A road trip in the Pacific Northwest is better with a little help from our friends

Making plans for your road trip is never a bad idea, but we found an even better approach: trusting friends at each stop along the way.

That’s what my wife, Eileen, and I discovered last year on a six-day journey that began at the southeastern tip of Canada’s Vancouver Island, took us by car ferry to Bellingham, Wash., wound down the Pacific coast to Seattle and concluded in Portland, Ore.

Whether exploring with our friends or on our own, we profited from their insider information about such local wonders as Victoria’s afternoon teas, the oyster beds along Washington’s Samish Bay, Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge and a one-of-a-kind Portland bookstore.

Indeed, the shared experiences sent us home with friendships even deeper than when our trip began.

The trip started on a Sunday in Canada’s Sidney, British Columbia, where we stayed with my lifelong buddy Charlie and his wife, Jean.


From Sidney, which also is home to a ferry terminal linking the island to Washington state, the four of us made the 17-mile drive south to downtown Victoria and the tourist area around British Columbia’s handsome government buildings.

I, immediately, recognized the landmark Fairmont Empress Hotel where I’d had tea decades ago. I fondly remembered the hotel’s elegance and the assortment of scones and sandwiches — but not fondly enough to pay more than $60 a person for tea.

Victoria has numerous tea rooms, many geared to budget-conscious epicures like us, Charlie and Jean told us. After a quick online menu review, we chose White Heather, a short drive from downtown in the lovely residential neighborhood of Oak Bay.

White Heather’s Scottish-themed “Giant Muckle,” its large three-tray selection of finger sandwiches, scones and dessert pastries, cost about half what the Empress charged. We reserved a table for 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Inner Harbour of Victoria, BC, Canada
Beautiful view of Inner Harbour of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. bluejayphoto / Getty Images/iStockphoto

The quiet charm of Victoria’s Oak Bay area set the mood for a relaxed afternoon at White Heather, which offered a refined two hours of attentive service. Among its delicate tea sandwiches, the smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese offering was particularly sublime.

Before turning in that night, Eileen and I researched the next day’s ferry, which would take us through the San Juan Islands to Anacortes, Wash.

Taste of the islands

For that two-hour sail — about $108 for two people and a car — the ferry’s hearty clam chowder and a beer sufficed for lunch as we watched the Cascade mountains draw nearer.

Driving north from Anacortes along Interstate 5 we soon reached Bellingham, home of Ellen and Dan, that night’s hosts.

Los Angeles Times

Out their living room window we could see Mt. Baker, Bellingham’s towering topographic landmark.

At the Lighthouse Bar & Grill at the Bellwether Hotel, one of our friends’ favorite seafood restaurants, Dan and I began with half-a-dozen luscious local Blau oysters, which I followed with a salad topped with Dungeness crab, another of the area’s delicacies.

That prompted an idea for our next adventure. Dan suggested we forgo the interstate for the trek to Seattle, taking, instead, Chuckanut Drive, which borders Samish Bay, known for its oyster beds.

Chuckanut Drive, derived from a Native American description of the winding coastline (known more prosaically as Washington 11) offered glorious bay views from a high ridgeline and some highway history.

We soon reached Taylor Shellfish Farms, where we had planned to select oysters for the first course of a dinner being prepared by our Seattle hosts, Mary Pat and sons Evan and Marty.

After walking out to the water line to see where Taylor harvests its bivalves, we went indoors to the market’s expansive oyster section. We settled on four locally grown varieties — Olympia, Blau, Kumamoto and Shigoku — and popped them in the cooler.

A few miles farther south we stopped at Chuckanut Manor, a cliffside roadhouse where we feasted on whiskey crab soup. I also chose a crab melt made with more Dungeness and, yes, a couple of Blau oysters on the side.

We met Mary Pat in west Seattle, where we surveyed her dramatic views of downtown and its Space Needle before settling in on her patio to catch up on our families, later moving the reunion to the kitchen so everyone could pitch in on dinner preparations.

Space Needle in Seattle, Wash. Handout / TNS

Evan and Marty displayed their handiwork with an oyster knife, and dinner became a pleasing mix of the raw (oysters) and the medium-rare (steaks).

Mary Pat and sons agreed with a recommendation from Elizabeth, who was to be our host of our road trip’s final day: Take a break, Elizabeth had said, from I-5 and veer inland to experience part of Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway along the spectacular gorge.

The vistas were spectacular. We stopped for short hikes at Crown Point Vista House and at Multnomah and Bridal Veil falls. The Columbia, we imagined, had changed little from what explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark must have encountered in rafting to the Pacific more than two centuries ago.

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On this Friday, gorge highway traffic was daunting, and as we turned west by way of Interstate 84 toward Portland and Elizabeth, our one-time Boston-area neighbor, we vowed to make an entire day of it on a return trip.

Our early arrival in Portland gave us more time for conversing in our friend’s condo as well as time to enjoy “the whole volcanic gang: Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mts. Adams and Hood,” as Elizabeth described what she could see of the Cascades from her window.

Then it was on to her top choice of a Portland tourist spot: Powell’s City of Books in the center of downtown, which calls itself “the largest used and new bookstore in the world.”

PORTLAND, OREGON, AUGUST 1, 2013 : Customer browse the shelves stuffed with books at Powell's Books
Customer browses the shelves stuffed with books at Powell’s Books in Portland. Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

Powell’s occupies a city block and houses more than a million volumes.

Faced with this wonderland for readers, I set about searching its four levels for books on oysters of the Pacific Northwest — there were six shelves of them on Level 2 — then wandered down to Level 1’s used-book section. I found a $7 tome I couldn’t resist: “Lewis and Clark for Dummies.”

Indeed, as we three headed back to Elizabeth’s condo for goodbyes, Eileen and I towed with us a large bag of books that would keep the spirit of this road trip alive long after we arrived home.

If you go

White Heather Tea Room, 1885 Oak Bay Ave., Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; (250) 595-8020. Small afternoon tea from about $20 per person; tea for two (the Great Muckle) $58 for two.

Fairmont Empress Hotel Tea Room, 721 Government St., Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; (250) 384-8111. Afternoon tea about $60 a person.

Sidney, B.C.-Anacortes, Wash., Ferry

Lighthouse Bar & Grill at the Bellwether Hotel, 1 Bellwether Way, Bellingham, Wash; (360) 392-3100. Main dishes from $25.

Taylor Shellfish Farms, 2182 Chuckanut Drive, Bow, Wash; (360) 766-6002

Chuckanut Manor Restaurant, 3056 Chuckanut Drive, Bow, Wash.; (360) 766-6191. Dinner mains from $14.50.

Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway

Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., Portland, Ore.; (800) 878-7323