LA CONNER, Wash.
It was like one of those cartoons where the wafting smells of baking pull the cars right off the road — eerrrk! — and drivers float out their windows. They drift past the Dungeness crabs, local chevre cheese, organic leeks and fair-trade coffee to the ice-cream counter, where the smell of fresh, warm waffle cones is so delectable they can barely drool out their orders.
You doubt me? The vanilla ice cream cone was so big I had to hold it with two hands. It took me half an hour to eat. The single scoop was as big as a head of broccoli.
Afterward, my arteries had to call 911.
Visitors to the Skagit (rhymes with “gadget”) Valley 70 miles north of Seattle generally do not comment on the ice cream right off. They comment on the brilliant fields of flowers and pleasant visage of snowy Mount Baker presiding over the flat, fertile farmland.
They might mention the cute town of La Conner, a favorite among artists, on the Swinomish Channel.
They might drop helpful hints that La Conner is just 20 minutes from the Anacortes ferries to Victoria, British Columbia, and the San Juan Islands. Or that it’s near the busiest state park in Washington, Deception Pass.
They might describe it as a decent one-night stop between Seattle and Vancouver.
But the best metaphor for this earnestly rural region is the Snow Goose Produce Market in Mount Vernon, where even the ice cream seems somehow more wholesome than the suburban kind. Basically an overgrown roadside stand on Fir Island Road, Snow Goose sells produce, fish, shellfish, dairy, bread, wine and flowers, each of them grown, caught or created locally by artistic-type farmers and fisherfolk.
As you approach the store, homemade wooden signs proclaim the charming wares: “Fresh Black Cod” and “Indian Candy Smoked Salmon.” In the center of the shop is a pile of bright baskets made by a women’s co-op in Uganda. Along the walls hang Cambodian silk scarves whose proceeds, shoppers will be relieved to know, benefit education for Cambodia’s needy children.
Located between the I-5 freeway and La Conner, Snow Goose lures Seattle weekenders, second-home owners, artists, garden tour groups, ferry catchers, cyclists and locals. Enter Snow Goose a frazzled city dweller? Exit in an ice cream nirvana state. Enter as a stressed-out traveler? Exit as a peaceful wanderer of the Skagit Valley.
“We actually had to slow down when we came,” says Lori Farnell. She’s a Spokane native who owns the Wild Iris Inn, an 18-room lodging in La Conner, a popular haven for tired Seattle Type A’s.
“People come here just to get away from everything.”
The region’s most colorful claim to fame is the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Every April, the fields erupt in a show of half a million tulips, courtesy of the Washington Bulb Co., the nation’s top tulip grower. A million visitors pour onto the rural roads to visit the company’s Roozen Gaarde spread in Mount Vernon, northeast of La Conner, riding bicycles, eating ice cream, buying flowers. Visitors also can catch a swath of yellow daffodils in March or a blanket of purple and white iris in May.
The art haven of La Conner contains galleries and restaurants, plus the Rainbow Bridge, the totem pole at the Swinomish Indian tribal community, the boardwalk along the water, a quilt museum and the Museum of Northwest Art.
Venture farther afield to see more. I drove the quaint Farm-to-Market Road north until it ran into Chuckanut Drive, then went north. On this vestige of the old Pacific Coast Highway, I pulled off at every chance to see the incredible coastline views of Samish Bay, the Taylor Shellfish Farm, Chuckanut Bay and Larabee State Park.
You also can drive I-20 west to the Anacortes area to do an orca whale-watching trip, without having to take the ferry to the San Juan Islands first. About 9 miles south of Anacortes is Deception Pass State Park, with its famous and frightening bridge across the deep rushing water between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands.
And when you’re driving around lapping up the atmosphere, the shape of snow-covered Mount Baker in the distance may remind you of something awfully familiar.
Ah, yes. A gigantic, pyramid-shaped scoop of vanilla ice cream.