By CARY ORDWAY
We wanted to find a cozy, romantic beach bungalow with its own beach on an island with thick forests and a lush natural landscape, so we headed for the San Juan Islands, right? Well not exactly. If you live in the Seattle area think a little closer - think Bainbridge Island.
There is a reason those people who live on Bainbridge Island pay through the nose for daily ferry commutes and put up with the relative inconvenience of timing any trip to Seattle so that there is a minimal wait at the ferry terminal. They do it because that sliver of Puget Sound that separates the island from Seattle also creates a huge divide in lifestyle. Island living is just different - it's slower, it's quieter, there are fewer people and, for many island residents, their homes are hidden in thick woods under a forest canopy that makes them feel like they're about the only people on earth. Others enjoy mesmerizing views of the sound from their waterfront homes.
Visitors can share some of that lifestyle by hopping the Bainbridge Island ferry, which runs at least every hour and sometimes more often that that. You drive onto the ferry down at the Seattle Waterfront and, just a half hour later, drive off in Eagle Harbor, which might just as well be a tiny town in the San Juans. The change in scenery is almost magical.
We had been searching for a beach hideaway someplace close to Seattle that was easy to get to, yet a total change from the Big City. We have fond memories of visits years ago we paid to a tiny beach house on the south side of Vashon just a 15-minute ferry ride from Point Defiance Park. We were looking for the same kind of solitude and access to the beach where we knew we would spend countless hours exploring the shoreline or reading good books as we sat atop a log or beach chair looking up from our pages every now and then to gaze at incredible Puget Sound.
A thorough search of the internet turned up some possibilities on Bainbridge Island and one that stood out was advertised as a "Bainbridge Island Beach Cottage." As we looked into it further, the description hit all the right buttons for us - it was a "classic 1930's cabin" and on Pleasant Beach just a few miles across the island from the ferry terminal. From the photos, there was no better word to describe the cabin than charming.
We called to make reservations a month or so ahead but we noticed right away that the booking calendar on this cabin was getting pretty full for the June time period we were seeking. Our schedule allowed us to slip in for a Wednesday night which was indeed open. Just the fact that the cottage was booked most weekends confirmed for us we were making the right choice.
Our ferry trip to Bainbridge was so fast we didn't even bother to get out of the car. Unlike the Anacortes-San Juan Islands run - where we always make a point to walk around the ferry and get amazing photos of the islands as well as enjoy a snack or drink - the Bainbridge ferry ride is over almost before it begins. Depending on when you arrive, however, you may need to add another 30 to 60 minutes wait time at the Seattle waterfront before boarding your ferry.
We were hungry getting off the late afternoon ferry and spotted a pizza place right on Winslow Way just a block or so from the ferry terminal. We ordered our pizza - which was ready in only 15 minutes - and drove another 10 minutes to the cottage. It was easy to find and, unlike some lodgings you see on the internet, this place was everything we thought it would be. We opened the door to a one-room cottage (plus bathroom and closet) that included a kitchen, table and dining area, a quasi-living room seating area, and a queen bed - everything decorated in beige or yellow or blue and white with a knotty pinewood floor. The kitchen was complete with coffeemaker, microwave, dishes and silverware, stove, refrigerator - everything we would need.
After finishing our pizza we began to realize how special the grounds were. The cabin has an old-fashioned porch and a couple of rocking chairs that are perfect for enjoying a picture postcard view of the expansive green lawn and, beyond that, the water of Puget Sound. Fir trees and shrubbery surround three sides of the cottage, while lilacs and other flower variations add highlights to the lawn. Interestingly, the owners of the cottage live right next door in their own well-maintained home of about the same vintage.
We took a walk out to the beach area where, with the tide out, it's possible to walk entirely around the inlet. The cottage had met our expectations and was just the kind of hideaway we had been looking for. But we also wanted to see something of Bainbridge Island.
The island has several local and state parks that have been set aside to allow residents access to the beach, and to enjoy some of the wooded areas of the island. We stopped by Fay Bainbridge State Park, where we found it almost unused during our midweek visit. It wasn't for lack of appeal - this park has great views of the Mainland and even the skyscrapers of Seattle. This park has long wide beaches, driftwood galore, and plenty of spots to picnic.
But the piece de resistance of our trip to Bainbridge was a visit to the Bloedel Reserve - something we had heard about while living many years in the Northwest but had never had the chance to visit. The Bloedel Reserve is 150 acres of forest and gardens that were set aside by lumber baron Prentice Bloedel and his wife, Virginia. We were curious at first why reservations were necessary to visit the reserve but, once we got there, we completely understood. The experience just would not be the same if too many people were in the reserve at once.
After calling ahead for our reservation, we arrived at the gatehouse where the hostess gave us a map and a brief explanation about the layout of the reserve. We began our two-hour visit by following the well-marked trail that led into a meadow and then into thick woods - primarily Douglas fir, red cedar and hemlock -- that seemed like the trees had been there since the beginning of time. If you wondered what the forest in Hansel and Gretel looked like, this was probably it.
The trail weaves through several different attractions in the reserve including a Zen garden, a moss garden, a reflection pool and several ponds. About half way through the tour, guests can tour the first floor of the former Bloedel house, a French chateau-style building overlooking Port Madison Bay and other points of Puget Sound.
The quiet solitude of the reserve was the perfect conclusion for our brief island getaway and provided a stark contrast for our short ferry ride back to reality.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Bainbridge Island is due west of Seattle, just across the waters of Puget Sound.
WHAT: Bainbridge is best-known as a bedroom community of Seattle, but the change in scenery and relative lack of development on the island also make it an attractive getaway or vacation spot.
WHEN: Any time of the year, although book well in advance for summer. Bainbridge shares Seattle's climate that can be cold at times but is generally temperate. Rain does occur, but that can add to the cozy feeling you get staying at a beachfront cottage.
WHY: Bainbridge Island is an easy getaway for Seattle area residents and visitors, yet offers a totally different world on the other side of the water. State parks and waterfront lodgings are plentiful. You can go shopping in historic Winslow and also there are several highly recommended restaurants.
HOW: For more information on this beach cottage, phone 206-999-9655 or visit www.bainbridgebeachcottage.com For more information on travel to Bainbridge Island, call the Kitsap Peninsula Visitor and Convention Bureau at 800-416-5615 or go to www.visitkitsap.com. You can also find maps and information near the ferry terminal at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center.
For more information on travel in the Pacific Northwest, please visit www.northwesttraveladvisor.com.
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway