Photo © Walla Faces
by Allen Cox
Slightly more than a 4-hour drive from Seattle or Portland, a trip to Walla Walla takes you from the lush western lowlands, across the Cascades and through the arid Columbia River Valley.
As you approach the city on U.S. 12, you can begin exploring the area’s wines on the western reaches of town. Worth a stop are: L’Ecole 41 (note the remarkable re-purposing of the vintage schoolhouse), Woodward Canyon Winery (one of Walla Walla’s firsts) and, on Old Highway 12, Three Rivers Winery, with valley views from the deck that will tempt you to uncork a bottle and linger.
On Old Highway 12, you’ll come to the signed turn off to the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. Follow it for an education on the area’s early pioneer history. The site’s climactic event was the 1847 Whitman Massacre; interpretive exhibits at the visitor center recount the event and the controversies that surround it.
Once you are ready to continue your journey into town, head for your lodging of choice. To get to know this friendly city with its walkable Main Street ambiance, consider lodging in the thick of things. The Marcus Whitman Hotel, an elegant 1920s-era hotel and conference center, is the tallest building downtown, so you can’t miss it. This graceful structure was fortunately saved from the wrecking ball by its present owner, Kyle Mussman, who keenly understands the importance of historic preservation. After an extensive renovation, The Marcus Whitman has become one of the Northwest’s finest historic properties.
Also downtown, two boutique lodgings offer condo-style accommodations in charming refurbished period units above storefronts: 51 East Main and Walla Faces. Both are spacious and well-appointed with full kitchens, living rooms and plenty of privacy.
Time to relax after the drive and get your bearings. Downtown Walla Walla is compact and easy to navigate. Stop by the Visitors Kiosk at 26 East Main Street to pick up a map and find out what’s happening during your stay.
While you’re strolling downtown, you’ll encounter numerous tasting rooms and wine bars. Take your pick and get acquainted with some the valley’s hallmark big reds. The Marcus Whitman Hotel has several in the street level storefronts, including Trio Cellars, Waters Winery, Tero Estates. A few other downtown tasting rooms worth seeking out are Mark Ryan Winery at 26 East Main Street, Suite 1, Browne Family Vineyards at 31 East Main and Forgeron Cellars at 33 West Birch Street.
The food scene in Walla Walla will blow your culinary socks off with more superb dining venues than you can possibly visit in a weekend. On your first night, settle in at The Marc at The Marcus Whitman for a parade of cutting edge culinary creativity complete with touches of molecular gastronomy at the hands of James Beard-recognized Chef Antonio Campolio and his crew. If you are a party of four or more, try to wrangle seats at the chef’s table for a dinner you won’t soon forget.
Rise and shine with a locavore breakfast at Bacon & Eggs, Walla Walla’s go-to wake-up spot. Start your day with traditional south-of-the-border chilaquiles, old-timey southern shimp & grits or one of the other hearty entrees.
After breakfast enjoy some morning time outdoors. Golfers can reserve tee time at Wine Valley Golf Club, a links-style course on the western outskirts of town. This acclaimed course ranks among the best in the state and among the best value courses as well. They offer several golf and stay & play packages that are well suited to traveler needs.
If you prefer cycling over golf, bring (or rent) your bicycle and gear up for a spin down one of Walla Walla’s many bike trails. The 14-mile North Wheat Fields Loop takes you out of town into the scenic, gently rolling wheat fields characteristic of the Palouse region. Alternatively, the Cottonwood Loop is a gradual climb toward the Blue Mountains through farmlands and wheat fields.
History buffs will want spend the morning at Fort Walla Walla Museum for a look into the valley’s significant pioneer and military past. Here you will explore a pioneer settlement, enjoy living history characters and demonstrations and browse the many exhibit halls. And fans of repurposed architecture will want to check out Canoe Ridge Vineyard’s tasting room (1102 West Cherry Street), which occupies Walla Walla’s former trolley engine house, a national historic landmark.
After your morning activity, it’s time for your wine education. You may be curious about how winemakers come up with their award-winning blends. Wonder no longer. Reserve a seat at the Blending Experience at Northstar Winery, where you will learn the basic principles of blending and use the tools to create and bottle your own blend.
A destination winery for art lovers is Foundry Vineyards in the west end of the city. Impressive temporary exhibits of contemporary sculpture are on exhibit in the gallery. Foundry’s private sculpture garden is a place like no other in town to uncork one of their wines and soak up the surrounding creativity.
Evening in Walla Walla offers too many fine restaurants and too little time. Excellent dinner options are the Mediterranean-influenced cuisine by Chef Chris Ainsworth at Saffron or the seasonal cuisine of Chef Jamie Geurin at Whitehouse Crawford, a former mill that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
For an evening of entertainment, check out the performance calendar at Gesa Power House Theater, a former gas plant and, today, a cultural hub of the city that hosts everything from live theater and concerts to film.
If your visit brings you to town during symphony season, you may have the privilege of hearing a performance of the oldest continuously operating symphony orchestra in the U.S. west of the Mississippi—the Walla Walla Symphony.
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