Lummi Island: An Otherworldly Northwest Island Escape

The meal of a lifetime? It's on a woodsy island at the edge of the San Juans, and it's waiting for you.

By Rachel Ritchie March 2, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

A typically dazzling dish of spot prawns with foraged flora at the Willows Inn.

My first full day on Lummi Island, the clouds never lifted. It didn’t matter. After a regal spread of breakfast at the Willows Inn—bay-leaf juice, buttermilk biscuits, peach jam, steamed collards, cured meats, reef-net salmon, and slow-poached eggs—we climbed aboard kayaks and paddled against the wind and chop on the west side of the woodsy island at the edge of the San Juans, less than a mile off the Washington coast. As we carved our way south, hugging the shore, Orcas Island loomed across Rosario Strait. Harbor seals bobbed left and right, staring as we battled the spray in our bright synthetic jackets. Bald eagles perched atop gnarled, long-dead trees on the shoreline, stunning us intermittently with graceful, languorous swoops above. Porpoises surfaced in the distance.

It all added up to that magical feeling of the San Juans: rooted in the Northwest like old growth, yet somehow from another universe entirely.

My fiancée and I drove from Portland the day before, stopping in Seattle for an excellent lunch of sausage with roasted squash at Capitol Hill’s Sitka & Spruce. North of Burlington, we split off from the freeway and wound our way toward Bellingham on Chuckanut Drive, a 21-mile scenic highway built in 1896 to link Bellingham with the Skagit Valley. After a straight shot through golden-flat farmland, we hugged coastal cliffs as we wound north under a leafy canopy, Lummi Island’s long spine rising like a humpback whale in the distance. Just beyond Bellingham, $13 secured a round-trip ticket on the five-minute car ferry from Gooseberry Point.

The sun was beginning to set when the ferry pulled ashore, so we headed straight for the Willows Inn. We arrived to find the 11-room inn in full bloom, vines spilling onto an expansive front deck. We checked in, dropped our bags, and sat on the deck for our first taste of the island—a gin cocktail with nettles, egg white, and Doug fir tips—as the last of the sunlight skipped about in the ocean: we had arrived.

Mussels inside cedar boxes.

A Story About the Land

The Willows Inn serves an operatic tasting menu that draws culinary adventurers worldwide. In 2010, chef Blaine Wetzel returned to his native Washington after several years working at Denmark’s world-famous temple of modernism, Noma, under revered chef René Redzepi. In 2014, Wetzel’s rigorously local and whimsically modern cooking earned him the title of Rising Star Chef of the Year at the James Beard Awards. Dinner begins at the bar, where shigoku oysters appear unexpectedly, nestled in a bowl of rocks—fresh, cold, briny, and perfect. Once diners sit, chefs emerge from the kitchen to deliver a fanciful progression of plates, from “snacks” to entrées, some listed in the leather-bound menu, others impromptu surprises. Flawless mussels sit inside cedar boxes, revealing a billow of smoke when opened; puffed fried halibut skins arrive in camouflage, sitting atop barnacled rocks; an artful aged venison leg is fringed with bright, wild lettuces. Chef Wetzel describes his three-hour seasonal compositions as a “story about the land”—salmon is caught just offshore by reef-net fishers; lambs grazed in a pasture just a half-mile to the inn’s south; vegetables and greens are yanked daily from the farm down the road; and sea beans, nettles, fiddlehead ferns, and crabapple blossoms are all foraged by hand from the island’s secret stashes.

Foraging for sea beans, nettles, fiddlehead ferns and crab apple blossoms.

Salmon caught offshore by reef-net fishers.

Chefs emerge from the kitchen to deliver a fanciful progression of plates.

Make the Rounds

Home to just 916 residents, Lummi Island sits at the tip of the San Juan archipelago, about 10 miles long and less than a mile wide at its narrowest points. The Lummi Island Heritage Trust protects 863 acres of forest, farmland, wetlands, and undeveloped shoreline, including three nature preserves. Grab a bike at the inn and trace the island’s shore on a winding, seven-mile loop studded with dazzling vistas, serene beaches, and patches of fresh berries. On Lummi’s west flank, the Baker Preserve Trail zigzags up 1,050 feet over 1.6 miles through the forest, delivering hearty hikers to a cliff on the western face of Lummi Mountain, with spectacular views of the snowcapped Olympic Mountains and a smattering of islands below.

Water Ways

Sure, the views from the beach are lovely—but there’s nothing quite like getting out on the water. Book a sea kayak tour (or opt for a foraging tour, complete with wild edible snacks) for an afternoon spotting seals, porpoises, otters, jellyfish, and, if you’re lucky, orcas. And if you’re really in it for the whales, book a trip on the big boat with Outer Island Expeditions, a veteran San Juan outfit that will pick you up right in front of the Willows Inn for a day of orca and gray whale sightings.

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