Thursday, May 17, 2018

Travels with Chili: Lopez Island Idyll

For years I'd heard stories from friends who love Lopez Island—one of the San Juan Islands, a short hop on the ferry from Anacortes, Washington, north of Seattle—about its wild beauty and quiet spirit. I wasn't quite prepared to be swept away by the bucolic nature of the place, with its rolling fields and low profile perfect for biking and hiking.

By the time we departed after a long weekend, I was teary at having to leave—but I shouldn't skip ahead just yet.

Our cottage, number 4.

Our first sojourn on this smaller sister to its larger, more tourist-trafficked siblings was prompted by an invitation from Barbara Marrett of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau to attend an agricultural summit being held on Lopez. They offered to cover my attendance at the summit and one night's lodging, so I eagerly signed on and added two more nights at Lopez Farm Cottages, the better to do some exploring around the island.

Dave and I took the afternoon ferry from Anacortes after stopping for lunch in Seattle on what turned out to be a drop-dead-gorgeous, clear-blue-sky day. I find that whenever I set foot on a ferry, no matter how stressful the drive, I instinctively take a deep breath and feel myself relax into the rhythm of the thrumming engines and the movement of the big ferry as it glides across the water.

A "glampsite" at Lopez Farm Cottages.

Once the ferry docked, we drove down the ramp onto the island and found the farm a short drive away on one of the two-lane country roads that wind their way around the island. We parked in the large gravel lot next to a little wooden hut and found a note from owner Cathie Mehler welcoming us to the farm. With directions to our cottage in hand, we loaded up one of the wheeled carts with our luggage and walked the short path to a large meadow dotted with five cottages design by Cathie's husband, John Warsen.

John converted portions of the 30-acre historic farm property into simple lodging options including campsites and what he's dubbed "glampsites," as well as building the five cottages, but he and Cathie left much of the property undeveloped, including the meadow, woods near the road and a large pasture that he and Cathie rent out to a neighbor for her sheep. He said he designed the cottages in the same footprint as a typical hotel room, but arranged the homey space to contain a separate bedroom and bathroom, a sitting room and a small kitchenette with a sink, refrigerator and microwave.

Barn Owl Bakery goods at Blossom Market.

The two glampsites are kitted out with a queen futon (Sheets! Pillows!) in a carpeted tent, and a coffeemaker, microwave and access to showers and bathrooms. The dozen-and-a-half campsites are well-spaced and private, though kids under 14 and pets aren't allowed, the better to have a "quiet, peaceful experience."

Most of the island is agricultural land, with only one small village, though it has two coffee shops, a bakery and two very good restaurants—we dined at both Haven and Ursa Minor—as well as the wonderful Blossom Grocery that carries local goods from area farms and the astonishing organic, wood oven-baked breads made by Barn Owl Bakery at Midnight's Farm (which has its own two-bedroom farmhouse to rent).

Flowers from Arbordoun Farm.

Speaking of area producers, on Saturdays from May through September you can find dozens of local farmers, crafters, artists, bakers and more at the Lopez Farmers Market in the Village. Many of the island's farms welcome visitors who call ahead, including:

  • Jones Family Farms: Nick and Sarah Jones run a shellfish farm at Barlow Bay plus raise pastured beef, lamb, goat, pork and poultry on their farm on the south end of the island.
  • Sunnyfield Farms: Andre and Elizabeth Entermann have a raw milk goat dairy and produce cheese, yogurt, milk and meat.
  • Midnight's Farm: David Bill and Faith Van De Putte raise pastured pigs and cows, and house Barn Owl Bakery, a yoga studio and have the first Dept. of Energy-certified compost facility in the county.
  • Lopez Island Vineyards: Brent Charnley and Maggie Nilan run the first organic vineyard and winery in the state.
  • Arbordoun Farm: Susan Bill grows flowers and produces all-natural skin care products.

An unusual feature of the agricultural scene on Lopez is the Ellis Ranch Conservation Easement, a 313-acre farm that Dr. Fred Ellis and his wife, Marilyn, placed in a conservation easement in 1985. Their aim was to protect the active, productive wetlands on the property and to ensure that its open fields remain undeveloped and available for agricultural purposes in perpetuity. Today there are three commercial family farmers stewarding the property:

  • Horse Drawn Farm: Kathryn Thomas and Ken Akopiantz grow fruits, vegetables and meat that are stocked in the farm's honor-system farm shed. Most of the work on the farm is done using horses.
  • Sweetgrass Farm: Scott Meyers and Brigit Waring raise 100% grassfed Wagyu beef and were featured in a New York Times article about a marketing startup called CrowdCow.
  • T & D Farms: Todd Goldsmith & Diane Dear raise chicken, goats, hay, fruits and vegetables.

A community-funded cookbook featuring profiles and recipes.

A beautiful new book called Bounty: Lopez Island Farmers, Food and Community profiles 28 of the island's farms along with recipes celebrating what they grow. The result of a three-year, community funded effort, with gorgeous photographs of the food, farms and land that makes this such a special place, can be ordered through the Lopez Bookshop.

Walking, hiking and biking options are too numerous to mention, but Cathie and John at Lopez Farm Cottages have a great list of excursions. You don't even have to schlep your bike to the island, since Village Cycles has bikes for rent at hourly, daily or weekly rates. And of course, being an island on a calm inland waterway, you can also rent a kayak or sign up for a tour at Lopez Island Sea Kayak. I can tell you from personal experience there's no better way to explore the less accessible nooks and crannies of these islands.

In case you can't tell from the verbiage above, I'm in love with this place and can't wait to get back. For us, since shopping and tourist-y activities aren't on our priority list—though it's perfectly simple to take a ferry for a day trip to Friday Harbor or one of the other islands—this quiet place is right up our alley for camping, cooking, reading, exploring and hanging out. If those sorts of activities are high on your list, I can guarantee you'll love Lopez Island, too.

Photo of "glampsite" by Bill Evans Photography. Photo of Arbordoun Farm from their website.

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