Camano Island: One of the Northwest’s best kept secrets

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Photo by Deborah Stone.
It’s close, yet so far from the madding crowd. With fifty-two miles of picturesque shoreline, breathtaking views of Mt. Baker, the Cascade ranges and the Olympics and a thriving arts community, Camano Island is a secret jewel of the Northwest.

This is a destination with distinctive appeal, offering a real-life island experience without the hype. There are no trendy tourist traps here or tacky gift shops selling souvenir key chains and mugs. Nor are there the proverbial taffy or fudge shops lining the streets or vendors hacking their wares along the beach.

It’s all about the pristine beauty of the environment and the pace of life and residents will tell you that they like it just fine this way. Visitors in the know, who come to this idyllic island, do so to retreat from big city existence for the opportunity to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures.

What’s ideal about Camano is its accessibility to the Seattle area. Within an hour and a half, you can be taking a hike in old growth forests, gathering driftwood on the beach, or espying eagles soaring across Saratoga Passage. And the best part is that there are no long ferry lines to contend with to get to Camano; in fact, there are no ferries involved at all.

Once you leave the freeway, you’ll go through Stanwood, a small town with historic buildings, antique shops and cafes in an agricultural setting.

Stop by at the Scandia Bakery and Lefse Factory on Main Street, a Stanwood landmark, for a quick bite or to drool over the pastries and specialty breads, all baked fresh daily on site. The restaurant has been around for over thirty years and is well-known by locals who frequent it often for its hearty fare. The specialty is lefse, Scandinavian flat bread, made with potatoes, that has the consistency of a tortilla.

The perfect picnic spot at Camano Island State Park. Photo by Deborah Stone.
As you leave Stanwood and head over the bridge onto Camano, stop at the Camano Gateway Visitor Information Center to grab a map to get your bearings. The friendly volunteers who staff the place will be happy to steer you in the right direction to beaches, scenic drives and galleries, as well as provide you with a list of accommodations and available services on the island.

Take note of the local artwork around the center, particularly Paula Rey’s “Fish Boy,” a whimsical bronze of a boy hugging a fish, and Jack Gunter’s “Clam Diggers,” which depicts a favorite island pastime. If you’ve brought your picnic basket, but lack that perfect bottle of wine or smoked salmon for those crackers, pull into the newly opened Brindles Marketplace, just past the Gateway at Terry’s Corner.

Here you can taste regional wines at the Great Blue Heron Wine Cellar, get the day’s catch or some barbecue fixings at Quality Meats and Seafood and also take a peek upstairs in the Gallery in the Loft, one of three galleries on Camano, showcasing island artists.

As I drove further into the heart of the island, the road began to wind, passing through bucolic countryside dotted with alpaca and llama farms and framed by dramatic waterfront views.

It became apparent that the Native Americans who had first named the island, Kol-lut-chen, “land jutting out into a bay,” had described it to a tee.

Unfortunately, this name never appeared on a map and over the years, it was changed, first to Macdonough Island, to honor Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, captain of the 26-gun ship during the War of 1812, and then to Camano, for Lieutenant Don Jacinto Caamano of the Spanish Navy. In the 1855 treaty with local Indians, Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory referred to the island as Perry Island. Then came the loggers who had a jargon of their own and nicknamed it “Crow Island,” a name it retained locally through the early 1900’s.

After that time, it reverted back to Camano, a musical Spanish name for an island settled predominately by Andersons, Petersons, Olsons and Hansons! My plan to explore the island was simple: drive around it, stopping when the mood hit me to hike, beachcomb or pop into one of the galleries, and eventually end up at the B&B I had booked for the evening, Inn at Barnum Point.

There are numerous parks on Camano, but the largest one, which gets the most foot traffic, is Camano Island State Park. This is a gem of a playground for hiking, fishing, camping, picnicking and boating. Ben Sollie, one of the initial organizers of the petition to create the park once wrote of the place: “The fishing is good, the clams delicious and the waterfront is easy on a fellow’s feet.”

It’s also easy on one’s senses, as it is beautifully laid out piece of land that contains 134 acres with 6,700 feet of beach front on Saratoga Passage.

There are five miles of marked trails within some 600-year old growth forests full of Douglas fir, western red cedar, hemlock and red alder trees. The interesting story behind the park’s creation involves a group of determined individuals who started a grassroots movement for a public green space with access to the waterfront.

Back in the late 1940s, there was no public access to waterfront on Camano because all of the shoreline was owned by individuals, resorts or businesses.

The residents put their support behind the movement to create a park and the Parks Land Commission eventually purchased 93 acres of land on the waterfront, on the condition that area residents would help construct the facility.

People responded eagerly and on July 27, 1949, over 900 volunteers came out and cleared land, built the road, dug a well and created their park, all in one day. The place almost doubled in size nine years later with the acquisition of more land for a campsite, boat launch and ramp. It was one of those warm, sunny spring days when I explored the park and I relished having an entire beach almost all to myself.

Sitting on a log, I could see Whidbey Island across the way and the peaks of the Olympic range in the distance. Time certainly seemed to stand still, but when I checked my watch, an hour had gone by, yet I hadn’t moved off my perch. The impetus to finally leave this spot of paradise stemmed from my desire to check out some of the local galleries and perhaps chat with a few of the artists.

Camano is well known for its vibrant arts community with artists whose work represents all mediums of the spectrum, from paint and pottery to glass, wood, bronze and photography.

In addition to the gallery at Brindles, there’s the Gallery at Utsalady Bay at the north end of the island and the History of the World Fine Arts Gallery towards the southern tip. Both run shows featuring specific artists that change periodically. The Gallery at Utsalady Bay, in particular, has received a name for itself for its popular “Unclad” show that it holds each March.

Work depicting nudes in many forms is the theme and each year, the show has gained momentum and recognition. All of the island artists participate in the Studio Tour, held annually over Mother’s Day weekend. This is the one time of year that the artists open their studios to the public and thousands of visitors flock to Camano for this opportunity.

Although I was not on Camano for this event, I did get the chance to stop in at artist Susan Cohen Thompson’s waterfront studio and talk with her about her work. Thompson has only lived on the island for the past year and a half, but she already feels a sense of connection with the place and the people.

She says, “There’s such support here among the artist community and also among the residents who are not artists. There are many long-time artists who’ve created this community and it’s a very developed place for art. People care about the environment and about each other.”

Thompson paints in watercolor and oil and uses jewel tones that give her work its vivid colors. She is a nature advocate and her inspiration comes from the outdoors, particularly from the environment of the Amazon jungle, a place dear to her heart.

An important theme of her work is the generosity of nature and she views her paintings as “serene” and “organic.”

After getting my fill of art for the moment, I decided to grab an early dinner before retiring to my inn.

There are just a handful of restaurants on the island and all are casual establishments serving standard fare. The Islander at Terry’s Corner is the newest of the bunch and offers some variety, including panini sandwiches, salads, soups, pasta and a few seafood entrees.

The halibut with mango chutney sauce I ordered was tasty and it came with roasted red potatoes, grilled veggies and a side salad, all for under $20.

Just as there are few choices for eateries on Camano, there are equally as few lodging options; all of which fall into the category of small inns and B&Bs.

The Inn at Barnum Point is owned and operated by Carolin Barnum Dilorenzo, a71-year-old grandmother with family ties to the island dating back 100 years.

Dilorenzo’s grandfather came to Camano a century ago and homesteaded 125 acres of land at Barnum Point, overlooking Port Susan. Dilorenzo has fond memories as a little girl of playing on the beaches and swimming and boating in Port Susan Bay.

In 1992, she had the inn built at the Point in order to be nearer to her family, many who had also settled in the area, and to be able to share these special surroundings with others who came to visit the island.

The house sits at the end of a long, winding road, on the tip of the Point, with spectacular, panoramic water and mountain views. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Rainier and the Cascades in all their glory.

“This view always seems to melt worries away and help put life back into perspective,” comments Dilorenzo. I can attest to that, for after having spent a very restful night at this unique property, I felt refreshed and at peace. The inn has three airy and comfortable rooms for guests, all which look right onto the water.

From the front door, you can walk down onto the beach or take one of the trails through the fields.

Or simply sit in your room watching the sunset turn the sky all shades of pink, while being mesmerized by the sound of the waves lapping at the shore.

In the morning, wake up to one of Dilorenzo’s famous breakfasts (i.e. oatmeal scones, fresh fruit and eggs Florentine) and spend a cozy few hours chatting about the island.

Dilorenzo knows pretty much everyone on Camano and she will gladly provide assistance with planning an outing or helping you make contact with a particular artist.

When you leave the Inn at Barnum Point, you will feel as if you’ve known Dilorenzo a lifetime and you will be eager to return for another dose of her warm hospitality.

Camano Island is a pleasant getaway destination for a day or an overnight and what makes it special is that you won’t have to share it with the masses.

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