20 Things to Do in Bellingham with Kids

Recently, we went on a short jaunt to Bellingham, Wash., about 30 minutes south of the U.S.-Canadian border, and two hours north of Seattle. It’s a cute little college town with a thriving arts scene and fabulous food. Turn-of-the-century architecture lines downtown Bellingham’s streets, and the town is home to Washington’s oldest brick building (built in 1858).

While many of us know Bellingham as a place to stop en route to Vancouver or Seattle, I think Bellingham deserves its own overnight stay or weekend getaway. Here’s my guide to family travel in Bellingham:

10 a.m. Whatcom Museum of History and Art

Bellingham Family Interactive Gallery

Family Interactive Gallery

The Whatcom Museum’s new Family Interactive Gallery took us all by surprise. It’s amazing what they’ve done in such a small space.

Kids can craft in the art room, build with enormous Tinkertoy-like foam toys, or play camp (like with tents, not with sequins) in a Northwest-themed area.

We created a soundscape with authentic Cascadia noises (orcas, owls and of course, rain).

I liked how real art was mixed into each exhibit space, along with questions to provoke discussion.

The gallery is ensconced in smooth, touchable wooden fixtures and forms; all of it is handcrafted from sustainable wood, by a local woodworking shop.

Noon. Super Mario’s. Most kids love Mexican food, all smothered in cheese and whatnot. But how about El Salvadoran food? What if the restaurant was named Super Mario’s? (3008 NW Ave., 360-393-4637). With such an awesome name, you can’t go wrong. Right?

No one was in the small dining spot (thereby violating travel rule #1: Never eat in an empty restaurant). Super Mario’s was a jarring combo of high-end and low-end, and I feared for the worst. It was inside a stripmall, with granite-style tables and marble floors, with two dueling televisions playing on each end of the rectangular room.

But Super Marios served a fantastic south-of-the-border meal – we had pupusas (tip: add the green sauce for a stellar experience), we had creamy tamales, we had quesadillas that rocked so hard that even my veggie-hating kids ate them in a hurry and pleaded with us to quit stealing bites.

Super cookies at Super Mario’s restaurant

AND they play Nickelodeon on one of the TVs, at least on the day we were there. Can’t beat that. By the time we left at 1 p.m., (pink sugary cookies in hand), the restaurant was full.

1 p.m. Aladdin’s Antiques. Half history lesson, half shopping experience, Aladdin’s Antiques (427 W Holly St.; 360-647-0066) offers cute figurines, Star Wars goodies (we found a retro 1981 activity book my son now carries everywhere) and great vintage finds for your kid’s room. My kids have found enough treasures at antique malls to be interested; yours may need some convincing.

Aladdin’s Antiques

If your kids are definitely NOT into in oldy-worldy goodies, you can send them (with your partner) to Mindport. They’ll love it, promise.

2 p.m. Mallard Ice Cream. About a 10-minute stroll from Mindport, Mallard is the ice cream shop a child would design, if only we parents would let them. Bright-red barstools, vivid green couches, and out-of-this world flavors that seem like they were hand-mixed by a creative 4-year-old foodie – black sesame vanilla, cardamom, rose, butter pecan and over 20 more.

A big bowl of goodness at Mallard Ice cream

We all wanted to try multiple flavors, so we bought a bowl with four scoops, topped with chocolate and whipped cream. After the kids polished off the bowl, they played a sticky-fingered game of Connect Four.

3 p.m. Walk Fairhaven. Fairhaven is a steep-sloped Bellingham neighborhood. It’s crowded with artisans’ galleries, kids’ toy shops, a cupcake shop, a great gelateria (Sirena) and cool little indie bookstores, all within about six city blocks.  An itty-bitty San Francisco, as it were.

A former rough-and-tumble waterfront town in the 1800s, Fairhaven has now been gentrified. You won’t need to fear the likes of “Dirty Dan,” described as an “infrequent bather” (sound like anyone in your home?). He was also worked as a rum-runner, war-inciter and in other jobs not outlined on Career Day. However, you will see bronze statues memorializing Dan and placards describing the town’s bad history. Kids love that stuff.

Dirty Dan

Fairhaven is well-situated for Seattle and Vancouver families – the railway station drops you about a quarter-mile from all of the action. Victoria families can take the Victoria-San Juan Cruises over to Fairhaven, starting in late spring.

Fairhaven

Fairhaven Village Fish and Chips (also a local favorite)

Summer may be the best time to visit – you can take advantage of the Fairhaven Outdoor Movies (see the past year’s showings here).

5 p.m. Marine Park. Walk 10 minutes from Fairhaven’s core toward the water, past the Amtrak station and the large ferries destined for Alaska daily (as part of the Alaskan Marine Highway System) and toward Marine Park.

Rock tossing in Fairhaven

Flat, smooth stones (perfect for skipping) populate the Marine Park’s shoreline. I recommend arriving about 10 minutes before sundown. Bring your camera! Here, it’s like the sun can only set in some sort of Kodak moment, behind the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Mountain Range.

The view from Marine Park

6 p.m. Boundary Bay Brewery. We drove back out of Fairhaven for dinner. While Fairhaven has plenty of restaurants, we’d heard raves about Boundary Bay Brewery, and we weren’t disappointed.

If you forgot to make a reservation, kids can pick through the Duplo block basket in the waiting area. But note: Make a reservation! Although this brewpub offers large rooms and lots of seating, it’s incredibly popular with college kids, families and singles. Smart sandwiches on Great Harvest bread, creamy salmon chowder, micro-brewery beer, the whole authentic Cascadia mix.

Overnight. At this point, we could’ve gone home, but we decided to spend the night in Fairhaven to soak up the atmosphere. We stayed at the 22-room Fairhaven Village Inn, which has special winter rates and a fun library room with games.

Fairhaven Village Inn’s board game shelves

The room’s gas fireplace made the room toasty on a winter night, and the next morning, my kids gobbled their free continental breakfast. They ate cereals, bananas, muffins, made-to-order waffles, eggs and yogurts. Yes, each child ate all of those things. When you figure the cost of feeding four people in my family, a breakfast-inclusive stay is always a money-saver.

8 a.m. Harris Avenue Restaurant: However, if you decide to sleep elsewhere, I recommend going for breakfast at Fairhaven’s Harris Avenue Restaurant (1101 Harris Ave.; 360-738-0802), where we’ve eaten on our way back from Vancouver, BC. You’ll find hearty breakfasts, plus fruit face pancakes for the kids. Huge, huge lines. Get here early for your cornmeal pancakes.

Harris Avenue Cafe at noonish, after the lunch rush dies down.

 

This summer, we hope to return — maybe take the Amtrak up for a family day trip, or bring the car for a weekend. We want to cruise the well-regarded Chuckanut Drive, forebodingly called Upchuckanut Drive by some locals.

My youngest is an upchucker. We’ll need to be well-prepared.

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To discover more about Bellingham, check in with Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.

What did we miss in Bellingham? Do you have any tips for the prevention of road nausea?

Bellingham Family Vacation

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington State

Recent news of whale shows gone horribly wrong may lead some families to avoid live sea shows. San Juan Island’s The Whale Museum, a respectful facility focused on mammal life in the Puget Sound, offers a solid alternative for inquisitive kids.

Located on Washington State’s Friday Harbor, the 1,200-square-foot Whale Museum offers car-sized whale skeletons suspended in mid-air, seemingly just to wow little ones. Jarred whale brains and a nauseatingly long intestinal worm (jarred!) garner an ew yuck awesome reaction from bigger kids.

Children can listen in on distinctive whistles and blurts in a “whale telephone booth,” and look for orcas in a mock research lab. The children’s room encourages kids to don orca flippers, watch entertaining documentaries, read whale-riffic books or color pictures.

In the gift shop, look for the orca hats. We picked one up last year — since then, it’s been a mainstay of my preschooler’s wardrobe. He loves the compliments when he wears the tail-shaped hat, plus the opportunity to tell strangers the startling fact that orcas and killer whales are two different names for the same animal. Sort of like Mom and Lora: Two names, same animal.

Winter’s best for getting a good hotel rate on the tourist-popular San Juan Island, but summer is excellent for spotting orcas from Lime Kiln State Park (a 20-minute drive away from Friday Harbor), because that’s when the whales frolic in the waters.

Lime Kiln is the first U.S. park dedicated to whale watching, and hosts more than 200,000 visitors a year. Lime Kiln’s decommissioned lighthouse looks out over the Puget Sound, making it a perfect vantage point. Inside the lighthouse, researchers conduct acoustic and behavioral studies on orcas, minke whales and Dall’s porpoises.

Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of a sleek black-and-white shape, kids can count boats as the sun melts into the Salish Sea. And you can let them tell you again that orcas and killer whales are the same animal (don’t forget to act surprised).

Best for: Toddlers who like to dress up like orcas; preschoolers fascinated by whales; big kids who can read the museum’s descriptive posters and signs. In short, everyone.

Where: 62 First St. N., Friday Harbor. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost: $6 adults, $3 for children 5-18.

Friday Harbor Family Vacation

Mindport Art in Bellingham with Kids

Mindport art gallery and museum in bellingham with kids

Art galleries don’t usually welcome children with open arms. Or ask you to touch the art.

But Mindport, in Bellingham, Wash., is a different sort of gallery. The wooden works inside are meant to be used by hands big and small. It’s an artistic explosion of science, music and movement. Rube Goldberg would love this gallery-museum-playspace.

The light-filled entry gallery offers multiple workstations with awesomely odd contraptions, including a pneumatic ping-pong device that spins balls using forced air; a pun-riddled miniature train route; and a case with a hundred compasses — all controlled by the magnet in your child’s hand.

The second gallery has subdued lighting and natural items to explore — shells, bones — along with a music corner featuring a few guitars and light-and-sound invention that’ll have the kids dancing.

The gallery isn’t just for kids, and parents are expected to keep a watchful eye to ensure a child’s gentle hands. But the creators-owners encourage, explain and enthuse over visitors of all ages. After a short time, Mindport’s mellow calm will seep into your soul, and perhaps inspire an invention or two at home.

Best for: Children of all ages; not a place to go with cranky kids right before dinner or at naptime.

Mindport is located at  210 West Holly, in Bellingham, Wash. Hours are Wednesday through Friday noon-6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-4 p.m. It’s closed every Monday and Tuesday. Admission is $2.

Bellingham Family Vacation