Friday, October 19, 2018

A trip to Betty MacDonald's Vashon Island

Vashon Island is a 22-minute ferry ride from Seattle. Credit Stuart Isett for The New York Times 
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UNBEKNOWNST to the rest of us, the Washington State Department of Transportation has invented a time machine. Sure, it looks like a ferry, running the route between Seattle and Vashon Island dozens of times a day. But how else to explain what you find when you arrive on Vashon?
Only 22 minutes from downtown Seattle and with a land mass the size of Manhattan, the hilly, woodsy island has a population of just 10,000. It’s home to over a dozen small family farms — the kind that in most places were swallowed up by big agribusiness decades ago — selling their kale and beets and free-range eggs through unmanned farm stands that accept payment on the honor system. In the island’s main town, shopkeepers greet their patrons by name, and the only traffic jams are found on the sidewalk where townsfolk stop to chat unhurriedly with their friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers.
The ferry may not be an actual time machine, but it is the only way on or off the island. Unlike its more developed island counterparts, Mercer and Bainbridge, Vashon has no bridge connecting it to the mainland — a crucial part of its unspoiled character. Residents even went so far as to fight a plan to build one when it was proposed in 1992. As a result, Vashon retains its Mayberry-meets-Burning-Man character, a place where Seattleites (and in-the-know visitors) can get a taste of small-town life along with, say, a glass of bright and fruity Vashon wine at a local exhibition of painted silks, or a handful of blackberries picked from the trail on one of the island’s parks, beaches and nature preserves.
From Seattle, Vashon makes a great overnight trip, just enough time to explore the island by bike and kayak and, in general, sample life in Puget Sound at an old-fashioned pace. I made just that sort of visit last summer. But I decided I wanted more than a taste of that life. So with my wife starting a job at the University of Washington, we moved to the island last September.
I spent the first few weeks exploring the island’s galleries, forests and beaches, playing the role of tourist in my new home. The hub of activity, I soon learned, is the main town, which is in the northern third of the island and is also called Vashon. Many locals simply refer to it as Uptown. Viewed from one angle, Vashon is your average small town, with three banks, a hardware store, a post office, a theater, a bookstore and a couple of supermarkets. 

From another perspective, it is an enclave of hippies, with a gluten-free/vegan cafe, a fair-trade gift store selling items like woven root place mats and hand-thrown pottery, a yoga studio, a Saturday farmers’ market and a half-dozen art galleries showing everything from wilet comfort food, with signature dishes like buttermilk fried chicken and Dungeness crab cakes with roasted red pepper aioli.
So next time you’re in the Seattle area, take a day or so and get lost on Vashon’s backcountry roads. Have lunch Uptown and then get lost on the backcountry roads, stopping off to sample a tomato at one of the farm stands you’ll inevitably encounter before you rediscover the highway. Pull on a pair of rubber boots and go clamming in Tramp Harbor at low tide, then, still dressed like a longshoreman, stop in at the Blue Heron Art Center to see its latest exhibition. You’ll fit right in. Finally, get down to the Burton Coffee Stand before it closes at 3 and say hi to Kathy and all those island eccentrics who will treat you like their long-lost neighbor. And who knows? One of them could be me.

Vashon is accessible from the Kitsap Peninsula in the west and also Tacoma in the south, but most people will arrive from the east, via West Seattle. Ferries from West Seattle run every 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the time of day.
For lodging, think about what you’re seeking. Visitors looking to connect with Vashon’s arts scene will want to consider the Artist’s Studio Loft northeast of town (206-463-2583;; $119 to $215 a night). Those most interested in Vashon’s small-town feel will do well staying in Burton, where the Quartermaster Inn is shutting down, but a new tenant should be opening doors to guests soon. (Call Vashon Chamber of Commerce, 206-463-6217, for details.) And people just looking for an escape to rural beauty should try the Swallow’s Nest Guest Cottages (206-463-2646;; $105 to $230) on Maury, where two of the cottages have great views of the Puget Sound and Mount Rainier.
The Hardware Store Restaurant (17601 Vashon Highway SW; 206-463-1800; is Vashon’s central hub, and for that reason it’s good to make reservations for a Friday or Saturday. Down the street, the Red Bicycle Bistro (17618 Vashon Highway SW; 206-463-1800; has live music on Fridays and great sushi, but the chef gets overloaded fairly often, so you might think about going early or late.
Vashon Island Bicycles (9925 SW 178th Street; 206-463-6225; rents cruisers for $20 a day while the Vashon Park District ( rents kayaks at Jensen Point near Burton for $20 an hour or $75 a day.

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