A road trip through artsy, progressive Vashon-Maury Island feels a bit like tumbling down Alice’s Wonderland rabbit hole. At 40 square miles, the island is home to an eclectic mix of farmers, artists and ferry commuters who prefer both its rural lifestyle and the isolation of its ferry-only accessibility.
Vashon-Maury is the largest island in southern Puget Sound and one familiar to many West Sounders. For some, it’s a transit stop on the Southworth-Fauntleroy ferry. For others, it evokes fond memories of summer camp — the island’s Camp Sealth is the oldest and largest on the West Coast.
But for the Native peoples of Puget Sound who had inhabited Vashon-Maury for over 7,000 years and for the descendants of the island’s Japanese immigrants whose agricultural efforts had transformed the land into fruit and vegetable farms, the idyllic island carries reminders of forced government removal and relocation. In 1856, the island’s Native population was dispersed to reservations and in 1942, the island’s Japanese population was dispersed to internment camps.
The hyphenated island was once two bodies of land. George Vancouver was the first non-Native who explored and mapped Vashon as part of the 1792 Royal British Navy survey of Puget Sound, while smaller Maury Island was included in the Charles Wilkes U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1841. Back then at low tide, the two islands were connected by a tidal flat, creating a gathering site for Native people. In 1916, island residents built an artificial isthmus, permanently connecting the two islands and officially linking their names.
The island is dotted with the remnants of smaller hamlets like Burton and Dockton, shoreline communities that evolved when boat transportation was the only way to get around. The Dockton Historical Interpretive Trail created by the community of Dockton on Maury Island provides a 1-mile, signed walk of the town’s history. It gives visitors an appreciation of the town’s settlement by Croatian and Norwegian immigrants and the sites of its former school, hotel, general store, post office and the largest dry dock on the West Coast.
To fully understand the island’s history, an online or in-person visit to The Vashon Island Heritage Museum is a recommended first stop.
Vashon Center for the Arts (Photos courtesy Vashon Center for The Arts)
Vashon-Maury is home to a thriving arts community, with 10 galleries and multiple artist studios. In May and December, more than 70 island artists open their spaces to the public for a studio tour, a 30-year island tradition. On the first Friday of the month, all the galleries open for the First Friday Gallery Cruise.
The Vashon Center for the Arts (called VCA in island vernacular) displays rotating art exhibitions. The state-of-the-art auditorium hosts national and local music, theater and dance productions; the classrooms provide space for art workshops and dance classes. Outside VCA on Heron Meadow, visitors can stroll by a permanent National Audubon Society-inspired mural installation painted by local artist Britt Freda. Her colorful mural showcases six climate-endangered birds.
The island’s extensive rural areas and protected public forests and beaches are the draw for many of the residents and visitors alike. The Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust has been instrumental in setting aside more than 1,850 acres on 25 island preserves. Nineteen of them are official parks whose location and amenities can be found on the helpful Vashon Island Park District website.
Among the protected park acres are the Dockton Forest and Natural Area and the Island Center Forest, both notable for their extensive trail systems and multiuse possibilities. Dockton is a 152-acre park of woods and shoreline used by hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians, with a public boat launch for kayakers and paddle boarders. Island Forest sits in the middle of the island and though it doesn’t have Dockton’s saltwater shoreline, its 10 miles of trails include Mukai Pond and Meadowlake, two bodies of water providing habitat for 80 species of birds — a bonus for birdwatchers.
Vashon Adventures on the main drag in the town of Vashon rents kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and e-bikes to explore trails, roads and shorelines, and markets a variety of guided outdoor tours of the island.
Farms, Wineries and Brewpubs
The Vashon Island Growers Association, which organizes the island’s popular Saturday Farmers Market, lists 24 farm stands run by individual island growers. Visitors can download a map from the website and take an island produce tour to purchase seasonal greens, flowers and berries to munch while beach-walking.
Savvy island entrepreneurs have converted some of that bounty into locally produced libations. For wine lovers, the island is home to a whopping five wineries — Palouse, Vashon, Ali Lanphear, Andrew Will and Maury Island. The wineries offer tasting rooms with limited hours, so check before arriving. The island also has two brewpubs (Vashon Brewing and Camp Colvos) and the cidery Nashi Orchards, which also produces perry, cider’s lesser-known cousin.
June kickstarts the island’s outdoor festival season with the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, the most attended dog-sheep herding event on the West Coast. Sponsored by Misty Isle Farm, the festival invites the public to watch highly skilled border collies and handlers compete in a variety of events. Make sure to check out the event’s informative web page if you attend, so you’ll know the difference between the outrun and the shed scoring systems.
Then comes the mid-July Strawberry Festival. Hosted since 1909, it celebrates the island’s pastoral history of strawberry farming with a three-day event that features vendors and booths lining the main drag in Vashon, a parade and a beer garden.
There are also a variety of lesser-known events, or as one island website explains, “We celebrate for many reasons: the low tides of the year, the growth of the crop of lavender, the completion of an art collection.” Make sure to check out the Vashon-Maury events page for island updates.
Most of Vashon’s eateries can be found downtown and like the island, they’re an eclectic bunch. The Hardware Store Restaurant located in the island’s original hardware store also houses an art gallery at its rear. Snapdragon Bakery & Café just down the road is a combination coffee/pastry shop and full-service restaurant with a vegetarian menu. Check out its charming back patio and live music in a setting that resembles a Victorian parlor. On the other side of town, Bramble House is a farm-to-table restaurant a 1942-built house (look for the vibrant pink door) serving its food on one-of-a-kind, vintage china.
There is no shortage of bed and breakfast, inn, and Airbnb accommodations on the island. But if you’re in search of the unusual, here are four recommendations:
- Bed down in a tipi after sitting around a fire pit among covered wagons on AHY Ranch’s Old West campground.
- Overnight in a lighthouse keeper’s quarters at Point Robinson Light Station. The historic lighthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, marks the navigational halfway point for boats traveling between Seattle and Tacoma.
- ‘Relive’ the writing life of author Betty Macdonald in a barn converted to cottage at Betty MacDonald’s Farm. McDonald’s years as a chicken farmer living on the Egg and I Road in Chimacum were immortalized later in her life when she moved to Vashon Island and wrote about the experience.
- Honor the legacy of Belle Baldwin, the state’s first woman physician, at the 1912 Belle Baldwin House at Fern Creek.
Like Wonderland, Vashon-Maury Island makes for a magical getaway. One where you may return home sporting one of the resident bumper stickers, “Keep Vashon Weird” or “Vashon: Where Life’s An Island.”