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Meandering Along Washington State's Spellbinding 'Jewel Coast' : Historic Bellingham is center of region nestled between San Juan Islands and North Cascades.

April 18, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Puget Sound was just a name in a high-school geography book for many folks until Expo '86 in Vancouver, British Columbia. That's when thousands driving north for the world's fair learned that the rumors of northwest Washington's almost surreal beauty were in fact a reality.

The native Salish Indians have known about that beauty for thousands of years, but kept it pretty much to themselves until Spaniards "discovered" the area and the San Juan Islands in 1774. They were followed 20 years later by the British, who promptly changed the name of Bahia de Gaston to Bellingham Bay.

Bellingham, 89 miles north of Seattle, was founded as a lumber and coal port in the mid-19th Century. These products, plus a brief flutter with gold, kept the region going until the late 1800s, when fishing, canning, farming and Western Washington University joined the economic mix. In 1903, Bellingham and three adjoining villages were hammered together into the present town of 60,000. Northwest Washington's history can't honestly be called colorful, at least until one gets around to discussing the doings of Bellingham's Dirty Dan Harris.

Harris was a huge, uncouth, hard-drinking, semi-literate seaman who earned his nickname with infrequent baths and even less frequent changes of clothing. He also earned a fortune in real estate, where he invested the considerable money he amassed at what he really did best--smuggling booze and other products back and forth between Bellingham and Vancouver by small boat, alone and usually at night.

Harris' entrepreneurial prowess led him to found and buy up the port of Fairhaven, now Bellingham's most historic district. But after 35 years of being the community's biggest mover and shaker, Harris sold his holdings and moved to Los Angeles, where he was fleeced of his fortune and died in 1890.

The Jewel Coast, as this part of the Puget Sound shore is called, lies between the Cascades' Mt. Baker to the east and the 172 San Juan Islands in the Sound. Gentle farmland connects pleasant small towns, each of which seems to cherish its own heritage with pioneer museums and parks, homestead barns, original log cabins and homes, antique gas and steam tractors.

Lynden, 12 miles north of Bellingham and founded in 1891, is almost completely Dutch, with 28 churches (and one bar) for 6,000 citizens, plus windmills, lots of neat flower gardens, raspberry and strawberry farms and a thriving dairy industry. Lynden also shuts down completely on Sundays.

Sundays in Bellingham may find many people in their boats, since there is one for every six citizens. Bellingham also has been the southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System's ferries since luring them from Seattle to Fairhaven three years ago. Dirty Dan Harris would be proud that his old town is still humming.

Getting settled in: On the north shore of Lummi (pronounced Lum-mee) Island, a five-minute ferry ride (leaving every 20 minutes) from the mainland north of Bellingham, the absolutely enchanting Loganita bed-and-breakfast nestles in a fantasy of tulips, roses, jonquils and more than 100 lilac bushes that cluster around a brilliant green lawn sloping down to the water. Views of the Sound, other islands and, on a clear day, Mt. Baker and the Canadian Cascades are spellbinding.

Within this turn-of-the-century villa, everything is all elegance and comfort, highlighted by two gigantic stone fireplaces, shining old silver and crystal, cavernous leather couches and great masses of fresh flowers in antique vases everywhere.

Bedrooms and suites reflect the same exquisite taste of owners Ann and Glen Gossage, and it's little wonder that executives of some of the world's most prestigious hotels choose Loganita to get away from the madding crowd. This is the Tiffany of B&Bs, one that we could cheerfully spends months in.

The Best Western Heritage Inn is a handsome Federal building that carries its colonial theme into bedrooms with cherrywood four-posters, armoires and other tasteful Early American touches. There's a pool and Jacuzzi, guest laundry, family suites, coffee-and-tea gear in rooms and a free breakfast of juices, fresh fruit, cereals, bagels and cream cheese, and five kinds of breads.

Nineteen miles north of Bellingham on the Canadian border, the small port town of Blaine has one of the region's largest hotels, The Inn at Semiahmoo. The inn has come a long way from its humble origins as a salmon cannery, and now has 200 rooms and suites, many with fireplace and balcony. Semiahmoo (pronounced Seh-mee-AH-moo) also has indoor tennis, an indoor-outdoor pool, sauna, exercise room, indoor track, an Arnold Palmer golf course and a 250-slip marina. It's the centerpiece of the 800-acre Semiahmoo Resort.

Bedrooms are unusually large if rather austere, and there are three restaurants, one a delightful little oyster bar.

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