Camano Island, Washington: Where Past Meets Present

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CAMANO ISLAND, WASHINGTON: WHERE PAST MEETS PRESENT
By Hilarie Larson

 

Nestled in the curve of neighboring Whidbey Island, separated by the shimmering Saratoga Sea, Camano Island is a laid-back escape from the big city hubbub. A mere 60 miles north of metro Seattle, Camano feels much further away in both time and the pace of life. A short drive over the Camano Gateway Bridge means you don’t need to wait for a ferry to enjoy its varied temptations ranging from quiet beaches, romantic seaside accommodations and locally inspired cuisine to family friendly zip-lining and vintage fishing resorts.

 

Like much of this region, the first know inhabitants were indigenous peoples, who used the area a base for harvesting bountiful supplies of fish, shellfish and berries.  And so it remained for thousands of years until the Pt. Elliott Treaty of 1855 removed the natives to reservations and made room for a prosperous logging industry to envelope the island. The town of Utsalady, on Camano’s northern edge, was one of the busiest ports in Puget Sound, exporting lumber to far away France and Shanghai.

 

As logging dwindled, farming and small resorts began to take over the local economy. With no main ‘city center’ the island still retains the rural charm and peaceful vibe that has made it a ‘well-kept secret’ for generations.

 

Nothing encapsulates that nostalgia better than Cama Beach Historical State Park.  It all began in 1934 when Iowa native LeRoy Stradley moved to Seattle and used some of the profits from his theater and real estate holdings to create a small family fishing resort on Camano’s southwestern shore.  Using local materials and employing many island residents, he turned the property that once belonged to a lumber company into an affordable holiday retreat.

 

Although Stradley died in 1938 his family, daughter Muriel, her husband Lee Risk and her two sisters, kept the dream alive.  For decades, nothing changed and families flocked, year after year, to the cedar cabins.  Days were filled with boating and beachcombing, fishing, swimming and crabbing.  You could play ping-pong or tennis, enjoy the weekly movie night or swap stories around the campfire.

By the late 1970’s, visitors began to dwindle and the Risks were getting older.  In 1989, the resort closed. The family searched for a way to retain the character of Cama Beach Resort and were loath to sell to developers.  They began to work with the State of Washington to create a park that would honor the history of the area. Fundraising began, the family sold the land to the state for 60% of its commercial value and donate a further $10 million in land.  In 2001 Cama Beach Resort was added to the National Register of Historic Places and is now run by Washington State Parks and 150 dedicated volunteers.

 

Visit today and you’ll find that, true to the Risk family tradition, not much has changed.  The small cedar cabins now have electricity and microwaves and each bed has a quilt, hand crafted by volunteers. Accommodations range from small standard cabins with hot and cold water in the kitchenette (shower and bathroom facilities are in the nearby boathouse) to larger cabins and bungalows with private baths.  Think of it as ‘glamping’ as you need to bring your own bedding, towels, dishes and cookware. And, in another nod to days-gone-by, you won’t find wi-fi or televisions either.

 

This is a destination for stepping back, chilling and tuning out.  Bring along that stack of books you’ve been meaning to read, meet your neighbors, play cards or just sit back and soak in the view – you might even see local Orcas or migrating Grey Whales. Go birding, or stroll along the shore looking for sea shells. Walk the one mile trail to neighboring Cama Beach State Park or expand your mind with classes on the environment and nature, local and indigenous culture, or park history. Park Ranger Jeff Wheeler is a font of entertaining information.

 

The Cama Beach Store is filled with nostalgic treasures and has hardly changed for generations.  Kids are encouraged to borrow books and toys while they visit. Ranger Jeff or one of the volunteers are available for tours and are a treasure trove of tales.

 

Visit the Center for Wooden Boats where you can rent classic wooden sailing and rowboats and sign up for sailing lessons. The center also has classes in traditional boat building skills and is happy to share their love and history of this Pacific Northwest tradition.

 

One ‘modern’ addition is the Cama Center, located on the bluff above the beach.  It’s home to the Cama Beach Café where you can savor a made-from-scratch breakfast or enjoy one of their special theme events, ranging from ‘Learn to Make Perfect Pies’ (just before Thanksgiving) to ‘Greek Feast’ or Valentine’s Dinner.  They also cater for weddings and other events.

 

Kristoferson Farm reflects the island’s agricultural history but with a decidedly modern and fun, twist.  Founded in 1912 as a dairy and timber farm, Kristoferson’s is now an organic grower of hay, lavender and pumpkins. Several years ago, the current generation (four sisters and one brother) was pondering ways to stay relevant and keep the farm as a viable, family enterprise.  Inspiration struck while the sisters were on vacation in Hawaii and went zip-lining. Why not have a zip-line on the farm?  Visitors could ‘tour’ the farm while getting an adrenalin-rush, plus learn about the forest eco-system at the same time. Canopy Tours NW was born.

 

There are 6 lines interspersed with informative forest walks.  Guides are certified so you can relax and enjoy the ride as well as the scenery.  Lavender lemonade, made with Kristoferson’s own organic herbs, is served along the trail in the warmer months, while hot cocoa warms up the night zipping experience,  ‘Zip and Sip’ offers up an afternoon of adventure with sampler flights at nearby Naked City Brewery.

For those who’d rather stay earthbound, Farmhouse dinners are held in the old, red barn.  Local winemakers and chefs create seasonal, five course menus, sharing their stories along with the island’s culinary treasures.

 

There may not be an official ‘town’ on the island, but the Camano Marketplace is a great substitute!  Located next to the library, you’ll find a vibrant collection of restaurants and shops, including Camano Island Coffee Roasters, butcher Del Fox Custom Meats (their BBQ Pulled Pork sandwich is outstanding), a tempting French bakery, Dusty Cellars wine bar, Naked City Brewery and a small shopping area devoted to local crafts and antiques.

 

Accommodations on the island are varied, with many bed and breakfasts or homestays available.  Should you feel like spoiling yourself, the Camano Island Inn is worth investigating.  The building began as a boarding house for workers at the local lumber mills and their families.  Today, most of the structure remains and has been converted into one of those small, charming hotels that oozes hospitality.  With only nine individually furnished guest rooms, all of which offer views of the sea, you’ll feel as relaxed as if you were staying in a private home. The steps leading to the beach are lined with succulent berry bushes and the surrounding gardens are delightful with sculptures and innovative plantings to catch the eye. A great spot to relax with a glass of wine!

 

There’s also a full service spa and the ‘Bistro Restaurant’ where Head Chef Dylan Alexander is in charge of creating inspired dishes from local ingredients, many of which come from the Inn’s own organic garden.  The restaurant has become known as a bit of a breeding ground for young, up-and-coming chefs – the previous holder of the position, Kris Gerlach, is now in charge of the café and catering for Cama Beach.

 

Camano Island is truly a spot where you can return to quieter times and be tempted to never leave.


Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

Northwinds Wine Consulting


About the Author:

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

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