By Tony Dear
There are three long-weekends between now and Christmas – Labor Day, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving (Veterans Day on Wednesday November 11th might also be an opportunity for a little extra golf). And try though we might, we can’t think of many better things to do with the first of them than head north to Bellingham for a brief, but entertaining and memory-making, trip that’s worth saving up for.
Labor Day Weekend falls on September 5th, 6th and 7th when the temperature in Bellingham is still likely to be in the high 60s/low 70s, and there’s barely any more rain in the air than there was in July and August. And let’s assume you’ve put in enough hours and impressed the boss sufficiently to take the afternoon off on Friday 4th too. You’ve got a full tank of gas, your clubs in the trunk, a wife or buddy in the passenger seat, and part of your most recent paycheck just waiting to be exchanged for some serious recreation, Bellingham-style.
First things first – lodging. You have a lot of options including a good many chain hotels, where you’ll certainly get the bed and
shower you need, plus one of those Continental breakfast things that might not quite hit the spot, but are probably better than nothing when you wake up feeling hungry. To make this trip truly special, however, we recommend staying at something altogether more comfortable and distinguished – somewhere like Hotel Bellwether overlooking Squalicum Harbor, Fairhaven Village Inn in the historic Fairhaven district a few miles south of downtown, or the Semiahmoo Resort which is actually 20 miles north of Bellingham and thus not terribly well-situated for everything else you’ll want to do in town, but a fine hangout nonetheless. Or how about mixing a little table action into your golf trip with a stay at the 105-room Silver Reef Hotel Casino & Spa, a complete destination with overnight accommodations, meeting space, a full service spa, Vegas-style gaming and diverse array of dining options located just four minutes west of Exit 260. Any of the aforementioned digs would be a fine place to rest your head and clubs for the night between exhausting, action-packed days. But our top lodging recommendation would be the Chrysalis Inn and Spa in Fairhaven where all the rooms look out over Bellingham Bay. The views are lovely, and the fireplaces, micro-fiber robes, Jacuzzi tubs, Keenan’s on the Pier Restaurant, and small, but well-appointed, spa are very nice too. But the kicker for us golfers, the cherry on an already tempting cake, is that the Chrysalis offers guests access to the private Bellingham Golf and Country Club whose beautiful, tree-lined course has hosted numerous collegiate, WSGA, and PNGA events in its 103-year history, as well as several USGA qualifiers.
If you’ve never played golf in Bellingham before – never been to the ‘City of Subdued Excited’ in fact, you need our 72-hour guide to help steer you through your visit. Not only will you play six of the area’s best golf courses, you’ll also eat and drink in its finest restaurants and bars. It’s a grueling schedule designed to expose you to Bellingham’s best so you can stand at the water-cooler with confidence on Tuesday morning and tell your workmates just how cool Bellingham is and how you’ll be headed back there as soon as possible to do it all again.
You have the nod from the boss, so you leave work at midday, and speed (well, maintain a solid 70mph) north on I-5 through
Everett, past Marysville, and through Mt. Vernon before finally arriving in Bellingham at about 2pm. Because you’re itching to get out of the car and play golf, let’s head to the first course you pass in town – the city-owned Lake Padden GC which you may have heard is one of the best three or four munis in the state. Leave I-5 at Exit 250, turn right on to Connelly Avenue, and keep winding up the hill until you get to the junction of Wilkin St. and Samish Way. Join Samish Way, go past the lake on your right, and turn right into the park and golf course.
Opened in 1971, Lake Padden was designed by Roy Goss, a turfgrass expert and extension agent at Washington State University’s Puyallup station, along with Rainier GCC superintendent Glen Proctor. Goss had studied golf course construction and worked a little with well-known course designer AV Macan who knew a lot about design, said Goss, but not much about soil, agronomy, and maintaining a golf course.
Goss spent much of his budget on covering the 200 or so acres with sand, enabling him to turn what he described as ‘virtually a swamp’ into a superb course that benefited from further capital improvements in 1986 and which records roughly 50,000 rounds a year. With that much traffic, you’d expect questionable conditions, but Superintendent Scott McBeath keeps Lake Padden looking remarkably healthy, and rolling surprisingly well.
The Twilight (after 2pm) 18-hole rate is $25.76, and it’s $13 per player to ride.
In a July article on priceonomics.com, Bellingham was named the United States’s snobbiest beer town as 92% of its restaurants and bars did not serve the big three macro-brews – Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite. Bellingham beer drinkers have a choice of half a dozen brewpubs, all of them producing a range of flavorful craft beers suitable for any taste or occasion, especially after-golf pints on a Friday evening. Pick from the Aslan Brewing Company on N. Forest St., Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro on Railroad Ave., or Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen on Holly St. for a fantastic combination of food and beer.
Overnight: Chrysalis Inn
Hopefully you got a good night’s sleep (NB – BNSF and Amtrak trains thunder past the Chrysalis and are frequently the subject of guests’ complaints on TripAdvisor and other travel/booking sites) ahead of your first full day of golf.
By all means stay at the Chrysalis and enjoy breakfast at the on-site restaurant Keenen’s at the Pier. If you have a little time before your first tee-time of the day, however, and want to fill up at one of the town’s homely breakfast joints, try either the Old Town Café or Little Cheerful Café both of which are on Holly St., and both of which serve up the kind of extravagant breakfast dishes you would never make for yourself at home. Both put the Continental breakfast you’d get at a chain hotel to shame, though you should be aware the Little Cheerful does not take debit or credit and is so popular your wait time might be a little longer than you’d planned for. Communal tables at the Old Town Café usually cut down on wait time. Old Town’s Number 9 with bacon is a bit special.
The peaceful Shuksan GC is actually situated ten miles northeast of downtown, but very much considered part of the
Bellingham golf community. With a blue sky, your views of 10,781ft Mt. Baker, about 30 miles to the east if you go by crow, are spectacular and certainly add to your enjoyment of this beautiful course. Shuksan was designed by owner Rick Dvorak and has the look of something much older than its 21 years would suggest. The opening tee shot drops almost 100ft giving you more hang time than you might otherwise expect for your first ball of the day, and there are numerous similarly enjoyable shots thereafter. After making a birdie on the fantastic, par 5 finishing hole, make your way up the hill to The Grille for a burger, hot dog, BLT or burrito before leaving.
Refueled and ready for a treat? Bellingham Golf and Country Club, established in 1912, is not usually accessible to the public, but thanks to your Chrysalis Inn package, you can arrange an afternoon tee-time at the course Walter Hagen, Jock Hutchison, Jim Barnes, Ed Oliver, Carol Mann, Bob Hope, and Billy Casper all visited, and where Superintendent Dave Bocci and his staff completed a full bunker restoration two years ago.
The country club is mostly flat and isn’t terribly long, but it has a number of really good holes that make up a very special round. The club warns the greens will have been punched on September 3rd so won’t be as smooth as usual. However, we say this is a slightly bothersome but ultimately minor inconvenience given the opportunity to play one of the State’s most historic courses.
You’ll be tired after 36 holes, so let’s eat somewhere close to the hotel. Keenan’s is an option, of course, but if you’re up for a wee stroll into Fairhaven head for either Fairhaven Pizza or Mambo Italiano. The former prepares probably the best thin-crust pies in town, while the latter has a fantastic selection of Italian dishes – seafood puttanesca, gamberoni Mediterranean, and the outstanding veal marsala, among them.
Overnight: Chrysalis Inn
No doubt Saturday’s breakfast was good, but this morning we crank it up a notch with a visit to the restaurant commonly regarded as Bellingham’s best for the first meal of the day.
Diamond Jim’s, located on the corner of Meridian and Monroe Streets about a mile north of downtown, is a 15-minute drive from the Chrysalis Inn, but after a plate of the seasoned American Fried Potatoes, Eggs Benedict, or Old Doug’s Scramble you won’t be complaining. Diamond Jim’s opens at 7am and, because it fills up quickly, and because you have a 25-mile drive to this morning’s tee-time, it’s probably a good idea to get there early.
Before Chambers Bay, Wine Valley, the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain, White Horse, Palouse Ridge, Salish Cliffs, Rope Rider, and Gamble Sands came along, Semiahmoo GCC and its sister course Loomis Trail GC – both part of the Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine – didn’t have a great deal of competition for the top spots in polls identifying the state’s best public courses. Designed by Arnold Palmer and opened in 1986, Semiahmoo has a number of very fine holes, the majority coming on an incredibly strong back nine. Loomis Trail, designed by Canadian Graham Cooke, boasts water in play on all 18 holes, but don’t worry – though it is an undeniably tough round, many of the water hazards are quite subtle and found only with your most wayward shots. You won’t be faced with a series of long, obnoxious water carries, but it probably won’t hurt to bring an extra sleeve. Because it’s an even-numbered day (6th), you will play Loomis Trail. If you’d rather play Semiahmoo, you’ll need to juggle the schedule a little and come on the 5th or 7th. You could conceivably play both, but that will mean quite a bit of extra driving, a little extra green fee money, and probably missing out on a course nearer to town. Stop by the Loomis Trail Grill after your round for some fish tacos, a Reuben sandwich, or a Loomis Hoagie.
Retrace your steps and head south on I-5. Take Exit 262 and cross over Main St. on to Barrett Rd. which parallels I-5. At the next intersection, turn left on to Smith Rd. and drive about two miles to North Bellingham GC on your right. This exposed Ted Locke design is unlike every other course you’ve played this weekend, and vulnerable to the prevailing southwest wind. One intriguing hole follows another, making it another of Bellingham’s extremely popular public courses. If you didn’t see enough of Mt. Baker from Shuksan GC yesterday morning, you’ll see plenty of it here – assuming you get a cloudless afternoon – especially on the easternmost holes.
A quiet meal at Keenan’s might be just the thing for your final evening in Bellingham, but it would be a shame to miss Anthony’s Hearthfire Grill which, like Hotel Bellwether, overlooks Squalicum Harbor – providing a wonderful view as long as you get here before sunset at about 7.30pm. Yes, the Hearthfire Grill is part of the Anthony’s chain which now boasts almost 30 restaurants across the Pacific Northwest, but the menu, stacked with great steaks and seafood dishes, is hardly predictable.
You’ve eaten incredibly well on your trip to Bellingham, but you shouldn’t leave without calling in at either of Mount Bakery Café’s two properties – one in Fairhaven serving espresso and pastries, the other – the original MBC – in downtown Bellingham, serving breakfast favorites, frittatas and crepes.
Unfortunately, your last course is a little out of the way, but it’s a worthy trip to the venue of the 1981 Washington Open – Sudden Valley GC. The first few holes of this Ted Robinson design play over flat and fairly exposed land close to Lake Whatcom. As you make the turn though, you climb a ridge and move into dense woodland, where the need for greater accuracy becomes sharply apparent. Superintendent Jacob Close has worked wonders since arriving at the course in March 2011. Once known for its soggy fairways and soft greens, Sudden Valley is now firm and surprisingly dry thanks to Close’s efforts to add sand to the soil, thin branches, and remove a number of large trees that blocked sunlight and prevented evaporation.
Plenty of memorable holes, none more striking than the downhill par 4 15th, make Sudden Valley a great way to finish your trip. You are now free to return home.
To get back to I-5, you can either head west towards Bellingham, or east out of Sudden Valley on Lake Whatcom Boulevard, then south on Cain Lake Rd and Alger Cain Lake Rd.
Follow this itinerary to the letter, and you’ll admittedly end up spending way more money than you ever thought you’d need for a long weekend in Bellingham. You can, of course, limit your spending by staying in a less pricey hotel, eating a little less heartily, and perhaps not playing quite so much golf. But whatever you do, whichever courses you play, and however much money you end up spending, the chances are good you’re going to love Bellingham, and probably begin thinking about what to do on your next trip before this one is over.