If you want to experience that artistic quality firsthand, you can base yourself near Vashon where you’ll find the Artist’s Studio Loft. If you’re looking for a rural getaway, there are a number of B&Bs that offer solitude and spectacular views (weather permitting).
Outside Vashon town, the island is full of small communities, most of which don’t have so much as a general store. The main exception is Burton, a few miles south of town along two-lane Vashon Highway, which is lined with horse farms and red-barked madrona trees. If you include Maury Island (which was a separate island until an isthmus was built in 1916 connecting the two), the shape of Vashon is like a lobster claw. The space between the pincers is Quartermaster Harbor, at whose innermost point rests the village of Burton. Burton makes the town of Vashon look like a metropolis, offering just the necessities: a post office, a general store, a garage and, this being Vashon, an art gallery and an antiques store.
It’s also home to the Burton Coffee Stand, perhaps the best place for an outsider to experience the island’s spirit. A small shack and portico decorated with clematis vines and Adirondack chairs, each day the Stand hosts the writers, programmers, mothers and farmers who come to joke and trade gossip with their friends. Kathy Kush, the owner and proprietor, seems to know everyone’s name, but even if she forgets, she still remembers their usual drink orders. If Kathy or the regulars see someone they don’t recognize, they’ll often sweep them right up into the conversation, as they did with me the first time I visited. The Burton folks wanted to know all about my writing and my wife’s research; they tried to outdo one another with jokes about the culture shock of moving from Brooklyn to Vashon.
My Seattle-area friends had led me to expect two things from Vashon: free love and dreadlocks. Since no one’s hair appeared unwashed, I asked the Burtonites about the popular perception of the island. They roundly denied it. “We’re not all crazy hippies!” a sprightly, white-haired organic farmer declared. Then she handed me a business card that identified her as the “Contessa of Compost.”
However you define a hippie, one thing is for sure: Vashon is full of arts-minded people, both connoisseurs and creators. This is an island with a fraction of the population of an average New York neighborhood, yet it has its own opera company, chamber music society, artist studio tour, a Prairie Home Companion-like variety show called “Church of Great Rain,” a Shakespeare in the Park program and summer concert series — not to mention a First Friday Gallery Cruise and a $16.5 million performing arts center breaking ground this year.
This sanctuary for artists is also a popular destination for Seattle-area cyclists and sea kayakers, the former for the island’s backwoods roads, and the latter for the protected waters of Quartermaster Harbor. The Vashon Park District rents kayaks from Jensen Point May through September, but as my new house was right on the water, I bought my own boat off Craigslist and spent afternoons exploring the harbor. Sea life was my constant companion, from the swarms of jellyfish I had to gingerly push away with my paddle, to the flocks of surf scoters whose wings trilled as they cut the air, to the small harbor seal I didn’t notice until I was almost upon it, whiskers and speckled nose barely breaking the waterline. I explored inlets like Judd Creek, where a reddish-brown two-decker barge sits partly submerged at high tide. This belonged to a man who, for reasons lost to history, had filled it with sewing machines as part of his preparations to convert the structure into a houseboat that he hoped to tow to Alaska.
That’s not even Vashon’s strangest landmark. The honor belongs to a tree, just off the highway near the second four-way stop. It appears to have eaten a small bicycle. That’s not far from the truth: many years ago, a child left a red bike against the tree, and, this being Vashon, the bike was left unmolested for so long that the tree grew a branch under the bike and eventually subsumed the frame into its trunk, leaving only the wheels and handlebars sticking out. The bicycle tree was made famous by Berkeley Breathed, of “Bloom County” fame, who wrote a touching children’s book called “Red Ranger Came Calling” about the bike’s “true” origin.
Vashon doesn’t have the culinary offerings of the mainland, but neither is it your typical small-town restaurant scene. There is a legit sushi joint (Red Bicycle Bistro, natch), a Chinese restaurant, two Mexican restaurants, a new Indian place, a farm-to-table establishment and the island’s most popular spot, the Hardware Store Restaurant, built in the 121-year-old building of Vashon’s former hardware store. Out front hangs a sign that reads, “Today’s special ... so is tomorrow.”
Inside, the northern walls are adorned with stained-glass transoms from the original building advertising, among other things, “Aladdin Lamps and Accessories” and “Guns and Ammo.” The cuisine is essentially upmarket comfort food, with signature dishes like buttermilk fried chicken and Dungeness crab cakes with roasted red pepper aioli.
So next time you’re in the Seattle area, take a day or so and get lost on Vashon’s backcountry roads. Have lunch Uptown and then get lost on the backcountry roads, stopping off to sample a tomato at one of the farm stands you’ll inevitably encounter before you rediscover the highway. Pull on a pair of rubber boots and go clamming in Tramp Harbor at low tide, then, still dressed like a longshoreman, stop in at the Blue Heron Art Center to see its latest exhibition. You’ll fit right in. Finally, get down to the Burton Coffee Stand before it closes at 3 and say hi to Kathy and all those island eccentrics who will treat you like their long-lost neighbor. And who knows? One of them could be me.
IF YOU GO
Vashon is accessible from the Kitsap Peninsula in the west and also Tacoma in the south, but most people will arrive from the east, via West Seattle. Ferries from West Seattle run every 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the time of day. For lodging, think about what you’re seeking. Visitors looking to connect with Vashon’s arts scene will want to consider the Artist’s Studio Loft northeast of town (206-463-2583; vashonbedandbreakfast.com; $119 to $215 a night). Those most interested in Vashon’s small-town feel will do well staying in Burton, where the Quartermaster Inn is shutting down, but a new tenant should be opening doors to guests soon. (Call Vashon Chamber of Commerce, 206-463-6217, for details.) And people just looking for an escape to rural beauty should try the Swallow’s Nest Guest Cottages (206-463-2646; vashonislandcottages.com; $105 to $230) on Maury, where two of the cottages have great views of the Puget Sound and Mount Rainier. The Hardware Store Restaurant (17601 Vashon Highway SW; 206-463-1800; thsrestaurant.com) is Vashon’s central hub, and for that reason it’s good to make reservations for a Friday or Saturday. Down the street, the Red Bicycle Bistro (17618 Vashon Highway SW; 206-463-1800; redbicyclebistro.com) has live music on Fridays and great sushi, but the chef gets overloaded fairly often, so you might think about going early or late. Vashon Island Bicycles (9925 SW 178th Street; 206-463-6225; vashonislandbicycles.com) rents cruisers for $20 a day while the Vashon Park District (vashonparkdistrict.org) rents kayaks at Jensen Point near Burton for $20 an hour or $75 a day.