Location: 65 miles north of Seattle
Drive Time: 1-2 hours, depending on traffic
Signs announcing FRESH BERRIES and OYSTERS, OYSTERS, OYSTERS welcome motorists to Skagit (rhymes with gadget) Valley, a flat, fertile region 65 miles north of Seattle, squeezed between the Cascade Mountains and Samish Bay. Clusters of small towns dot the area, and the conifer-flanked roads that link them wind past honor-system farm stands, artisanal bakeries, and rustic restaurants where the produce has that fresh-picked crispness and the shellfish rouses your palate with a cold blast of the sea. "It's a little bit Mayberry, but we eat much better," says Tom Alfano, manager of LaConner Fruit & Produce (116 S. First St., LaConner; 360/466-3018), a brightly-lit, modern barn of a building where locals congregate for robust coffee and some of the best prawn chowder in the region. "That's what happens when you've got the sea on one side of you and farms all around."
From Seattle, take Interstate 5 north but avoid the usual congestion by getting off at exit 221 and linking up with Fir Island Road. From Fir Island Road, turn left onto Best Road, a rolling two-lane route bordered by row crops and cattle. Pause to refuel (in more ways than one) at Rexville Grocery (19271 Best Rd., Mt. Vernon; 360/466-5522; www.rexvillegrocery.com), a gas station with energy-friendly fuel that doubles as a gourmet country store. It's run by Stuart and Joyce Welch, who host regular tastings of local vintages such as Carpenter Creek Riesling and Samish Island blueberry wine. The couple also serves a counter lunch that includes fresh oysters, giant slabs of spinach lasagna and the Bev Special Sandwich: turkey on organic wheat bread, slathered with sweet-tart lingonberry sauce.
A day of good eating continues in LaConner (from the Rexville Grocery follow Best Road to Chilberg Road and turn left), a tiny waterfront town with a favorable ratio of restaurants to people (roughly 46 residents to every one eating place) and legislation favorable to small businesses (chain restaurants are not allowed). At Nell Thorn (205 E. Washington St.; 360/466-4261; www.nellthorn.com; dinner for two $70) customers dine in the wood-paneled pub—a setting so cozy you can chat with the bartender from any booth without raising your voice. Casey Schanen, the co-owner and chef, was raised on a local fruit nursery, and his upbringing is evident in his menu: organic meats and produce, and dishes that shift with the seasons.
Head 15 minutes north on Bay View Road, a narrow drive that curls between farms and inlets (from La Conner, take Whitney Road, which turns into Bay View after it crosses Highway 20), to Bow. The town of Bow barely registers a smudge on the map but it leaves a strong impression taste-wise. There's Farm to Market Bakery (14003 Gilmore Ave.; 360/766-6240), which deals in pecan shortbread and delectable chocolate-and-berry scones; and Slough Food (5766 Cain's Court; 360/766-4458; www.sloughfood.com), a must-stop for cheeseheads and chocoholics who envision picnics of Catalonian goat cheese Garrotxa and spoonfuls of dark chocolate "caviar." The wooden deck at the Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive (2578 Chuckanut Drive; 360/766-6185; www.theoysterbaronchuckanutdrive.com; dinner for two $100) offers an arrestingly serene setting: perched on the water, it's a spot to sip Champagne and slurp a dozen oysters while you peer out at the mist-shrouded splendor of the San Juan Islands and Samish Bay. Travelers who prefer less fuss can pick up fresh bread, cheese, and wine at the Breadfarm (5766 Cain's Court; 360/766-4065; www.breadfarm.com) next door, and then stop at any one of the honor-system farm stands lining Chuckanut Drive. Leave a few bucks in the lockbox and round out your meal with butter-leaf lettuce, a basket of raspberries, or whatever's fresh that day.
Housed in a former mercantile shop in the town of Anacortes, the Majestic Inn and Spa (419 Commercial Ave., Anacortes; 360/299-1400; www.majesticinnandspa.com; doubles from $144) provides a perfect base for exploring the Valley and the nearby San Juan Islands (the ferry docks a few blocks away). The 21 rooms, all dark wood and muted tones, might be on the small side, but they are outfitted well enough with plush beds and flat-screen TV's. For added luxury, splurge on the Majestic Suite ($299), which features a double-jetted hot tub and two rooftop decks with views of the water. A home-style breakfast with fresh fruit, gourmet granola, and cooked-to-order eggs is included in every stay.
It's called shellfish farming for a reason: "farmers" plant, pick, and even plow. When the tide is out on Samish Bay, you can stand at Taylor Shellfish Farms (2182 Chuckanut Drive; 360/766-6002, www.taylorshellfishfarms.com) and watch a worker readying the ground for clam and oyster seed. In the retail shop, you can buy sustainably harvested seafood out of giant tanks. But pay heed to the written warning: CRABS EAT FINGERS!