I drive onto the 20-car Whatcom Chief and inch forward to meet the bumper in front of me, coaxed into position by the wagging finger of a salty-looking deckhand. I turn the engine off to wait out the 15-minute Hale Passage crossing from Gooseberry Point to Lummi Island. A trio of gulls keeps pace with the ferry overhead, advancing and then dropping behind in the wind as if playing a familiar game. Our destination is a sparsely populated spot off the coast of mainland Whatcom County, Washington, not far from the Canadian border. Ahead, a mammoth, evergreen-shrouded hill dominates the island, with lower rolling farms and shoreline properties in the foreground.
Lummi Island has become a renowned foodie destination for one reason: Willows Inn. Dining there is the highlight of our itinerary to celebrate my friend and traveling companion Robert’s birthday. Willows Inn is a special-occasion kind of restaurant; it has played gracious host to countless anniversaries, birthdays and honeymoons.
We have hours to kill before check-in at the Inn, allowing time to explore the island’s two-lane country roads. Instead of a town with boutique shops and eateries lining a main street as one would expect at the typical Northwest-island getaway, Lummi Island sets itself apart. The few shops, galleries and restaurants are spread out, making the journey to find them half the fun.
We drive across a narrow saddle of the island to Legoe Bay. One of the most stunning seascape views I’ve ever witnessed unfolds as the road traces the shore. If I were a painter, this is where I would set up my easel. Waves lap the pebble shore, a drift-net fishing fleet bobs in the bay and in the distance the top of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island hides above slate clouds. A few businesses occupy an old marina boathouse across the street from the shore—Legoe Bay Winery and Lummi Island Gallery—just what the tourism gods ordered.
Legoe Bay on Lummi Island
Lummi Island Gallery (lummiislandgallery.com) showcases the works of local artists. They also feature something I don’t expect to see on a remote Northwest island: exquisite stone sculptures from the Shona Tribe in Zimbabwe.
Next door, the cozy little tasting room at Legoe Bay Winery (legoebaywinery.com) is open. We step in for a chat with the owners who explain that they source their grapes from the Columbia Valley in Eastern Washington and bring them directly to the island immediately after harvest. During one past grape shipment, the ferry was out of operation, so they had to ship the grapes around the island and directly to the winery by barge. I leave with a cabernet franc, with its discernable raspberry notes and dried fruit finish—a must with Thanksgiving turkey.
We continue around West Shore Drive to Willows Inn just in time for check in and a relaxing few hours before dinner. Willows Inn sits across the road from the beach with only eight guest rooms and a handful of off-site accommodations. From the greeting in the reception area, I can tell that service here is what top hotels around the world strive for. That level of service would carry consistently throughout the entire stay, especially in the dining room at dinner and at breakfast.
We show up in the parlor/lounge before dinner, a room with a handsome stone fireplace adorned with a stone mosaic salmon imbedded in the stonework. Sofas, chairs and tables, and a large porch offer comfortable spots for guests to relax while a polished yet friendly staff member presents us with a glass of bubbly and a cocktail menu.
The culinary theme at Willows Inn is “fished, farmed and foraged.” The foraged part of that theme was present in the wild botanicals in my cocktail. The Willows Inn dining experience is the brainchild of executive chef Blaine Wetzel who has Best Chef Northwest James Beard credentials under his belt. He and his team create locavore food at its finest—every ingredient is from the island. They even make their own sea salt.
After three appetizer courses we are escorted to our table in the dining room. Out the window, the calm early autumn tide of the Salish Sea ripples gently to shore in the fading light. This is a restaurant where the food, the setting and the service seamlessly blend into a single extraordinary experience. Throughout the next three hours we are presented with 18 more courses, each a small work of art in concept, in choice and execution of ingredients, and in presentation and delivery. We sit agog for a moment over every course placed before us.
Dining at Willows Inn is anything but ordinary. I have heard others claim that a meal there approaches a spiritual experience, and for us it is at least approaching an emotional one. That a tostada made of garden greens, herbs and flowers can conjure the best memories of one’s own garden, as it does for Robert, is nothing short of culinary magic.
Brilliantly curated wine pairings pour freely throughout the evening, and that, no doubt, contributes to our emotional responses to the food. After the meal, the kitchen is open territory for dinner guests, who are invited to mingle with chefs and discuss the food they just consumed. Chef Wetzel—a man who is used to accolades and praise—is approachable, humble and glad to learn of guests’ responses to the evening in his dining room.
After dinner, Robert and I acknowledged we may never have another dining experience like it, a sobering proposition for a couple lovers of great food. We’ll simply have to come back.