I will always remember the first time I heard about Vashon Island — one of several islands located just off the coast of Seattle — because of how vastly different Vashon sounded from where I was then in the world: India.
My good friend Erin, who grew up making regular pilgrimages to Vashon to see her grandmother and other family members who lived there, was visiting me in the bustling Indian capital of New Delhi. As we sat in a café, the outside world of crowded streets and chaotic traffic whirled as madly as a spinning top; inside the café, the island Erin described seemed like another world entirely.
She spoke of ferry rides and quiet harbours, digging for clams at low tide and filling bowls with fresh blackberries from the wild and rambling bushes that cover Vashon — it sounded like a place where the top stops spinning and you can hear yourself think.
I knew then — even from 11,265km (7,000 mi) away in India — that Vashon would be a place that I loved.
Since that fateful conversation in Delhi, I’ve had the chance to make several pilgrimages of my own to Vashon — with and without Erin; in the gray, rainy heart of winter and in the sun-soaked glory of summer. Sometimes just for a couple of nights, other times for as long as a month — but no matter the different circumstances and lengths of each visit, I’m reminded every time of the gifts that Vashon has to give.
The island’s first gift is that of its proximity to downtown Seattle, making it an ideal day trip for anyone passing through Washington state’s largest city.
One moment can find you wandering the lively stalls of Pike Place Market, while another moment, you can catch a local C-Line bus to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal in West Seattle, where a 15-minute ferry ride brings you across the Puget Sound to the northern tip of Vashon. From door to door (or shore to shore, you might say) the journey is but an hour.
There are more than a dozen islands in the Puget Sound — not including the well-known San Juan Islands located a few hours north of Seattle — and some of these islands have bridges connecting them to the mainland. But the only road to Vashon is the ferry’s path across the sound. Being technically comprised of two islands (Vashon and Maury Islands), the only bridge you’ll find on Vashon is a man-made isthmus connecting it to Maury Island.
This is something the island’s residents feel strongly about. When a bridge to the mainland was proposed in 1992, more than a fifth of Vashon’s population at the time (around 2,000 people) appeared in protest at a public hearing. A bridge, they felt, would surely bring development, and take away from their island’s natural beauty and rural calm.
Because that is Vashon’s second gift — its extraordinary nature, and the chance to explore such sylvan landscapes so close to a bigger city like Seattle.
Even still, Vashon has much to offer those who travel for culture and food. Its quaint downtown is lined with art galleries and restaurants — from the Hardware Store (home to the best burger in the Pacific Northwest, I might argue), to a Thai restaurant and cozy tea shop. And just down the road, another stretch of shops holds the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, an organic health food store and the Seattle Distilling Company.
But for me, the delicious meals and moments of art or culture I have on the island are always framed by the greater number of hours I spend outdoors. It’s there where I immerse myself in Vashon’s unique blend of expansive skies and acres of fir trees, harbours and beaches, and the frequent vistas that open up of nearby, snow-capped Mount Rainier; a landscape you can easily immerse yourself in on a day trip.
If you’re able to rent a car, head south to Point Robinson to visit a 10-acre park, historic lighthouse and hiking trails; or head west to a small peninsula called Jensen Point, where it’s possible to rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards, and glide along the placid surface of Quartermaster Harbor. There, besides a few sailboats or passing crew teams, your main companions will be eagles, herons and harbour seals, who seem to delight in popping their heads above the surface when you’re least expecting it.
Glimpsing the island from the seat of a kayak is always my favourite way to see Vashon, most especially when I get the timing right and start heading for shore just as the sinking sun sets the sky ablaze with colour.
Those moments of being wholly surrounded by a glowing pink sky — a sky more vivid in colour than my humble paintbrush could ever hope to capture — will forever stay with me, because they speak to Vashon’s third gift: the very feeling of peace that first resonated with me on the other side of the world.
There are places we travel to in order to do thing — visit museums, retrace the steps of history, linger in the shadow of famous landmarks. I’ve come to learn through my visits to Vashon, there are places that simply invite you to be. To slow down, set your watch to “island time” and join the quiet rhythms that govern its days. To let your mind relax and reflect as your world becomes just sea, sky and tree-lined shores.
If your journeys lead you through Seattle soon, I hope you’ll cross the Puget Sound and experience Vashon, even for a day. But let me warn you… it’s the kind of place that once you step foot on it, the island soon draws you back for more.