how the play, I love watching the Pakistanis, Bahamans, Indians, Sikhs and Limeys square off in their white on whites. The green field, the little hats, the wives watching on their hillside blankets. It’s a jolly good summer when you’ve tasted a little cricket.

Watching cricket often makes a person hungry, so Judy and I decided to have our last Canadian restaurant meal at the award-wining, waterside restaurant with the odd name of Nu. Located just across False Creek from Granville Island and directly under the bridge, we learned that this is the place to be for lunch or dinners on sunny days. Canadians, like Europeans, prefer to eat al fresco any day they can, and with Nu’s southern and western exposure, sunshine and fresh sea air are plentiful, whether you get an outside table (we did!) or are on the inside of floor-to-ceiling glass. Nu is the latest brainchild of Harry Kambolis, whose Raincity Grill on Denman near English Bay and C Restaurant (a seafood restaurant) located near Nu have proven to be hot tickets and very successful.

If Nu has a theme, it’s to be different. The menu swings from hip lunches to late-night plate sharings and everything in between. Since this is upscale casual dining, you’ll find everything from salmon candy (try it, you’ll like it) to tuna tartar to roasted chicken to oysters in the world’s most creative serving.

My recommendation on Nu? Get there early for lunch on any sunny day and you’ll have a blast.

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