Friday Harbor House
Friday Harbor, Washington
The lush archipelagoes between Seattle and Victoria, Canada, are relentlessly picturesque, replete with splendidly scenic state parks and colorful coastal towns. The calm seas between the islands shelter wildlife ranging from sea otters to orca whales. And in recent years, the food scene has become world-class. It never takes much to convince me to return.
This time we drove up to the islands from Portland, Oregon. At Olympia, we forked west onto U.S. 101, weaving a path between the forested mountains of Olympic National Park and the Hood Canal, which is dotted with small towns and old fishing piers. The magnificent scenery made the four-hour drive to the old blufftop city of Port Townsend feel all too short. A 20-minute car ferry ride deposited us on Whidbey Island, a landmass shaped rather like an ear. On the north side of the lobe is Langley, a delightful town of art galleries and seafood restaurants.
On the edge of downtown, The Inn at Langley offers 28 accommodations with stupendous views of the Saratoga Passage as well as a world-class restaurant. Like a plush bed-and-breakfast, The Inn at Langley does not provide all the services of a luxury hotel. For example, after we checked in, we received a tour of our room but no offer of assistance with our luggage. The front desk isn’t staffed 24 hours a day, though there is an after-hours emergency number. The laundry bag provided is for guests’ convenience, not because the inn offers laundry service. And room service is not available.
If you’re willing to forgo those amenities, The Inn at Langley makes for a very comfortable base from which to explore Whidbey Island. If possible, reserve one of the two Cottages, the Saratoga Suite or a corner room. Having waited too long to make our plans, we ended up with a standard guest room. Pine-log pilasters framed the queen bed, faced by two wood-framed Asian armchairs and a woodburning fireplace. Like the rest of the room, the bath kept to earth tones, with a moss-green counter, a shower tiled in imitation stone and a large jetted tub beneath a water-view window.
But the best views were from our balcony, furnished with teak armchairs and a table. Each morning, we awoke shortly before sunrise, wrapped ourselves in blankets and sipped coffee while the sun rose from behind the Cascades. The distant mountain range looked like a ragged tear in the blazing orange sky.
The inn has a small and expensive spa (temporarily closed for renovations) overlooking the water, available by appointment only, but its main amenity is its commendable restaurant, helmed by chef Matt Costello. Sitting at locally crafted tables set between a stone hearth and a stainless-steel open kitchen, we feasted on nine beautifully presented courses. My favorites included an aromatic dish of smoked duck with blackberries, lardo and green peppercorn served under a cloche filled with “bourbon barrel smoke,” and melt-in-your-mouth sablefish with beans, onions and coriander sprouts topped with a custard crisp. Creative wine pairings, including an unfiltered Oregon Grüner Veltliner and a six-puttonyos Tokaji rosé, only added to the occasion. (Puttonyos is the unit that denotes the level of sugar and hence the sweetness of the Hungarian dessert wine.) The restaurant also hosted extensive — but completely self-service — buffet breakfasts each morning.
The magnificent views from our balcony; the Michelin star-quality restaurant; the easy walking distance to the center of town; our woodburning fireplace.
Our tiny closet; the limited service; the lack of privacy on the balconies; the worn fabric on some of our chair cushions.
Rooms 16, 26, 36 and 46 occupy the most private corner of the inn. Consider timing your stay to have dinner at Orchard Kitchen (open Thursday through Saturday) and/or the Roaming Radish’s gastropub (open Wednesday through Friday).
After some time kayaking, poking around Langley and hiking in the scenic parks of southern Whidbey Island, we again turned north. We spent a few hours in popular Deception Pass State Park, noted for its magnificent bridge spanning the deep, dramatic gorge between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands. We then took the ferry from nearby Anacortes and threaded our way through the San Juan Islands, a sensationally scenic archipelago dotted with enviable vacation homes.
Friday Harbor, Washington
On San Juan Island itself, the town of Friday Harbor has become quite touristy, perhaps because of its direct connection by high-speed catamaran with Seattle. Langley has a better selection of boutiques and art galleries. Nevertheless, Friday Harbor House, perched on a hill overlooking the marina and ferry dock, is a delightful base from which to explore the rest of the island. I stopped recommending the 23-room property a few years ago, but after a change in ownership in 2015 and a thorough renovation last year, I decided it merited a second look.
The friendly young woman at the front desk offered to help with our luggage and showed us to our Harbor View room, the only category I recommend besides the Partial View Suite. Request a high floor — and not just for the views. Most rooms overlook the popular restaurant’s patio, and higher floors offer more privacy. When enjoying the vistas from the Juliet balcony of our second-floor room, we stood perhaps just 15 feet above the people at the nearest table and could hear every word of their conversation quite clearly.
Inside, the room looked fresh and stylish, done in a palette of white, yellow and charcoal. Curvy gray armchairs added some midcentury modern chic, and a headboard of gold-toned plywood panels provided an edgy touch. The gas fireplace facing the bed was attractive, but it threw out too much heat for us to comfortably use on a summer evening. A jetted tub divided the bedroom from the granite vanity, next to a pristine shower stall clad in oversize white subway tiles.
After sundowners on the patio, we moved to the restaurant’s lively interior for dinner. Our waiter offered articulate wine recommendations, likely because he had once managed a winery in the Willamette Valley. I loved the Iris Vineyards Pinot Noir, full of fruit and refined spice, with a mocha note on the finish. It paired well with both a grilled-corn salad with arugula, tomatoes, cilantro and peaches, as well as some perfectly prepared wild salmon with slightly bitter baby turnips, savory charred red-leaf lettuce and briny capers. A simple dessert of butterscotch-glazed doughnuts with bourbon whipped cream was most satisfying. We also tried dinner at the well-regarded Coho Restaurant a short walk away, but both of us wished we’d dined again at Friday Harbor House instead.
The mesmerizing harbor and marina views; the warm and helpful staff; the commendable restaurant; the fresh room décor.
The proximity of our balcony to the restaurant patio.
Rather than dining at Coho Restaurant, consider instead Duck Soup Inn (open Thursday through Sunday), which the new owners recently revamped.
After an unforgettable kayaking excursion and a hike to the panoramic top of Mount Grant, we returned to urban life, spending a few nights in Seattle. There the Inn at the Market had also recently undergone a renovation, and I was curious to see if it could compete with my other Seattle recommendations, the contemporary Four Seasons and the grandly traditional Fairmont Olympic Hotel. The 76-room property has doorstep access to Seattle’s premier attraction, Pike Place Market, and many of the rooms have fine views of Elliott Bay.
We had wait-listed ourselves for an accommodation with a full water view, but only a Partial Water View Room was available. The pleasant front desk staffer gave us her favorite one, she said, and it did have an appealing corner location. One floor-to-ceiling bay window surrounded two fun, 1970s-inspired beige-and-orange armchairs and overlooked an unremarkable city street, but the other bay, home of the deep-grained wooden writing desk, had a view of Elliott Bay and the distant Olympic Mountains. A small table lamp and a pendant light flanking the king-size bed made a pleasingly asymmetric composition, and the bright shower-only bath, tiled in white, had excellent lighting around the single vanity.
The jewel of the Inn at the Market’s amenities is its guests-only roof terrace, with an array of tables and lounge chairs overlooking the famous Pike Place Market sign, the large Ferris wheel at Pier 57 and Elliott Bay beyond. The hotel’s Café Campagne, a Parisian-style bistro, serves a limited menu to the terrace. Our flutes of Champagne arrived in nine minutes, and it was a pleasure to sip them as we watched the ferries and container ships cutting through the bay, which had been turned a shimmering gold by the setting sun.
The fun and fashionable room décor; our partial views of Elliott Bay; the panoramic vistas from the roof terrace; the doorstep access to Pike Place Market.
Our smallish bath; the lack of amenities (spa, fitness center, lounge) other than the roof terrace.
Accommodations with full water views book up far in advance.
Much as we enjoyed our stay at the Inn at the Market, I found myself wishing we had booked at the Four Seasons two blocks away. A full-service hotel, it has similarly spectacular views, a glamorous pool overlooking the bay and a proper spa. But I had few regrets about trying out the Hotel Ballard, a 29-room boutique property tucked into the stylish, gentrifying neighborhood about five miles northwest of downtown. Numerous trendy bars and restaurants line Ballard Avenue NW on either side of the hotel, and a surprising number of craft breweries are within walking distance, including the brand-new California-based Lagunitas and popular Stoup, among others. The Ballard Locks and its fish ladder are a short drive away, as is the wide sweep of beach at Golden Gardens Park.
The Hotel Ballard occupies a new building, but it has plenty of character. Teardrops of glass dangled from unusual antlerlike chandeliers and sconces in the lobby, candles illuminated the adjacent library-lounge in the evening and behind the front desk was a giant print of a lion defeated by a colony of rabbits. There was no valet or bellman, but the smartly dressed woman who checked us in helped with our luggage after we rolled the bags inside, taking them up to our suite as we parked the car.
Our Luxury Suite had gunmetal-gray walls, but floor-to-ceiling windows ensured that it remained bright. A striking sofa upholstered in gray and gold velvet damask surmounted by a gold-framed oval mirror centerpieced the living room, but the attractive bedroom hewed to silver, with mirrored nightstands and a tall padded headboard in lustrous pewter. To one side, a Juliet balcony overlooked Ballard Avenue NW; on the other was an attractive bath with a large freestanding tub backed by a giant mirror. The separate shower had predictable but clean subway tiles. Though there was only one sink, the long counter of swirling white marble gave us plenty of space for toiletries. Sliding wooden barn doors divided the rooms from one another.
The hotel’s popular ground-floor restaurant, Stoneburner, has a warm, eclectic décor reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie, with wood-paneled walls, pressed-tin ceilings, glossy black columns and contrastingly contemporary chandeliers. I enjoyed everything we had on the Mediterranean-inflected menu, including a crunchy salad of snap peas, lemon, parsley, pecorino sardo cheese and almonds, and a main course of moist, deliciously charred brick-pressed chicken with tart herbed labneh (strained yogurt), haricots verts and parsley.
I also took advantage of the hotel’s relationship with the Olympic Athletic Club, a huge, rambling gym in an old building next door with wood floors, exposed-brick walls and a large swimming pool. Hotel guests have complimentary access to its facilities and most fitness classes.
The chic, edgy design; the complimentary access to the adjacent athletic club and pool; the location in the midst of Ballard Avenue NW’s independent restaurants and breweries.
The only breakfast option available before 10 a.m. was very casually delivered (i.e., in a paper bag) from a nearby café; the lack of a valet or bellman.
The hotel’s roof terrace is often closed for private events.