From cat cafes to meaderies and everything in between, here's how to enjoy rediscovering our neighbours to the South after a pandemic’s time away
“She’s just visiting,” says the bartender to an outdoorsy-looking couple seated at the counter as she tucks a lock of pink hair behind her ear. “Where should she go?”
Technically speaking, I’ve been just-visiting Bellingham regularly for nearly 25 years now, but I still love to ask this question to locals: where should I go this weekend? It’s my first time here at Honey Moon, for example—the discovery of this delightful alley-side meadery came thanks to a hot tip from another local at another place. And how did I manage to go more than two decades without a sip of their heavenly, floral Fleurs Amères mead? Or without spending time under their fuchsia chandelier and twinkling fairy lights?
I can be excused for not discovering this place over the last three years, of course. But our closest city over the border holds a special place in my heart as the ideal near-far getaway—close enough to be an easy hour-plus drive to get here, and far enough to feel like I’ve left Vancouver’s busyness behind. The streets are wide and Sunday drive-y; the people have that ultimate PNW look about them—like they’ve just returned from an epic waterfall hike and have plans to open a craft brewery with a couple of college friends within the year.
On this trip—my first post-COVID return—I like the new lens that my absence has cast over the town. In the beforetimes, I had a routine: wake early, head for the border, breakfast in downtown Bellingham (where I once had the thrill of a server asking me for a local recommendation), wander a bookstore or three, hit up Trader Joe’s and Target, make it home by late afternoon.
But on this visit, I’m making up for lost time: I’m on a girls’ getaway to spend days, not just hours, here (not that we won’t come back with a carload from TJ’s, too). We’ve booked a room at the new Hotel Leo, the historic building in downtown Bellingham that renovated, revamped and re-opened back in late 2019, its roomy modern suites great for a chill-out between shopping and dining. For a moment, we’re tempted to camp out in the hotel’s lower-level theatre, which gives you the option of casting to the big screen from your phone or choosing a DVD from a shelf stocked with fave titles like Slumdog Millionaire and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But we’re looking for an experience of the IRL kind, and so instead we start our wander at my longtime favourite: Old Town Cafe, where a seat in the warm and woodsy booths gives you a view to a new streetside patio, and where the omelettes are a truly beautiful thing. It’s the hearty Lumberjane for me—perfectly prepared local organic eggs overflowing with bacon, cheddar, caramelized onions, mushrooms and kale, while my friend guns the when-in-America veggie-friendly heartstopper of biscuits and gravy: a rich mushroom and tahini gravy draped over homemade biscuits and beautifully poached eggs.
Fuelled to stroll, we wander up to get lost for a bit in the stacks of Henderson’s, the used bookstore that almost rivals Portland’s Powell’s for breadth of titles on hand (I’m stoked to nab a copy of The Storied Life of AJ Fikry). It’s just around the corner from the Whatcom Museum—and while the weather is a little too early-spring glorious to take the full tour of its collections, the Museum Store is irresistible: local artisans’ pottery (I’m still coveting one of Makiko Ichiura’s ceramic sheep) sits alongside 1,000-piece puzzles and adorable handmade puppets.
We wander back to the Leo with plans to drive the narrow waterfront stretch of road that joins downtown Bellingham with Fairhaven, the waterfront community that’s also designated as a National Historic District. And we will—but first, we’re stopped in our tracks by a pile of puppies. It turns out that Bellingham is now home to a puppy rescue, which saves canine moms-to-be from high-kill shelters in Texas and California. For about $15, you too can immerse yourself in a dozen or more of Are You My Human’s furry babies for an hour or so. (And, in a case of gilding the lily, Bellingham also has a cat café: Neko is licensed, too, so you can enjoy a bottle of local brewery Kulshan’s Bastard Kat while you desperately wait for Luna or DJ Silly Goose to show you some affection—which they may or may not do, because cat.)
Our pet vibes satiated, we hop over to Fairhaven, where Village Books proves there’s no such thing as too much time in a bookstore, and then doubles down on that dare with the top-floor Evolve Chocolates and Café, where we enjoy a view over the harbour and a sweet afternoon snack of an iced ginger cookie and a scone packed with Medjool dates, orange and cardamom. But Fairhaven is made for wandering, so we reluctantly leave our ocean view for street level again to explore shops and back alleys and the waterfront itself. The quarter-mile Taylor Dock boardwalk links Fairhaven with Boulevard Park, leading you right out and over the open water—with views back to the peaks that line the Canadian border on a clear day.
Patting ourselves on the back for our step counts and strolls, we decide there’s time to sneak in a quick taco at Black Sheep back in Bellingham before dinner—where we’re rewarded with well-balanced mango margaritas and pork belly tacos topped with mango-pineapple chutney, tamarind crema and cilantro (pictured above).
Calories, of course, have no place on a getaway weekend, and so we gamely head post-taco for our real dinner and a tour of the city’s newest distillery and restaurant, Chuckanut Bay Distillery’s Penny Farthing. Co-owner Ethan Lynette spent the last few years renovating the old JC Penny building—spot the original “boys department” signs still framed on the lower level—and is on the way to opening Bellingham’s only rooftop bar this coming summer. Once we’re experts on the distilling process (let’s just say: it’s incredibly complicated, and so cheers to the pros) we dive into a loaded mezze platter of green mint hummus, baba ganoush and citrus-brined feta alongside sweet baby radishes, fresh dates, grilled zucchini and more. And, of course, an excellent Old Fashioned crafted from Chuckanut Bay’s own housemade bourbon and demerara syrup.