For one short month each year, northwestern Washington—along with some half-million visitors—witnesses nature at its most vivid
Every April, the fertile, sprawling fields of Washington's Skagit Valley erupt in a riot of multicolored bloom. First come yellow and white daffodils, followed by hundreds of acres of tulips, then an iris finale. Visitors determined enough to attend the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival—four weeks (April 1-30) of flowers, street fairs, and, on weekends, long lines of cars inching from farm to farm—participate in a springtime ritual that's as integral to western Washington life as rain. While a half-million flower-peepers tiptoe through the tulips during the festivities, it's much more enjoyable to spend a weekend in the Skagit (rhymes with gadget) just before or after the season peaks. You'll share farm roads with tractors, not traffic, and have the sleepy streets of the valley's hamlets practically to yourself.
Sixty miles north of Seattle, stretching from Puget Sound to the Cascades, the Skagit Valley is a broad swath of alluvial farmland anchored by a half-dozen small towns. The country's biggest tulip growers—thanks to the mild, maritime climate—are in the middle of the valley, between Mount Vernon and La Conner. The latter, a coastal community with just 775 residents, is an ideal weekend base: it has many inns and a restored waterfront lined with shops and restaurants, and it's just minutes away from the brightest fields around.
Where to Stay
La Conner Channel Lodge It's just a two-block walk from the town center, on the Swinomish Channel waterfront, but the 40-room lodge feels completely isolated. Craftsman details are visible throughout, from the large stone fireplace to the willow chairs. In the backyard, garden tables are set for morning coffee. 205 N. First St., La Conner; 888/466-4113 or 360/466-1500; www.laconnerlodging.com; doubles from $130.
Estep Residence If you like the idea of having your own place in the middle of town, consider this immaculate 850-square-foot garage-top apartment on La Conner's main drag. The view—ships on the Swinomish Channel, seagulls gliding overhead—and the roomy interiors make up for the uninspired décor. 610 First St., La Conner; 206/669-2447; www.estep-properties.com; from $135.
La Conner Country Inn It's essentially a dressed-up motel: brass beds with floral spreads, gas fireplaces in brick mantels, knotty-pine cathedral ceilings, and large (if slightly dated) rooms. Still, families can spread out here—and walk to the main street in minutes. 107 S. Second St., La Conner; 888/466-4113 or 360/466-3101; www.laconnerlodging.com; doubles from $89.
La Conner Maison Guest House Score your own light-flooded pied-à-terre by booking this comfortable apartment on a leafy neighborhood lane. Owner Carol Whited has filled the rooms with an eclectic mix of furniture from Skagit antiques shops; she even designed the well-stocked vintage kitchen around a 1920's electric stove. A breakfast of fresh fruit and baked goods is provided on your first morning; from then on, Carol can direct you to the farmers' markets for cooking ingredients. 512 Centre St., La Conner; 866/552-5526 or 360/391-0506; www.laconnermaison.com; $140.
Wild Iris The 19 rooms in this Victorian won't knock your socks off, but the inn does have a major draw: Le Jardin, one of the region's best restaurants. A full breakfast—created with whatever's fresh that morning—comes with an overnight stay, and that alone makes sleeping here worth it. 121 Maple Ave., La Conner; 360/466-1400; www.wildiris.com; doubles from $109.
White Swan Guest House The 1898 Queen Anne-style farmhouse has three guest rooms with brass beds and quilts; a sunny one-bedroom cottage out back has floor-to-ceiling windows, a kitchen, and a deck overlooking the fields. Beds of delphinium and larkspur cover the grounds. 15872 Moore Rd., Mount Vernon; 360/445-6805; www.thewhiteswan.com; doubles from $80, cottage from $134.
Where to Eat
Calico Cupboard Café & Bakery There are three Calico Cupboards in the valley, but this one, housed in a 1942 granary that was once the Washington Cooperative Farmers Association building, gets points for atmosphere. Think Pacific-country: wide-plank floors, oak tables, mismatched chairs, exposed-brick walls with black-and-white photos of farm life on them. The vegetable scramble (made with farm-fresh eggs), the grilled-eggplant sandwich on freshly baked rustic potato bread, and the spinach salad studded with Skagit Valley apple slices are available daily. 121B Freeway Dr., Mount Vernon; 360/336-3107; lunch for two $30.
Rexville Grocery When Stuart and Joyce Welch took over the 1935 grocery four years ago, it was crammed with eight tons of garbage and had holes in the roof as big around as softballs. They fixed it up and turned it into a gathering place where you can sit at the deli counter and devour hummus sandwiches, stock up on wine and artisanal cheese and bread for a picnic, or buy live crabs for a Northwestern version of a clambake. On Saturdays and Sundays, brunch is served until noon; try the Swedish pancakes topped with lingonberries gathered down the road. 19271 Best Rd., between Conway and La Conner; 360/466-5522; brunch for two $15.
Le Jardin Chef Drew Jackson commands the kitchen of this 24-seat dining room at the Wild Iris inn, where his dishes marry Skagit ingredients to a European sensibility. The results include duck à l'orange accompanied by roast fingerling potatoes; king salmon with arugula and heirloom beans; and chanterelle-dusted scallops with braised spinach. 121 Maple Ave., La Conner; 360/466-1400; dinner for two $80. Open Fridays and Saturdays only.
Nell Thorn Restaurant & Pub Casey Schanen grew up on a Skagit farm, and he and his wife, Susan, still believe in simple cooking with produce straight from the source. Dinner might begin with young asparagus risotto, followed by salmon caught by a neighbor. For lunch, the onion tart and the seafood salad (served on organic bread) are always on the spring menu. 205 Washington St., La Conner; 360/466-4261; dinner for two $65; lunch for two $25.
La Conner Brewing Co. Order a small-batch German-style pilsner, Belgian-style white beer, or Northwest Indian pale ale to go with your wood-fired pizza. La Conner's favorite brewpub is your best bet for a casual night out after a day in the fields. 117 S. First St., La Conner; 360/466-1415; dinner for two $40.
Touring the Tulips
The festival runs throughout April, but the flowers peak at different times each year. For bloom updates, and detailed listings of street and arts-and-crafts fairs, as well as all other events surrounding the fête, contact the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival (360/428-5959; www.tulipfestival.org). Be forewarned: at midday on weekends, huge numbers of people descend upon an area designed for only a few cars and tractors. In the early morning or late afternoon (or on weekdays), however, the fields, farms, shops, and restaurants are pleasantly empty. The following growers and tour operators have the best fields, displays, and outings around.
Tulip Town Acres of walk-in fields (a big draw for photographers), an elaborate indoor flower show, the "tulip trolley" wagon ride, and booths selling hamburgers, coffee, pottery, and jam. Cut tulips cost a fraction of their usual market price (10 stems for $3, or 20 special-variety stems for $8.50). Ship some to a friend or buy a bag of bulbs for yourself (to be delivered in the fall, when they're harvested). 15002 Bradshaw Rd., Mount Vernon; 360/424-8152; www.tuliptown.com.
Roozengaarde William and Helen Roozen, who emigrated from Holland in 1955, designed an elaborate three-acre display garden to complement their fields, which produce more tulips and daffodils than anywhere else in the country. The parking lot can be packed on weekends, but if you go early, you can take in a seemingly infinite array of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, all marked and blooming beneath a Dutch windmill. It's the Skagit Valley's Little Holland. 15867 Beaver Marsh Rd., Mount Vernon; 360/424-8531; www.tulips.com.
Victoria Clipper Tulip Fest Tours Speed to the fields on a daylong boat tour and leave the driving to someone else. The 237-passenger Victoria Clipper III departs Saturdays and Sundays from Seattle's Pier 69; 21/2 hours later it docks in La Conner. From there you've got a few hours to explore town and grab lunch, and a few more to board a bus and roll out to the fields before cruising back through the sound. 2701 Alaskan Way, Seattle; 800/888-2535 or 206/448-5000; www.clippervacations.com; round-trip tours from $33 per person.
Tronsdal Air Curt Tronsdal takes one passenger at a time on 20-minute flower flights in a 1941 Boeing Stearman biplane. His family has been farming the Skagit for 120 years; those are their fields laid out like Mondrian color grids below you. Weather (and availability) permitting, you can book a flight for that same day. Barker Airfield, 18664 Conway Rd., Mount Vernon; 360/428-0333; $100 per person.
Christianson's Nursery & Greenhouse Established in 1946 as a specialty rhododendron grower on a historic farm, Christianson's today is a horticultural heaven. There are no tulips; instead it stocks 35 varieties of lilacs, 700 types of roses, 200 rhododendron hybrids, and a tractor garage turned gift shop, with antique watering cans, vintage picnic baskets, and candles made from plant and flower oils. 15806 Best Rd., between Mount Vernon and La Conner; 360/466-3821.
There's a lot growing in Skagit besides flowers. While winding along Fir Island Road (Exit 221 off I-5), an asphalt ribbon bordered by some of the county's most fertile land, pull over at Snow Goose Produce (15170 Fir Island Rd., between Conway and La Conner; 360/ 445-6908). Locals shop here for everything from fresh herbs or tulips and daffodils (50 stems for $5) to smoothies made from fresh berries. Daytrippers stop for organic cheeses, live and fresh-cooked shellfish and crabs, and, of course, Lopez Island Creamery ice cream cones. For an unusual road snack, taste the Indian Candy—salty strips of smoked salmon ($18 a pound).
Taylor Shellfish Farm has been raising oysters and clams in the sound since 1890, and their outpost in Bow (2182 Chuckanut Dr.; 360/766-6002) has been doing the same since 1921. At the small store, which backs onto an inlet laid with shellfish beds, you can buy bags of Kumamoto oysters, Manila clams, smoked salmon, Dungeness crabs—even mini-bottles of Tabasco, crackers, oyster knives, and crab openers for an impromptu shellfish picnic.
On a typical day, the small tasting room at Samish Bay Cheese (15115 Bow Hill Rd., Bow; 360/766-6707; www.samishbaycheese.com) is crowded with devotees of Susan Wechsler's organic Goudas, Mont Blanchards, and Montasios. They stop in to learn about the art of cheese making or buy wheels and airtight sample packs to ship home. You can see Wechsler's herd of 18 Jerseys grazing in the fields out back. Ask her to recommend a quiet spot to set out a blanket and take in the colors of the flower fields.