With snow-capped Mount Baker in its backyard and the Salish Sea at its door-step, the city of Bellingham Washington is a coastal paradise. Combining breathtaking landscape with quirky culture, this gem of the Pacific Northwest attracts a blend of outdoor enthusiasts, socially responsible entrepreneurs and artists.
City of Subdued Excitement is the curious moniker of this Pacific Northwest town of Bellingham Washington, 85 miles north of Seattle, situated at the jumping off point of one of the most iconic cruising playgrounds in North America, the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands. Perhaps the word “subdued” is included in its nickname due to the take-your-breath-away natural beauty that surrounds it. The accessibility to outdoor recreational activities include once-in-a-lifetime skiing, biking and boating.
If the first-rate biking and hiking trail system doesn’t excite you, visit the Tap Trail to access the many boutique brewpubs in the city. The sophisticated cultural scene also should not be missed, including The Upfront Theatre, home to the king of improv, Ryan Stiles, and the Pickford Film Center, a rare independent movie theater and host of Bellingham Music Film Festival.
Take a stroll through the beautiful campus of Western Washington University to witness over 20 sculptures by world-renowned artists. To excite your taste buds, don’t miss the unique flavors of Mallard Ice Cream and wine on tap at Vinostrology. Visit to the historic Fairhaven neighborhood. Comprised of four square blocks of century old brick buildings, Fairhaven is also jam-packed with charming locally owned shops and unique restaurants with views of Bellingham Bay. Some additional highlights of Fairhaven include Village Books, Rocket Donuts & Acme Ice Cream, The Black Cat and Övn Wood Fired Pizza.
With snow-capped Mount Baker in its backyard and the Salish Sea at its door-step, the city of Bellingham Washington, is a true coastal paradise engulfed in nature. Combining breathtaking landscape with the quirky culture, this gem of the Pacific Northwest attracts a blend of outdoor enthusiasts, socially responsible entrepreneurs and artists.
City of Subdued Excitement is the curious moniker of this Pacific Northwest town, 85 miles north of Seattle, situated at the jumping off point of one of the most iconic cruising playgrounds in North America, the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands.
Perhaps the word subdued is included in its nickname due to the take-your- breath-away natural beauty that surrounds it. The accessibility to outdoor recreational activities include once-in-a-lifetime skiing, biking and boating.
If the first-rate biking ad hiking trail system doesn't excite you, visit the Tap Trail to access the many boutique brewpubs in the city. The sophisticated cultural scene also should not be missed, including The Upfront Theatre, home to the king of improv, Ryan Stiles, and the Pickford Film Center, a rare independent movie theater and host of Bellingham Music Film Festival.
A visit to Bellingham is not complete without a trip to the Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building. This first LEED registered museum in the state is a spectacular translucent wall spanning 37 feet high and 180 feet in length while capturing the Northwest's most precious natural resource: sunlight.
Take a stroll through the beautiful campus of Western Washington University to witness over 20 sculptures by world-renowned artists. To excite your taste buds, don't miss the unique flavors of Mallard Ice Cream and wine on tap at Vinostrology.
Slightly south of Bellingham, make a visit to the historic Fairhaven neighbor-hood. Comprised of four square blocks of century old brick buildings, Fairhaven is also jam-packed with charming locally owned shops and unique restaurants with views of Bellingham Bay. Continue your exploration with a bike ride or walk down the two mile trail along South Bay Trail from downtown Bellingham. Some additional highlights of Fairhaven include Village Books, Rocket Donuts & Acme Ice Cream, The Black Cat and Övn Wood Fired Pizza.
This full-service marina on the northeastern shore of Bellingham Bay serves both recreational and commercial fishing vessels.
Rock and Rye Oyster House
(1145 N. State St.)
A true oyster lover's oasis, happy hour at this downtown Bellingham restaurant features locally sourced and seasonally available produce and seafood.
(221 W. Holly St.)
This all-day cafe offers comfort meals that entice such as Hen of the Woods Porridge for breakfast and Beer Ramen and Rosemary Lamb Burgers for dinner.
Aslan Brew Pub & Depot
(1330 N. Forest St.)
Known for producing organic ales, lagers and soda using sustainable practices, Aslan Brew Pub & Depot Open also offers a full range of mouth-watering burgers and tofu kabobs.
Fairhaven Keenan's at the Pier
(804 10th St.)
True to its name, Keenan's capitalizes on its magnificent panorama of Bellingham Bay and the Alaska ferry terminal offering an extensive wine list and seafood fare.
Spiced with tales of pirates and yellowed treasure maps, the British Virgin Islands are easily the most popular bareboat charter destination in the world. They are also a first-timer's paradise. Stretching 45 miles long by 15 miles wide, most of the BVI can be covered in an afternoon's sail, and the islands are so close together that they can basically be navigated by sight.
The area is dotted with great anchorages, many with mooring buoys one charter company even touts more than 16 anchorages within an hour's sail of Tortola. Both power and sail monohulls and catamarans are available from a multitude of charter companies, and the weather in the region is uniformly balmy. Frankly, the only downside to the BVI is that they are so popular.
Snorkelers will find shallow reefs alive with brightly colored tropical fish that want to peer into your mask, and you can swim into caves made famous in Treasure Island. The infamous Baths, on Virgin Gorda, are a series of sunlit pools and grottos set between enormous boulders, which seem as if they've been tossed by giants into the water's edge.
Bitter End Yacht Club (800-872-2392, beyc.com) is a perfect overnighter, with fun restaurants and watersports to enjoy.
Pusser's Marina Cay (284-494-2467, pussers.com) has quiet moorings and a lively restaurant.
Peter Island Yacht Harbour (800-346-4451, peterisland.com) has ample dockage and full resort facilities ashore.
Lying on the northeastern edge of the Bahamas Bank, the Abacos Out Islands are a string of cays sheltered by a long barrier reef, providing protected waters and a fascinating variety of islands to explore. Populated centuries ago by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, they bear names such as Man-O-War Cay and New Plymouth.
The villages are reminiscent of Cape Cod, with narrow streets and waterfront clapboard buildings.Marsh Harbour is the hub of Abacos action, with several charter companies offering both power and sail. The world-famous candy-striped lighthouse of Hopetown are nearby. Man-O-War Cay is dry, so bring your own bottle, and be sure to stop at Albury's sail loft for duffel bags and canvas goodies.
Besides pleasant weather, the drawing cards for the Abacos are miles of empty beaches (where you'll find conch shells with scarlet edges), good anchorages and great snorkeling. It takes some time to adjust to cruising all day in water just 10 feet deep, but you soon learn not to panic when you can clearly see starfish on the ocean floor.
The Abaco Beach Resort (242-367-2158, abacobeachresort.com) has a fine marina and resort facilities.
Treasure Cay Beach Marina & Resort (242-365-8250, treasurecay.com) is acclaimed for its flawless beach and marina.
The San Juan Islands, some 60 miles north of Seattle, are a democratic archipelago: there is something for everyone! With more than 200 rocky islands (750 if you count the small ones at low tide), a dozen undisturbed state parks, lush forests and charming small villages, the San Juan Islands are reminiscent of Maine. There are several bareboat charter companies based on the mainland in Anacortes and Bellingham with quick access to these cruising grounds.
Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is the social and political center of the region, with a small-town feel and quaint shops. Fossil Bay on Sucia Island shows the Ice Age evolution of this island chain, with fossils embedded in rocks worn smooth by glaciers. Teddy Roosevelt once stayed in the Victorian-era hotel at Roche Harbor on the opposite side of San Juan Island, and there is ample anchorage near the property.
The Friday Harbor Marina (360-378-2688, portfridayharbor.org) is good for provisioning and makes a great base for exploring.
Rosario Resort & Marina (360-376-2152, rosarioresort.com), on Orcas Island, has a protected marina and resort facilities.
Stretching more than 200 miles from mouth to headwaters, the Chesapeake Bay is one of the great American charter areas. Less a bay than a semiprotected waterway, the more than 3,000 miles of shoreline are dotted with creeks and hidden anchorages, and the gently rolling scenery is not only beautiful, but also marked with history at every turn. While the exact numbers are debatable, there are at least 230 harbors and 40 major rivers along this bay.
Annapolis is the area's boating capital and the base for several bareboat charter companies from which to launch a multitude of adventures. Across the bay, you can explore the Chester River, lined with plantation homes leading to the red-brick landscape of Chestertown. St. Michaels, on the Miles River, has a superb maritime museum with guest moorings and a lovely, sleepy town. Tangier and Smith Islands provide glimpses of fishing villages that haven't changed for a centurythe odd English dialect spoken here dates back to the 1600s.
St. Michaels Marina (410-745-2400, stmichaelsmarina.com), set in the heart of downtown.
Port Annapolis Marina (410-269-1990, portannapolis.com) is a full-service marina located on Annapolis's Back Creek.
Chesapeake Harbour Marina is located on the Severn River in Annapolis (410-268-1969, chesapeakeharbourmarina.com).
This is a still undiscovered bareboating paradise that has great weather, uncomplicated cruising and almost too many destination choices. Several charter companies are located in the area between Sarasota and Tampa Bay with an eclectic range of both power and sailboats.
Charterers have a choice of sailing in the open ocean or exploring the Intracoastal Waterway, which is really a misnomer since in this region it consists of connected bays and sounds. Pine Island Sound, for example, is protected by Captiva and Sanibel Islands, famed for the incredible shelling to be found on their beaches.
One of Cabbage Key's claims to fame is its bar, literally papered with thousands of signed dollar bills and allegedly the home of the cheeseburger that inspired Jimmy Buffett's Cheeseburger in Paradise.Farther north, bareboaters can explore Charlotte Harbor, Gasparilla Sound and the islands north of Clearwater. Heading south leads to the Ten Thousand Islands and eventually the Florida Keys.
Longboat Key Club Moorings (941-383-8383, longboatkeymarina.com) has an ideal location offering direct access to Sarasota Bay.
South Seas Island Resort & Marina (239-472-5111, southseas.com) a charming marina, is an easy walk to the shell beaches.
Chris Caswell is the editor of CharterSavvy, the online magazine devoted to bareboat chartering worldwide. For your free subscription, visit chartersavvy.com.
If you are visiting from another part of the country, chartering a boat in Anacortes or Bellingham is a great way to cruise the San Juan Islands in Washington state. Last year, Peter and I chartered a power catamaran from San Juan Yachting in Bellingham for a five day cruise. We were novices to a boat charter, having spent most of our cruising hours aboard our own boat.
We were excited to cruise our native waters with friends from Maryland who had never cruised in the Pacific Northwest before. We wanted to show them why we love this part of the country and hoped they would understand the magic.
Peter and I flew west from Baltimore to Seattle early on August 26, so we could get to Bellingham by 3 p.m. for the Marine Life and Skipper's Safety Briefings. We didn't want to rent a car, so we took an airport bus from Seattle to Bellingham, a two-hour drive north up I-5, and then took an Uber to the marina from the bus stop.
San Juan Charter is one of the most well-respected charter companies in the Pacific Northwest with a large fleet of both sail and power boats. They sent us a Skipper's Handbook a month in advance, and then during the briefing (that all charter customers are required to attend), they pointed out navigation hazards, areas with strong currents, customs information and other essential tips. Even well-seasoned Chesapeake Bay cruisers would find cruising in these waters somewhat challenging. The water temperature stays in the 50s all year long. Therefore, the air temperature rarely gets above the mid-70s. The water depth is measured in fathoms not feet, so anchoring is much more challenging. The tides are 14 feet, not 1 to 2 feet, and the beaches and coastline are unforgiving rock, not sand.
Our friends Jan and Steve, arrived in a rental car later in the evening, and as we waited for our charter boat to be ready we made a grocery list and took the rental car to the nearest grocery store.
Upon our return, we boarded All Heart, a 33-foot PDQ. She was a good boat for two couples because the layout included plenty of common area in the center with the sleeping berths in each of the hulls for privacy. We unpacked, stowed the provisions and familiarized ourselves with the systems on the boat before berthing down for the night.
Our itinerary had been tentatively laid out by Peter weeks before we arrived. Since he grew up in this part of the country, he knows the area like the back of his hand. We wanted to travel short distances in protected because, from experience, Peter knew that wind is elusive in the summer.
Our first morning we were speeding across Bellingham Bay towards Sucia Island by 7 a.m. We picked up a state maintained mooring ball at 10 a.m. in Echo Bay and prepared lunch. We put the dingy in the water and headed to shore to explore the many nature trails on the island. This marine park is very popular in the summer, and it was no surprise that old friends of ours were there at the same time. We invited them aboard for dinner after a day of hiking and kayaking (our boat was provisioned with two tandem kayaks). It was a great first day for our friends from Maryland. To make them feel at home, we spotted a boat named Chesapeake on a mooring close by and, amazingly, there was a beautiful Trumpy yacht in the harbor as well.
We departed before most other cruisers were having their first cup of coffee. Taking advantage of the tide, we were flushed out of the deep narrow bay and then headed toward the Canadian Gulf Islands. We stopped briefly at Bedwell Harbour to clear customs. There were no other boats at the customs dock, so we cleared by phone very easily and then explored the marina and Poet's Cove Resort & Spa before continuing on to Ganges Harbour on Salt Spring Island.
At Ganges, we docked at Kanaka Public Visitors Wharf, which was in easy walking distance to the restaurants and shops. Ganges is a thriving town with markets, restaurants and galleries filled with arts and crafts from local artisans. Our friend Steve had researched things to do before the trip and found out that there was a farm to table pop-up dining opportunity a mile down the road from the marina. He made reservations for Sunday evening, and we walked in a light rain to Bullock Lake Farm where a beautiful new barn adorned with twinkle lights and filled with place set tables surrounded by chairs covered in sheepskin rugs stood waiting for us in the woods. We toured the nearby garden with farmer Zachary and several other dinner guests and then enjoyed a wonderful meal prepared by Chef Haan Paleu-Chang from Toronto, who had partnered with Zachary and his wife, Molly, over the summer to create gourmet meals using all produce grown on the farm. Even the roasted pig that was served was raised on the farm. It was a magical evening. We were able to call a cab for our return to the marina.
We woke to fog and, to bide time until it lifted, we enjoyed breakfast at the Tree House Cafe and poked around the shops. At 11 a.m. we departed for Saturna Island. When researching where to dock, we first investigated Lyall Harbour, but could notfind any dock space, so we continued to Thomson Beach in Breezy Bay. After docking, we talked with a gentleman on the beach who gave us a ride to the top of Mt. Warburton Pike, the highest peak in the Gulf Islands at 1,300 feet. The panoramic views of the snow covered peaks on the mainland and the fascinating island jewels of the Canadian Gulf and U.S. San Juan Islands were spectacular.
In the late afternoon, we departed for U.S. waters and arrived at historic Roche Harbor on San Juan Island to clear customs. Re-entry into the United States wasn't as smooth as we hoped. The customs agent confiscated all our citrus fruit, avocados and tomatoes, which was ironic because we had purchased them all in the United States.
Once cleared, we anchored in the picturesque harbor and enjoyed a steak dinner on All Heart's flybridge. Early the next morning, Peter and Steve took the dinghy to buy the locally renowned donuts for breakfast. Afterward, a walk on the island was definitely warranted. It was a beautiful early fall day and we took full advantage by walking the beautiful grounds around the resort. The charming sculpture garden was a highlight. We topped off the day with dinner at McMillin's Dining Room.
We woke to rain and were disappointed because we had planned a day of hiking and whale watching. After some discussion of various alternatives, we decided to stick to our plan to explore Stuart Island. After all, rain should never be a deterrent when traveling in the Pacific Northwest. We found dock space in Reid Harbor, bundled up in rain gear and walked the three miles to Turn Point Lighthouse, which is located on the furthest northwest corner of the continental United States. It rained off and on, but we were rewarded by an orca whale sighting when we arrived.When we got back to the boat the decision was made to cruise the outside of San Juan Island to see if we could find the pod of orcas seen earlier at Turn Point. We hit the jackpot. We were able to slow the boat down and follow a feeding pod for over an hour. It is such a treat to be surrounded by these magnificent mammals. We finally pulled into bustling Friday Harbor at 6 p.m. just in time to get the last available slip for the night. We had a first-rate meal at Vinny's Ristorante, a terrific Italian restaurant in town.
We decided to top off the fuel before heading to Orcas Island, and were surprised at how little fuel we had used even though we had been cruising for four days.A familiar mooring ball was waiting for us as we entered Doe Bay at the east end of Orcas Island. This is where Peter's parents have lived for over 20 years, and for 30 years before that, this was where Peter vacationed every summer when his family lived in Spokane. We were warmly greeted by Peter's parents when we walked up the hill to the family cabin. For Peter and me, this was the end of the cruise. We planned to stay with Peter's parents for an additional two weeks. The six of us enjoyed a final meal of oysters and crab from nearby Buck Bay Shellfish Farm. We shared the highlights of our cruising adventure with Peter's parents the amazing pop-up dinner, the thrill of watching whales feed, the perfect balance of on water and on shore activities, the beauty, the camaraderie, the serenity.
Steve and Jan slept on the boat, and the next morning we watched them depart into the fog to return All Heart to Bellingham Bay. I think they understand the magic of this place.