This Island Has Everything—Llama Happy Hour, Ethical Butchers, Japanese Rice Lager, and Plenty More
Llama happy hour began when farmer Kelly Hubbell, who offers weaving classes and educational tours with her herd, realized just how relaxing it is to join the camelids at dusk with a glass of wine in your hand. "Being out with the llamas is lovely this time of night, just as they're settling down," she says. She offers the experience to guests; $10 per person buys two hours with her eight llamas. It's BYOB, but Hubbell supplies glassware and treats to feed them (vashonllamas.com). Vashon Island breeds many unique businesses like these, resulting in a laid-back culinary destination just a 20-minute ferry ride from a dock in Seattle's tiny Fauntleroy neighborhood.
Long known as an artsy enclave for those just a little too quirky for the mainland, 37 square-mile Vashon Island is home to a population of about 10,000 people that supports an astonishing collection of restaurants, including May (a Thai restaurant once named among the best in the nation by our sister publication Travel + Leisure), Anu Rana's Healthy Kitchen (a Nepalese café where Northwest salmon meets Himalayan spices), and, somehow, not one but two Syrian food trucks (see "Where to Eat" below).
In search of ethical ways to eat meat, butcher Lauren Garaventa moved to Vashon to start raising, slaughtering, and butchering her own animals. She brings that mentality to her business The Ruby Brink, a bar, whole-animal butcher shop, and restaurant that she started with business partners Jake Heil and Rustle Biehn. Garaventa buys as much as possible from Vashon farms, creating a market for the island's niche products and a hub for resident food nerds. "For such a small community, it's perfect," she says.
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The small island creates the space for would-be farmers or restaurateurs like Garaventa to follow their dreams without abandoning the ease of urban life. Beyond the four blocks in the main section of town, a tangle of roads weaves among dozens of family farms—subsistence, hobbyist, and professional— many of which sell their eggs, lamb, kale, and more at honor-system farm stands (cash or Venmo, these days) that dot the roadside the way convenience stores do in the city. Among them are ones owned by legendary former Seattle restaurateurs such as Kurt Timmermeister, previously of Café Septieme, who runs Kurtwood Farms.
Vashon shares the same damp climate for which many malign Seattle, but here, the water welcomes spawning salmon that swim alongside the walking paths in Shinglemill Creek and irrigates century-old orchards from which passionate producers like Dragon's Head and Nashi Orchards press apples into cider and pears into perry (an alcoholic drink made from fermented pears). Exploring the island by hiking the Douglas fir–filled nature preserves, combing the beaches, or biking the roads, visitors stand equal chances of stumbling upon an award-winning winery (see "Where to Drink" below) as they do upon a small-batch farm whose produce will be name-checked on a dinner menu that night. In fact, the only way to not come across good food and drink is by renting a kayak from Vashon Adventures (vashonadventures.com) and paddling out into the middle of Quartermaster Harbor.
Where to Eat
Grab food for a picnic from Salt & Schmaltz, where deli owners Pepa Brower and Dre Neeley draw on her New York roots and his Southern ones, serving fried chicken alongside noodle kugel and smoked brisket Reubens, plus chewy Joe Frogger molasses cookies. At May Kitchen + Bar, find unique Thai specialties like yum phak boong–flash-fried Siamese watercress with a coconut, lime, and chile oil sauce–as well as impeccably executed classics like gaeng khiao waan, scratch-made green curry with Thai chiles and lemongrass. Do a comparative chicken shawarma food truck tasting at Iyad's Syrian Grill on the north end of town and Mustafa Syrian Kitchen at the south edge. The latter also offers an excellent fava bean salad.
Where to Drink
Andrew Will Winery produces its renowned single vineyard-focused wines at its Vashon headquarters using grapes grown in Washington's premier wine regions. They specialize in uniquely Washington expressions of Bordeaux-blend grapes; the Sorella is Cabernet-heavy, and the plummy Ciel du Cheval brings in more Merlot. Camp Colvos Brewing honors one of the island's darkest moments with its Mukai Lager. The Japanese rice lager is named for the historic farm whose owner, like many pioneering Japanese strawberry farmers here, was forced to flee during World War II to avoid being detained in a Japanese internment camp. Proceeds of the beer go to the farm and historic house on the island, which you can also visit. (mukaifarmandgarden.org)
Where to Stay
Light, bright Scandi-chic decor and an idyllic green, wooded setting belie The Lodges on Vashon's location right off the island's main street, Vashon Highway. Winding paths lead from the common areas—which include clear geodesic domes with couches, a kitchen area, and an outdoor pavilion filled with hanging chairs, outdoor games, and a firepit—to each of the 16 surprisingly spacious units made from upcycled shipping containers, complete with mini fridges and seating areas. (Rooms from $235, lodgesonvashon.com)
A car is essential for both getting to and navigating the island. Without one it's difficult even to get to the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, a 25-minute drive from either downtown Seattle or SeaTac Airport. Ferries leave from Fauntleroy dozens of times daily, from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., and $26 gets you and your car a round-trip fare. Keep an eye on both the schedule and wait times at wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.