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Northwest winter

Plenty to see and do here during the off-season


No one argues that the Pacific Northwest is not the ideal place to vacation or take short getaways in summer – but for some, there may be some hesitation about heading out of town in the dead of winter. The good news is that there are lots of fun places to visit during winter. And you know what: there really isn't any bad news.

If you don't mind driving home in the dark – after all, you'll want to milk your vacation day for every last minute and the days are quite a bit shorter this time of the year – then you'll find many attractions in the Northwest are just as appealing in winter as in summer. In some cases, they're even more so.

Take, for example, the Washington coast. Okay, no question that summer days down on the coast are warmer and you just might – might – consider putting a toe in the frigid Pacific Ocean. In winter, however, the ambiance changes and the storm clouds and sometimes incessant rain actually make you feel more alive. They make that beach hotel or vacation cabin feel just that much cozier. Mother Nature just seems so overwhelming, yet awe-inspiring at the same time.

Places like the San Juan Islands can actually be a better vacation spot in winter if you're the type who abhors crowds. Travelers are practically clinging to the sides of ferries during summer with each vessel packed with people who have saved up their two weeks of vacation time and, by gosh, are going to see everything and visit every place within their allotted time. In winter, the islands revert to the quiet haven that local residents so enjoy – the crowds are gone, the pace is even more relaxed than in summer. Sure, it will be a little cooler, but the islands have a temperate climate and sometimes may even get a stretch of several days of sunshine in winter.

Another option is to look at some indoor attractions – maybe take a day trip to one of the Northwest air museums or visit the Experience Music Project in downtown Seattle.

And if you're a skier or snowboarder we don't have to tell you what there is to do this time of year in the Northwest. The ski areas are going full tilt as long as the snow is there and there's a wide variety of areas to choose from not only in Washington but in neighboring states and British Columbia.

If you're ready to get planning, here are a few options we especially enjoy:

Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands

There are those who are quite certain the San Juan Islands were created just to be a paradise for boaters, but the good news for the rest of us is that we can hop a Washington State Ferry and enjoy the same amazing scenery as the yachting class. And, while fares aren't really cheap, they're a lot less than maintaining your own boat.

A popular destination in the islands is San Juan Island, one of three main inhabited islands in the group, although there are many more islands - some even with people - that would be considered part of the San Juans. San Juan Island is the most diverse of the main islands with its beaches and rocky shores as well as miles of pasturelands, some lakes and even forests.

If you don't have your atlas handy, the San Juan Islands are in Northwest Washington, midway between Seattle and Vancouver B.C. and a few miles to the west of the busy Interstate 5 corridor. The jumping off place for a San Juan Island adventure is Anacortes, just a couple of hours from Seattle and home to the ferry terminal where you find a regular schedule of boats going to and from the three main San Juan Islands: San Juan, Orcas and Lopez.

Keep in mind you don't necessarily have to take your car to the islands. If you're going to Friday Harbor, for example, you can walk on the ferry with your overnight bag and find that most accommodations are within walking distance of the Friday Harbor ferry landing. Walk-ons have the advantage of big savings on their ticket price, and they also can show up at the terminal just before the ferry departs with no waiting in line.

Arrival at Friday Harbor feels like you've just taken a ferry to a New England fishing village - the town's historic architecture, a fleet of fishing boats, the island's thick forests and rocky shoreline, the sounds of the seagulls -- all combine to bombard the senses. If it's atmosphere you are looking for, you are sure to find it in Friday Harbor.

There are several fine places to stay overnight in Friday Harbor but, on our most recent trip, we tried out the new Bird Rock Hotel, about a block from the ferry landing. The hotel is in a historic building but that's the only thing "old" about the Bird Rock, which has been completely updated to the point that it could go head-to-head with the finest boutique hotels in San Francisco. The hotel uses contemporary lighting and design to create a modern, functional look with its earth-tone décor and modern furnishings. For more information on the San Juan Islands, call the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau at 888-468-3701. For more information on the Bird Rock Hotel, call 800-352-2632 or visit

Evergreen Museum, McMinnville, Oregon

As you're driving through McMinnville, Oregon on Highway 18, it's impossible to miss the expansive modern new buildings that make up the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. Your first clue that this has something to do with aviation is the giant 747 airliner parked out front – not your typical office sign.

Our visit to the museum was quite by accident – we had driven through the area on the way to some Oregon Coast destinations and were amazed at the mammoth structures we saw in this campus-like tract of open space along the highway. Then we saw the sign – and the airplane – and it all came together for us. We had heard about the Evergreen Museum but hadn't realized it would be directly on our route to the coast.

We enjoy visiting aircraft museums and this was one of the best we've seen. The museum is generally divided into two areas: aviation and space. There are separate charges to visit each area or you can buy a combined ticket. Once you get inside you'll be amazed at the aircraft that are on display – for example, the gigantic Spruce Goose, the famous eight-propeller Howard Hughes Flying Boat, which is in pristine condition, dwarfing all other aircraft in the aviation exhibit building. This alone is worth visiting the Evergreen Museum because of its unique role in aviation history.

And that's just the beginning. Examples of just about every type of aircraft you can imagine are on full display allowing visitors an up-close look at these planes and helicopters, as well as complete information about why the particular aircraft are important. Over on the space side, there are numerous displays of rockets and spacecraft and informative explanations about how and why they all came about. The museum is a tremendous learning experience for youngsters and oldsters alike.

For more information on the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, call 503-434-4185.

Salishan Resort, Oregon Coast

Built amongst the tall trees of the Oregon Coast near Lincoln City is a classic Northwest resort — one that for many decades has been synonymous with luxury. The name of that special place is Salishan Spa and Golf Resort, which today retains a great deal of the luster it was known for back in the 1970's and 80's.

Only the customer who insists on new construction will be disappointed. While the exterior has been in place a long time, the resort has striven to update the interiors while at the same time retaining that Northwest lodge kind of feel. Some travelers may think the quintessential Northwest resort is a modern waterfront condo, but the timber used in the construction of Salishan, along with its Northwest Indian themes, really gives this resort that distinctive Pacific Northwest flavor.

Our mini-vacation at the resort was a time of hiking and exploration, of drinking in the coastal views — seaside trails are just across the highway from the resort — and marveling at the woods that make this part of the Oregon Coast so spectacular. Golfers will enjoy the championship 18-hole course and those who want to be pampered will be duly impressed by the resort's modern spa — but, for us, it was just the surroundings that made all the difference. It's a magical place where you truly enjoy being outdoors.

Now when the occasional rain shower appeared — and it does rain on the Oregon Coast -- we didn't mind holing up in our luxurious suite. A corner unit, this suite was spacious and well-appointed with a couch, two easy chairs, a small desk-and-chairs combo and lots of room to spread out a board game on the carpeted floor if we wanted. A big flat-screen TV and completely updated bath area showed the resort is being careful to stay current with the times. Outside, we had tree-filtered views of Salishan spit and coastal area. Chairs were conveniently positioned on an open lanai to take in the full picture-postcard panorama.

About seven miles north of Salishan is Lincoln City which, with only 7,500 residents, may not sound like a huge city. But along these parts of the Oregon Coast, Lincoln City stands out as a major destination for tourists. Accordingly, a robust collection of restaurants and shops have been built up over the years offering plenty of variety for anyone who is visiting the area.

The area, like Salishan, is known for its nearby forests but, most importantly, its beaches. There is easy access for plenty of beachcombing and exploring and the beaches here never seem too crowded.

For more information about Salishan Spa and Golf Resort, phone 1-800-452-2300 or visit

Photos, from top: clam-digging on Washinton coast; Lime Kiln Lighthouse neare Friday Harbor; Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose at Evergreen Museum; coastal walk near Salishan

Photos: Cary Ordway, Richard Cherry (clam-digging)

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on Northwest zoos, Northwest water vacations, Port Townsend and Seattle attractions.

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