North of Seattle, the Washington coastline fragments into a picturesque archipelago of forested islands dotted with fishing villages. My destination was one of the northernmost and easiest to reach by car, Lummi Island. Though it’s just a 10-minute ferry ride from the mainland, Lummi lacks the fame of the nearby San Juan Islands, and retains an atmosphere of tranquility. There is no proper town, but we discovered a smattering of galleries, shops and restaurants scattered across the northern end of the island.
The primary purpose of my trip was to stay at The Willows Inn. The property comprises 21 accommodations distributed among several buildings, some of which are as much as a mile and a half from the main lounge and restaurant. I arrived feeling skeptical. The rooms and suites looked lackluster, judging by photos on the inn’s website, but the restaurant has garnered numerous accolades, and I wanted to see for myself whether it deserved such acclaim. The chef, Blaine Wetzel, grew up in Washington and apprenticed at Noma in Copenhagen, which currently sets the bar for restaurants striving to be local and seasonal (indeed, it has been hailed by some as the best restaurant in the world). Wetzel takes the local/seasonal philosophy to its extreme, sourcing vegetables from Lummi Island farms, foraging on the island for wild plants, and procuring meat and fish from within as tight a radius as possible.
Our evening began with an aromatic and well- balanced aperitif of gin, Douglas fir and nettle, served on the sunny oceanview terrace. Fortunately, the story did not end there. During our meal, Wetzel and his team coaxed deeply satisfying flavors from carefully chosen ingredients. I felt encouraged by the amuse bouche, a sweet and smoky mussel served in a smoke-filled wooden box. But when the toasted kale topped with rye crumbs and Olympic Peninsula black truffle arrived, I knew the restaurant was indeed truly special. Crispy and rich with truffle flavor, kale has never tasted so delicious. A sweet and fragrant dish of glazed beets with lingonberries and sorrel proved equally enlightening. Wetzel also handles seafood expertly, serving a perfect scallop atop scarlet mustard greens, black cod with delectable “beach greens,” and a slice of salmon smoked for eight hours over green alder. This last dish, a pink crescent of salmon candy, regularly appears on the constantly changing menu. Wine pairings kept pace with the cuisine, notably a spicy DeLille Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend, a fruity àMaurice Chardonnay and an elegantly floral Lucien Albrecht Gewürztraminer. After dinner, we chatted in the kitchen with Wetzel, as well as the wife of a noted Seattle chef. In an unguarded moment, she exclaimed, “I think that was the best meal I’ve ever had — oh, but don’t tell anyone I said that!”
Following this gastronomic tour de force, I felt no regret returning to our accommodations, which had surpassed my expectations in almost every respect. We’d opted to stay in “The Watermark,” an oceanview guesthouse about a mile and a half from the restaurant. This stylish home contains three comfortable guest rooms, as well as striking public areas, all designed by local artist Dan Raymond. A full kitchen with granite counters opens onto an airy limestone-floored living room, centerpieced by a double-sided gas fireplace clad in opalescent shell tile. Opposite the fireplace, sliding glass doors open to a broad oceanfront patio with a fire pit. On the other side of the fireplace, an eight-person dining table faces glass doors leading to a long wooden deck outfitted with plush sofas, armchairs, a gas grill, fireplace and overhead heaters. The Watermark would be a wonderful place for three couples to stay for a long weekend. In our case, we were fortunate that the other two rooms remained unoccupied, and we had the entire house to ourselves.
Each of the suites in The Watermark is a little different. We chose the second-floor Orcas View Suite because it commanded views of both the ocean and nearby ponds laced with boardwalks. It was furnished with leather club chairs, a writing desk and a king bed crowned by a lively mural. Heavy sliding doors concealed a large flat-screen television and storage space. The bath was shower-only, with two sinks and a small washer and dryer. Across the hall, The Sea View Suite lacks a view of the ponds, but makes up for it with a walk-in closet and bathtub. On the ground floor, The Sinclair Suite shares these attributes, along with direct access to the oceanview patio. Those seeking to stay in the main Willows Inn complex should opt for “The Haven,” perched on a hill just behind the restaurant. Or, for the most space and privacy, book the two-bedroom Beach House, set on a stretch of sand a half-mile from the inn. Whichever accommodation you choose, keep in mind that none offers much in the way of service. The front desk is not staffed at night, nor is there turndown. Breakfast is included, but it is taken in a casual café near the ferry dock, not at the inn. Even so, we regretted staying for just one night at The Willows; it would have been fun to take a second day to explore the island, forgoing the restaurant one evening and dining at home. I also recommend taking time to stop by the Legoe Bay Winery next door to The Watermark house, where personable owner Larry Smith crafts a range of pleasantly dry, zesty wines.
AT A GLANCE:
LIKE: The impressively creative and satisfying cuisine; the tranquil island setting.
DISLIKE: The limited service; the unpleasant-tasting well water.
GOOD TO KNOW: For a more scenic route to the inn, exit the freeway after Burlington and follow chuckanut drive along the coast.
THE WILLOWS INN, Rating 91. Orcas View Suite, $375; The Haven, $400; Beach House, $675. 2579 West Shore Drive, Lummi Island. Tel. (360) 758-2620.
While in the Pacific Northwest, I took the opportunity to check up on the three hotels I currently recommend in Seattle (alas, no upscale hideaways have opened since my previous visit). A relatively young city, hilly Seattle wasn’t founded until the 1850s, and since then, it has cycled through a number of booms and busts, including timber, gold and, most recently, high tech. Like Chicago, it suffered a major fire in the late 19th century that destroyed the downtown, and like Chicago, Seattle took the opportunity to remake itself. The prosperous city of 2013 merits at least two or three days’ exploration, with time spent visiting its museums, the historic (if a bit scruffy) Pioneer Square district and, of course, the famous Pike Place Market. Those with more time should also consider taking a ferry from the downtown waterfront to one of the outlying communities, such as Bainbridge Island. Seattle is surrounded on all sides by natural splendor, and after touring the city, the mountainous Olympic National Park or picturesque San Juan Islands make for memorable excursions. Some find the city’s reputation for rain off-putting, but between May and September, Seattle averages between just one and two inches of rain per month. From November to January is the wettest time of the year.
The most traditional luxury hotel in Seattle is The Fairmont Olympic, built in 1924 near the top of the steep slope on which the downtown rises. This 450-room stalwart makes no concessions to current design fads, with a two-story barrel-vaulted lobby lit by grand brass chandeliers and lined with oak-hewn Corinthian pilasters. Various plush seating groups stand atop a regal carpet, leading to a piano bar/lounge in front of The Georgian restaurant, a palatial choice for breakfast or afternoon tea. Our Executive Suite exhibited the same classic style, with crystal and brass lamps, floral-print drapes and upholstery, and a gold-hued carpet. It felt spacious, with a separate living room and bedroom, but the marble and granite bath was quite compact, with a single vanity and a shower-tub combination. I was pleased with the hotel’s friendly and efficient service until the very end of our stay, when we waited 25 minutes for the valet to bring down our luggage. Midway through the wait, the front desk assured me that the bags were on their way, but it wasn’t until we asked the doorman to check on their progress that someone was alerted and sent to retrieve them. I have yet to fathom how the front desk could twice fail to contact the valet on our behalf.
AT A GLANCE:
LIKE: The grand public spaces; the palatial restaurant; the indoor swimming pool; the courtesy car.
DISLIKE: The shower-tub combos; the occasionally clumsy service.
GOOD TO KNOW: Odd-numbered rooms face the main entrance courtyard.
THE FAIRMONT OLYMPIC, Rating 90. Deluxe King, $419; Executive Suite, $439. 411 University Street, Seattle. Tel. (206) 621-1700.
We encountered no such trouble when we checked out of the Four Seasons, where the five-minute wait for our luggage seemed almost intolerable to the doormen, an example of the uncompromising service standards at this sleek, contemporary hotel. The 147 rooms here tend to be smaller than those at The Fairmont Olympic, but the baths feel much more luxurious; with marble-clad soaking tubs, separate showers and televisions embedded in the mirrors. Many of the rooms also have impressive panoramic views of Puget Sound through floor-to-ceiling windows.
The real highlight of this property, however, is the rooftop swimming pool. There, energetic staff serve chilled water, cocktails and appetizers, and vigilantly keep the loungers tidy. Contrary to popular belief, summers in Seattle bring many clear, sunny days, and during our visit, we basked by the pool each afternoon, contemplating a panorama of sailboats and ferries backdropped by Bainbridge Island and the snowcapped Olympic Mountains.
The ground-floor restaurant also overlooks this view. Its menu offers fresh, seasonal and unfussy dishes such as arugula and artichoke salad, and Copper River salmon with fiddlehead ferns, garlic spears, favas, sea beans and morels. Most visitors will also appreciate the convenient location of the Four Seasons, across the street from the fine Seattle Art Museum and less than two blocks from Pike Place Market.
AT A GLANCE:
LIKE: The perfectly central location; the dramatic views; the unfailingly conscientious service; the complimentary house car; the rooftop pool.
DISLIKE: The relatively compact size of the room.
GOOD TO KNOW: Pool-view accommodations also have at least partial elliott Bay views.
FOUR SEASONS, Rating 94. Partial Bay View, $505; Deluxue Bay View, $635. 99 Union Street, Seattle. Tel. (206) 749-7000.
Three blocks down the street, in the opposite direction from the market, stands The Alexis Hotel, a 121-room Kimpton property. Its historic building predates the raising of the street level in Seattle, and there are still bricked-up windows in the basement, according to one staffer I spoke with. The façade retains its turn-of-the-century look, but period details in the interior were stripped away during the building’s time as a parking garage. The décor now is whimsically contemporary, with colorful abstract paintings lining the halls. Service here is cheerful and hip almost to a fault.
The main reason to stay at The Alexis is its well-priced, apartment-size suites. My favorite is the Author’s Suite, also known as the Fireplace Suite for its functional woodburning hearth. Black-and-white photos of famous literary figures line the walls of the entry hall, living/dining room and separate bedroom with a queen-size bed. The marble-and-tile bath is incongruously diminutive in such a space. Surely room could have been found for a separate shower and two vanities? But the living room is a delightful place to relax. The round dining table is a perfect setting for a room-service breakfast, and we very much enjoyed returning after dinner — amenities at the hotel include The Library Bistro, serving New American cuisine — lighting a fire and sinking into the sofa. Regrettably, some of the furnishings had signs of wear, and we rolled our eyes at the scratchy leopard-print bathrobes. Those seeking to entertain in their accommodations won’t find a better space-to-price ratio than at The Alexis; nevertheless, it feels more cute than chic and some freshening is definitely in order.
AT A GLANCE:
LIKE: The spacious suites; the complimentary wine and cheese each afternoon; our woodburning fireplace; the price.
DISLIKE: Our small bath; the signs of wear; the cutesy and scratchy robes.
GOOD TO KNOW: Only certain executive Suites have views of the bay.
THE ALEXIS HOTEL, Rating 88. Fireplace Suite, $510. 1007 First Avenue, Seattle. Tel. (206) 624-4844.