Museums, good food, scenic wandering are draws to historical Skagit Valley town

LA CONNER, Wash. - Nearby tulip fields aren't the only reason to visit this little town. 

Even after flowers wilt and crowds dwindle from Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in April, there are pleasant diversions in this historic community.

I like to explore the little grottoes in the rock on which much of the town is built. Often you'll find sculpture gardens or shady courtyards. Climb to hidden viewpoints, such as the butterfly garden at the spotlessly whitewashed La Conner Civic Garden Club — the region's original territorial courthouse — and look down on scenic Swinomish Channel and the town's trademark Rainbow Bridge.

In another direction, find a classic view of Mount Baker from the hilltop on a blue-sky day.

From a new boardwalk, inspect the salty waterfront where paint-peeling sailboats rock in the current next to million-dollar motoryachts, rubbing gunwales with rough-and-tumble fishing boats from the neighboring Swinomish Reservation.

There are many locally owned shops and galleries, along with historic homes and buildings. A few show the wear-and-tear of a struggling economy, but most are lovingly restored.

And increasingly, there's good food.

Beyond the flowers, there's another crop of attractions you might not have discovered: museums.

Topping my don't-miss list is the La Conner Quilt & Textile Museum. It's unique to La Conner, and a good fit for the town's history of farming and art. (Northwest art luminaries from Guy Anderson to Morris Graves once lived in the area.)

Maybe, like me, you've never had the urge to sew a quilt. Maybe you think only grandmothers should care. Go anyway. I was drawn into the craft passed on by pioneer women who came across the continent in wagons. Aptly named crazy quilts, displayed every winter at the museum, join patches of every shape, size and color using stitches ranging from zigzags to hen-scratches. It's the most fun kind of art.

Modern textile art from around the world is here, too. On my recent visit I was fascinated by wall hangings with a remarkable 3-D effect, by Whidbey Island artist Bergen Rose. On one, a crow looked ready to peck at passers-by.

And this is really two museums in one. It's housed in the Gaches Mansion, a turreted, three-story Victorian beauty built in 1891 by one of the town's early merchants.

The museum recently completed a meticulous restoration of the first floor, with rich wall colors and intricately patterned wallpaper carefully researched for authenticity to the home's era. Don't miss the narrow servant's staircase that parallels the grand stairway. $5-$7, 703 S. Second St., 360-466-4288.


— The Museum of Northwest Art, in a modern building on the town's main shopping street, doubles as an innovative showcase for modern Northwest artists and a repository of La Conner's heritage as an inspiration to the Northwest School.

On my visit, the entire ground floor was painted green to resemble a city park while seven video screens showed snippets of a film by two Seattle filmmakers. Upstairs, a more traditional exhibit, "Shoreline," featured paintings, photos and sculpture by artists including Guy Anderson, Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan and others.

Current exhibitions, through June 15, include works of Northwest landscape painter John Cole and stone art by Skagit Valley artist Lucy Mae Martin. Free admission, 121 S. First St., 360-466-4446 or

— The building is an unprepossessing 1960s concrete block. But the Skagit County Historical Museum is worth a visit for its exhibits of farm-culture life dating to the 19th century, including extensive collections of dolls, household items, clothing, tools, Native American artifacts and even a nicely restored Model T. Also worth seeing: the museum's tiptop, hilltop view. $4-$5, families $10, 501 Fourth St., 360-466-3365 or
3 shops worth a stop:

— The Olive Shoppe: Are you one who believes the olive makes the martini? Here's your destination. This shop carries 145 flavors of olives, from Wasabi Ginger to Vermouth Blue Cheese. And you've heard of wine tasting? Grab a toothpick, here's where to go for olive tasting. Ask co-owner Gregg Westover, a former chef "for pretty much every restaurant in town," for his favorites. He might offer an Italian olive in lemon-infused extra virgin olive oil. I liked the jerk-spiced calamata, which would make a pretty nice Jamaican martini. 604 S. First St.

— Pelindaba Lavender: A spinoff of the Pelindaba Lavender Farm on San Juan Island, this shop's open-door aroma will draw you in. Feel the natural de-stressing effects of lavender after 30 seconds inside. And you'll probably walk (mellowly) out with a bagful of aromatic goodies, ranging from lavender-oil tea candles (four for $6) to a lavender-infused bar of dark chocolate ($4). 605 S. First St.

— Step Outside: If you're keen for some new Keens, here's a place to reboot. And how many shoe shops have their own espresso bar? This was the Nevada Bar in 1890, according to a plaque, and they still serve refreshments. 721 S. First St.

2 places to eat:

— Nell Thorn Restaurant and Pub: The big foodie news in La Conner is the new Swinomish Channel location for this longtime local favorite.

Formerly in a corner of the La Conner Country Inn, a block from the water, this locavore haven opened Jan. 31 in its new location, former home to Channel Landing and Pearl's restaurants.

"It used to be almost a unique sort of hobbit house kind of place," said Heather Carter, La Conner Chamber of Commerce director. "Now it's very modern with lots of art and a water view."

Don't miss the crispy polenta cakes with smoked blue cheese tomato puttanesca, $11 on the appetizer menu; 116 S. First St., 360-466-4261 or

— La Conner Brewing Co.: For lunch, you can't do much better than a chicken, pesto and artichoke panini ($12) with a cup of mushroom Gorgonzola soup, while you sail through a schooner of house-made Hefeweizen. Pleasant woody interior. 117 S. First St.; 360-466-1415 or

3 places to stay:

— Hotel Planter: I enjoyed the old-time feel of this 1907 hotel, on the National Register of Historic Places. A 1980s renovation kept original doors, windows, railings and wood trim. Above the Earthenworks gallery (and without an elevator, tired knees should note), it's convenient to shopping and dining, offers water peeks from several rooms and has a wonderful hidden courtyard/sculpture garden that's a shady haven. 715 First St., 360-466-4710.

— Katy's Inn B&B: High on the hill, this is one of the oldest Victorian homes in town, circa 1882, with a balcony from which you can see the channel. 503 S. Third St., 866-528-9746.

— La Conner Channel Lodge: This one wins the location, location, location award, with channel-side water views and balconies, especially pleasant in summer when recreational boats stream by on this backdoor passage to the San Juans. 205 N. First St., 360-466-1500.


— Geography: On Swinomish Channel, at the edge of Skagit Valley's fields of tulips, potatoes, cabbages and more, and directly across from Fidalgo Island, gateway to the San Juans.

— By the numbers: About 900 people live in this incorporated town of 326 acres that was first established in 1867 as Swinomish, the name of the local native tribe as well as the channel. In the 2010 census, the town's median age was 52.

— What's in a name: Today, La Conner has one of the state's more whimsical municipal names. In 1869, J.S. Conner bought the local trading post and renamed the settlement to honor his wife, Louisa Ann. The French-sounding "La" represented her first and middle initials.

— Demographics: As they have historically, artists and writers continue to call the place home. While it's not in the town limits, the nearby Shelter Bay community, with many higher-income retirees, significantly influences La Conner.

— What the locals say: "La Conner's a unique town. Most shops are mom-and-pop places, locally owned. We work hard not to duplicate what's in the next shop," said Gregg Westover of the Olive Shoppe.

— Telling trivia: Decades ago, locals debated whether there should be a space between "La" and "Conner" in the town's name. Bitter feuds were fought. (These days, La Conner is spaced out, you might say.)

La Conner Chamber of Commerce:

Scripps National Desk contributed to this report. 

Brian J. Cantwell:

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