Travel

Savor Shellfish and Saltwater Views on This Ferry Good Road Trip in the Pacific Northwest

Shutterstock
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Scenic routes to shellfish shacks, breathtaking bridges over narrow straits, and winding roads to sprawling saltwater views pepper the drive north from Seattle, leading to and through the islands of Puget Sound. This road trip will take you on land and sea, specifically Washington State’s famous ferries, which carry cars across the marine highway, part of the world’s second-largest vehicular ferry system.

Spring is an ideal time to take this trip as the Pacific Northwest’s long days and mild temperatures paint the world-famous tulip fields of Skagit Valley in a rainbow of blooms and make for ideal conditions to explore evergreen-lined hiking trails – without the endless crowds of high season.

Just be warned, that doesn’t mean no crowds at all (this is not the road trip for impulsive anti-planners). Shoulder season slows down a bit, but summer staff also haven’t arrived, so nearly everything requires a reservation – hotels, restaurants, and even hot tubs. But book now and reap the reward later: a trip all planned out, start to finish. All you need to do is show up ready to enjoy the views and eat amazing food.

QUICK FACTS
Distance from Seattle to ferry terminal: 26 miles
Islands visited: 3 (+1 for ferry only)
Number of ferry trips: 4

Prima Bistro
Prima Bistro
Prima Bistro

Day 1

Take a leisurely morning to sleep in before heading north out of Seattle to the Mukilteo Ferry Dock, where the boats make the 20-minute crossing to Whidbey Island about every half-hour. The ferry arrives at the southern tip, and every part of one of the country’s longest islands shows off lush hills and stunning Puget Sound panoramas. Get a taste for them by starting with lunch on the outdoor deck of Prima Bistro in Langley, a 15-minute drive from the Clinton ferry terminal. Make your way north and stop at the first National Historic Reserve, Ebey’s Landing, and the neighboring Fort Ebey State Park, for a walk along the windy bluffs and explore the old military installments (bring a flashlight, it’s dark in there).
Pop just across the main road to the enticingly cozy Captain Whidbey Inn, for a night leaning into its woodsy PNW vibes. Stick around at the restaurant for dinner or head into nearby Coupeville for a meal at the classic seafood dive Toby’s Tavern. Either way, order the same thing: mussels from Penn Cove, the water just a few feet away. If you’re not tired yet, cap off the night with an old-school drive-in movie at the Blue Fox about 10 minutes from the hotel.

Alexandra Ribar
Alexandra Ribar
Alexandra Ribar

Day 2

Start your day with a gentle walk around the saltwater shoreline at Deception Pass State Park followed by a drive over the dauntingly high, delightfully terrifying Deception Pass Bridge. Reward your bravery with some of the best fried seafood this side of the Mississippi at The Shrimp Shack. Starting in May, the local versions of the eponymous crustacean are fresh and in season, but until then, the shack has plenty of halibut, oysters, and other seafood.
Leave plenty of time to get in line for the 3:40pm ferry to Orcas Island (you can reserve a spot for your vehicle in advance). After disembarking, grab a cocktail at the nautically themed Barnacle before heading to the recently reopened, much-lauded restaurant Matia. The six-course chef’s tasting menu of “archipelago cuisine” represents a culinary interpretation of the islands you are touring, with grass-fed local beef, duck eggs, spring onions, and plenty of sourdough. Following dinner, check into the Doe Bay Resort (pick between a deluxe cabin or off-grid yurt) and head to your evening soak appointment in the outdoor tubs.

Getty Images courtesy of Enterprise
Getty Images courtesy of Enterprise
Getty Images courtesy of Enterprise

If you’re feeling inspired to plan a road trip, you’re going to need a vehicle that takes you the distance. Enterprise provides award-winning customer service, streamlined service through its mobile app, and a fleet of vehicles to help meet any road tripper’s needs. Reserve a vehicle at one of Enterprise’s convenient neighborhood or airport locations worldwide and find your new place to love.

Trevor Eiler
Trevor Eiler
Trevor Eiler

Day 3

Gear up for the day with breakfast at Doe Bay’s cafe before driving up to the top of Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. Climb the giant stone tower for a 360-degree view out over the islands of Puget Sound. Take a walk around the footpaths, or pop back down the mountain to rent a canoe at Cascade Lake at the foot of the mountain and go for a quick paddle. Stop for lunch at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm, where you can build your own chilled seafood platter from the live oysters and crabs in the tank, then crack and shuck at the picnic tables out front.

Continue on your route by getting to the 3:10pm inter-island ferry to Lopez Island. Once there, make yourself at home at the Edenwild Inn, one of the few places that ramps up early in the year. Pop next door to Ursa Minor for dinner, where the chef scouts and forages for local ingredients that he cures and pickles, then uses in dishes like fermented potato gnocchi with salmon and kimchi.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson

Pop by Barn Owl Bakery for baked goods, then bring them down to Shark Reef Sanctuary, where a 10-minute walk through the trees and across a boardwalk ends overlooking the water. Directly across from the end of the trail, a few rocky islands attract huge numbers of seals and sea lions, which splash and sun themselves, as if showing off for visitors like you.

Drive back into town for lunch at Setsunai Noodle Bar, where the local bounty transforms into flavorful soups with fresh, handmade udon and ramen noodles, served to picnic tables on a lawn. Then get back to the dock for the 1:35pm ferry to Anacortes on Fidalgo Island.

Before you drive back to Seattle, brave the crowds at Tulip Valley Farms to see the colorful annual blooms that draw visitors from all over the country and even the world. But instead of sitting in traffic going south, extend your trip with a scenic route through the local farm stands, making your way to the town of Bow, where you can pick up baked goods at Breadfarm and fancy beverages, cheeses, and jams at Slough Food before heading to your final stop, Taylor Shellfish’s Samish Oyster Bar and Market. Buy a dozen oysters and shuck them at the picnic tables outside as you wait for the sun to set and the tulip traffic to die down. Roll back to Seattle a bit later, full of bivalves and happy as a clam.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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