Bellingham, Washington

Population: 72,320

Aug 1, 2006
Outside Magazine
Bellingham, Washington

San Juan Islands    Photo: Corel

My Town: Bellingham

"Paddlers are amazed at the wildlife that's right here. An orca will spy-hop ten feet away from your boat, then you paddle back to Boundary Bay for dinner," says local Brandon Nelson, who bagged a world record last spring by kayaking 146 miles in 24 hours around Lake Whatcom.

Paddlers in this hilly green outpost 90 minutes north of Seattle get it both ways: Bellingham offers back-door access to the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, and it's a launching pad to Canada's Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. Kayakers putting in on Bellingham Bay can ogle sandstone bluffs south of town, the San Juans on the western horizon, and the 10,778-foot volcanic summit of Mount Baker—all in one sweeping glance. The beginner-friendly local kayakers' club, WAKE (Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts), gathers for frequent training sessions, gear exchange, and group paddles on 4,971-acre Lake Whatcom, on the eastern edge of town. Come spring, informal Wednesday-night races on the lake draw as many as 70 boats. Inevitably, all excursions end up downtown at Boundary Bay brewpub. Johnson Outdoors, parent company of Necky and Ocean Kayaks, has a regional branch just up the road in Ferndale, and Sterling's Kayaks and Fiberglass, a custom-boat and repair shop, is a local fixture. Though residents tend to describe the job market as underwhelming, things seem to be perking up: Inc. magazine just applauded Bellingham as a boomtown for small techie startups like Microstaq.

"It rains a lot," says WAKE president Ted Ullman. "Everybody gets moss between their fingers."

Bar Harbor, Maine. Chilly 50-degree water and droves of summer visitors to Acadia National Park are givens—but so are 100-plus-foot cliffs, bald eagles, seals, and the lovely Porcupine and Cranberry island chains. Membership in the Maine Island Trail Association provides access to 350 miles of coast and campsites.