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Ten tons of river rock, plus ten marbles, are in the 20-foot-high fireplace at River Rock Inn. Now you know the answers to two of four questions Bob Watkins will ask when you’re a guest at his B&B, and if you get them right, you’ll win a prize. No, I didn’t win, but do I care? I’m far too relaxed, here in the peace and quiet of the North Cascades foothills, to fret over such things. River Rock Inn Bed and Breakfast and Retreat Center gives new meaning to “getting away from it all.” It’s only a few miles from the traffic rush of I-5, north of Everett, Washington, but after a few twists and turns through forest and countryside, at the end of a gravel road I find silence and a lovely hideaway.

Bob and Lisa Watkins began it several years ago by demolishing their existing home. Then, with the help of River Rock Innfriends, they built their dream B&B. They used fir log posts, high beams, walls of windows, and the aforementioned ten tons of rock.  The massive fireplace stands in the 1,300-square-foot Great Room, which overlooks a sloping lawn, trees, a pond, and the forest beyond. It’s a popular spot for weddings and group retreats. I’m staying in the Stilly Room, named for the Stillaguamish River and decorated with old-time fishing creels and rods, nicely combining  rustic style with up-to-date luxury. My king-size bed is made from hand-hewn logs, but I have a TV, lots of DVD choices, wi-fi, a gas fireplace, and a deep whirlpool tub. Also, the sheets on the bed are silky smooth and incredibly comfortable. The other four suites are similar, each with a Pacific Northwest theme: Cedar, Woodland, Fern, and Homestead.

Out on the 5-acre woodsy property, Bob leads the way over winding, ferny paths to an enchanting surprise. Some call it the stump house, because it’s in the remains of an enormous tree that burned, but of course it’s really a fairytale cottage carved by elves. A light mist falls onto the stump cottagemossy roof, lace curtains hang at little paned windows. I stoop and enter the hollow stump, and I’m in a tiny room where chunks of logs serve as a table and chair covered by checked cloths. Those elves must have had fun.

Every afternoon the hospitable innkeepers put out coffee, tea, and home-baked cookies. In the morning, they serve a multi-course breakfast. Here’s what Lisa, a terrific cook, serves today: fresh coffee cake, mixed fruit, locally made apple juice, and a light frittata with Swiss chard, basil, garlic, oven-roasted tomatoes, and cream. This is a fine start to a day of exploring an interesting area. Dinner is at Bistro San Martin, 7 miles away in the small town of Arlington, and that’s a special place that gets a post of its own.

By the way, that wolf skin hanging from the fireplace mantel came from a garage sale. The Watkins’ aren’t into killing wolves.

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Ice cream, chocolate truffles, lemonade,  jewelry, dog biscuits: lavender is in more than your grandmother’s cologne these days. Apparently it enhances practically everything. This I’m learning from two Pacific Northwest farms, where acres of purple look like the fields of Provence in summertime.

One is Lavender Wind Farm, a few miles outside Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Washington. (Check my previous post for more on charming little Coupeville.) Sarah Richards grows some 9,000 plants of lavender in many varieties, plus rosemary and sunflowers, on her 8.75-acre farm. It’s part of Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, a national park that covers a big swatch of Whidbey Island and encompasses farms, hiking trails, the town of Coupeville, a state park, beaches and a lake.

From Lavender Wind Farm I can see the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Vancouver Island, and the Olympic Mountains. It’s gorgeous. Visitors are welcome, so I’m happily strolling the property, admiring a labyrinth lined with lavender, a gazebo, and ponds with a trickling stream. There are flowers and vegetables, inviting benches, and every view another photo op.  I get a peek into the drying shed and sniff the spicy air in the gift shop. Lavender massage oil, fabulous. Lavender mustard, I’m not so sure, but willing to try it. The whole place is enchanting.

The other farm is on San Juan Island, a ferry ride away.  Pelindaba is a riot of organically grown purple in summer.  A demonstration garden holds more than 50 varieties of lavender, you can pick your own bouquets in a cutting field, and there’s a craft workshop for making wreaths. Visitors like to bring picnics and buy lavender lemonade and cookies to go with them. Then they browse among 240 lavender products. I never imagined one plant could be used so many ways, handcrafted from flowers and oils. Pelindaba also has a shop in Friday Harbor, where I get to sample lavender chocolate ice cream and choose among soaps.  

If you can’t get to San Juan Island, check the Pelindaba shops in Seattle or Santa Rosa, California.  Lavender is definitely back in favor, and flavor.  But really, it was never gone; it just needed a creative boost.

(Lavender field photo credit: M. Denis Hill)

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Zihuatanejo Bay, on Mexico’s west coast, is scalloped with beaches.  Ours, Playa La Madera, is so small I can walk its distance, from one rocky outcropping to another, in less than 5 minutes. But it’s big enough to have clusters of busy hotels and 3 restaurants, and luckily for us, one is outstanding.

La Bocana, MJ & Richie's, Playa la Madera

Starting at the north end, we have our old hangout, MJ & Richie’s, now called La Bocana (still has the MJ & R sign though). Rafael, who ran the place for years, has left, which we lament because that sweet, friendly man always had something from his great jazz collection playing. The food is still good, though not as good as when Rafael was here (or maybe it was the music and his charm that made it so). The tortilla soup is bland unless you pour hot chili sauce into it, but chicken fajitas and grilled mahimahi are just right with a frosty beer. We sit at an umbrella table on the sand and lazily watch the beach action while we enjoy a Mexican lunch at a reasonable price. Plus the service is ultra-quick.

At the south end of Playa La Madera is La Rena Rene, serving tortillas, tacos, grilled shrimp, quesadillas–a full menu of decent, unexceptional Mexican food, in my opinion.  You’re right on the beach, though, so the setting and view are perfect.

Between the two is Bistro del Mar, connected to Hotel Brisas del Mar.  This is where we go when we want something special and are prepared to pay accordingly. The tortilla soup, served in a large, tilted bowl, is a rich red broth with crisp tortilla strips, avocado slices, cheese, onions, and sour cream. Mahimahi with shrimp sauce, Caesar salad, sweet-and-sour jumbo shrimp in tequila–they’re all wonderful.  This is as close as La Madera gets to elegance. We dine on linen-covered, candlelit tables under a swooping, tent-like roof, drink sauvignon blanc wine from Chile, and are served by expert waiters.  And because this is a beach, after, all, we have first stepped out of our flip-flops and washed our feet in the little pool set into the entrance steps.

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