Most visitors to this college town make a beeline for Fairhaven, the understandably popular gentrified historic district at the north end of Chuckanut Drive. On your next visit, mix it up: Head downtown, where Whatcom Creek meets the bay.
Two downtown draws worth your time: lively arts and good beer.
Is the first of the month near? Go for the First Friday Art Walk, with up to 30 or more participating venues in a walkable downtown from 6 to 10 p.m. on the first Friday of every month (bit.ly/1cPrECD).
Don't expect the ordinary. You won't find a lot of traditional galleries; you will get to meet outside-the-box artists in cozy studios and shops sprinkled across a walkable downtown.
The downtown arts scene has several anchors:
Whatcom Museum's classy Lightcatcher Gallery, 250 Flora St., whatcommuseum.org
This innovative museum with its 180-foot-long translucent wall is the current must-see destination, with its special exhibition, "Vanishing Ice." The exhibit melds art, science and eco-politics in an intriguing look at how glaciers, polar ice caps and icebergs have played a role in life on Earth and what their disappearance may mean to our future. The exhibit ends March 2.
Pickford Film Center, 1318 Bay St., pickfordfilmcenter.org
I didn't expect to spend a pleasurable evening in Bellingham watching David Tennant as "Richard II" with the Royal Shakespeare Company from Stratford-upon-Avon. But I did, at the nonprofit Pickford theater, the only venue between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., offering a daily, year-round schedule of independent, art house and noncommercial films.
The film center, named for silent-screen maven Mary Pickford, occupies a lovingly restored 100-year-old building on Bay Street with two screens and a raw-brick lobby worthy of spending time in for wine and cheese before a show. Also don't miss the locally made Nanaimo bars at the snack counter, or the GMO-free popcorn, with brewer's yeast available for sprinkling.
Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St., mountbakertheatre.com
This beautifully restored 1927 Moorish-style architectural treasure, listed on the register of National Historic Places, is a popular venue for live theater as well as music performances.
Musicians appearing soon include Judy Collins, Keb' Mo', Ani DiFranco and Arlo Guthrie. Coming theater productions include an onstage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" and traveling shows such as "The Addams Family" and "Hair."
Drinking deep Among beer lovers, Bellingham is being touted as the Northwest's next great craft-beer destination. Before or after a show or art walk, sample one of Bellingham's brew pubs.
The newest downtown haunt is The Local Public House, 1427 Railroad Ave. Opened in October, it lives up to its name with a rotating 14-tap sampling of local and regional ales. Freshen up with something like a Chili Bravo ale, from Ferndale's Menace Brewing, the pub's affiliated brewery, or relax over a dark and brooding Locomotive Breath Imperial Stout, from Anacortes.
What you won't find: Stella Artois or drumroll, please sports TV.
"We're trying to encourage conversation," manager Chris Guard said.
Visit at mealtime; every menu item comes with a beer-pairing suggestion. The changing dinner menu recently included Pork Belly Tacos ("pairs with hoppy pale ales," $9) and Curried Fish and Chips, with a titillating curry-beer batter and coconut-chili aioli ($11).
Other good downtown options include:
The venerable, award-winning Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro, three blocks down the street (1107 Railroad Ave., bbaybrewery.com). It's been here 19 years, and it felt a tad tired on our visit, but maybe the crowds are the only endorsement it needs. Sports TV in the taproom.
Copper Hog Gastropub, 1327 N. State St., claims to serve "fine foods, tasty beers, select wines and non-pretentious cocktails." While not associated with a brewery, it is close to the hearts and gullets of Bellingham beer lovers. The menu includes such beer-friendly choices as a pulled pork sandwich with smoked ancho chili-tamarind barbecue sauce, smoked-apple slaw and house-cut fries ($10). In a recent check of its 15-tap draft list, only five were from outside Washington or Oregon, with interesting choices such as Snipes Mountain Jackal, a sour brown beer from Yakima County. thecopperhog.com
On the edge of downtown is Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen, 601 W. Holly St., with a Locavore Menu listing strictly local dishes. It also does menu pairing, specializing in German-style lagers. chuckanutbreweryandkitchen.com
Closer to Interstate 5 is 2-year-old Kulshan Brewing, whose Kulshan Fresh Hop Ale took first place in the Yakima Valley Fresh Hop Ale Festival this past fall. Kulshan doesn't serve food but frequently features local food trucks. kulshanbrewery.com
Two new breweries, Aslan Brewing and Wander Brewing, are slated to open in or near downtown in the first half of 2014, which will bring the brewery count in Bellingham's city limits to five.
Where we stayed and other lodging
A B&B near downtown that sounded good was closed when I visited, so I chose the four-mile drive east of town up the Mount Baker Highway to the Tree Frog Night Inn(treefrognight.com).
Eco-conscious? You'll love this place. It was built with sustainability in mind, from the naturally pigmented clay walls to the efficient radiant-heat in the bathroom floor (a delightfully toe-friendly eco-amenity on a cold morn).
Kara Black and Kurt Yandell, founders of progressive-minded Duwamish Cohousing in West Seattle, moved to Bellingham in 2005 and built two lodging suites next to their home on five wooded acres above wild Squalicum Creek. A third lodging room is in the main house.
My choice was the Coast Salish Suite, beautifully decorated with art and carvings by local Native artisans and lots of custom design touches. A stand-alone gas stove provided cozy heat in the living room. Nearby, a sauna. Outside, a hot tub.
It's a bed-and-breakfast, but opting out of breakfast holds the nightly rental to $110 on a winter weeknight ($140 on weekends). Add $30 for breakfast for two.
The only downside: The suites, while in a separate building, look right at the front windows of the main house, a few steps away.
Other choices: Three non-chain hotels situated away from the freeway my first criteria are well-regarded, but pricey:
Top-rated on TripAdvisor is the Fairhaven Village Inn, in the district for which it is named, with a special weekend rate starting at $159 through February. fairhavenvillageinn.com
Also in Fairhaven, but more bayfront, is the luxurious Chrysalis Inn and Spa (thechrysalisinn.com). Winter weekend rates start at $219 per night, with no extra charge for the freight trains running beneath your window (bring earplugs).
On the bay closer to downtown next to a marina, a little farther from trains is the Hotel Bellwether, with winter weekend rates starting at $189. hotelbellwether.com
Popular hotels closer to Interstate 5 include SpringHill Suites by Marriott ($149 winter weekend rate, cheaper if prepaid); and Best Western Plus Heritage Inn ($120 winter weekend rate). Other choices include Comfort Inn, Motel 6 and other chains.
Geography: On scenic Bellingham Bay, the city is sandwiched between the San Juan Islands and Mount Baker. To the south, winding Chuckanut Drive is a popular scenic driving route with hiking and mountain-biking trailheads leading up Blanchard and Chuckanut mountains.
The numbers: With about 82,000 people, Bellingham is home to Western Washington University, the town's second-largest employer (the local hospital is first). It's the county seat of Whatcom County, which in 2012 voted by equal margins 55 percent for President Barack Obama and same-sex marriage, and 57 percent for marijuana legalization.
Name: The bay (and later the city) got its name in 1792 from Capt. George Vancouver, honoring a rather obscure official of the Royal Navy.
Demographics: 'Hamsters (yes, they call themselves that) tend to be active, outdoorsy types who snowboard more than ski, sail more than power, kayak more than anything. And they read enough to support a good independent bookstore or two.
Shameless stereotype: Many men wear knit watch caps they use the French Canadian term "toque" and have beards, sometimes down to their waists.
What the locals say:
A local who had an antique shop and a wry sense of humor coined a nickname for Bellingham: the City of Subdued Excitement.
"It describes Bellingham a little you can get excited about stuff but not go overboard," said Will Davis, whose Lucky Monkey gift shop, 312 W. Champion St., sells T-shirts with the "Subdued Excitement" saying, which he calls "the unofficial official slogan" of Bellingham. "Up here, we're doing our thing, and it's nice, but we take it as it comes."
"People who live here really love it and care about the community, with a sense of ownership it's small enough they can do that," said Kara Black, who moved to Bellingham from Seattle in 2005 and now runs her Tree Frog Night Inn eco-lodge.
More information: Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, 800-487-2032 or bellingham.org.
Brian J. Cantwell: email@example.com.
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