BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Most visitors to this college town make a beeline for Fairhaven, the understandably popular gentrified historic district at the north end of Chuckanut Drive. On your next visit, mix it up: Head downtown, where Whatcom Creek meets the bay.
Is the first of the month near? Go for the First Friday Art Walk, with 30 or more participating venues from 6 to 10 p.m. on the first Friday of every month.
Don't expect the ordinary. You won't find a lot of traditional galleries; you will get to meet outside-the-box artists in cozy studios and shops sprinkled across a walkable downtown.
• Pickford Film Center, 1318 Bay St., pickfordfilmcenter.org.
I didn't expect to spend a pleasurable evening in Bellingham watching David Tennant as "Richard II" with the Royal Shakespeare Company from Stratford-upon-Avon. But I did, at the nonprofit Pickford theater, the only venue between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, offering a daily, year-round schedule of independent, art house and noncommercial films.
The film center, named for silent-screen maven Mary Pickford, occupies a lovingly restored 100-year-old building on Bay Street with two screens and a raw-brick lobby worthy of spending time in for wine and cheese before a show. Also, don't miss the locally made Nanaimo bars at the snack counter, or the GMO-free popcorn, with brewer's yeast available for sprinkling.
• Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St., mountbakertheatre.com.
This beautifully restored 1927 Moorish-style architectural treasure, listed on the register of National Historic Places, is a popular venue for live theater as well as music performances.
Musicians who appeared recently include Judy Collins, Keb' Mo', Ani DiFranco. Arlo Guthrie is slated for April. Coming theater productions include an onstage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" and traveling shows such as "The Addams Family" and "Hair."
BEER LOVERS, HEAR THIS
Bellingham is being touted as the Northwest's next great craft-beer destination. Before or after a show or art walk, sample one of Bellingham's brew pubs.
The newest downtown haunt is The Local Public House, 1427 Railroad Ave. Opened in October, it lives up to its name with a rotating 14-tap sampling of local and regional ales. Freshen up with something like a Chili Bravo ale, from Ferndale's Menace Brewing, the pub's affiliated brewery, or relax over a dark and brooding Locomotive Breath Imperial Stout, from Anacortes.
What you won't find: Stella Artois or - drumroll, please - sports TV.
"We're trying to encourage conversation," manager Chris Guard said.
Visit at mealtime; every menu item comes with a beer-pairing suggestion. The changing dinner menu recently included Pork Belly Tacos ("pairs with hoppy pale ales," $9) and Curried Fish and Chips, with a titillating curry-beer batter and coconut-chili aioli ($11).
Other good downtown options include:
• The venerable, award-winning Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro, three blocks down the street (1107 Railroad Ave., bbaybrewery.com). It's been here 19 years, and it felt a tad tired on our visit, but maybe the crowds are the only endorsement it needs. Sports TV in the taproom.
• Copper Hog Gastropub, 1327 N. State St., claims to serve "fine foods, tasty beers, select wines and non-pretentious cocktails." While not associated with a brewery, it is close to the hearts and gullets of Bellingham beer lovers. The menu includes such beer-friendly choices as a pulled pork sandwich with smoked ancho chili-tamarind barbecue sauce, smoked-apple slaw and house-cut fries ($10). In a recent check of its 15-tap draft list, only five were from outside Washington or Oregon, with interesting choices such as Snipes Mountain Jackal, a sour brown beer from Yakima County (thecopperhog.com).
• On the edge of downtown is Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen, 601 W. Holly St., with a locavore menu listing strictly local dishes. It also does menu pairing, specializing in German-style lagers (chuckanutbreweryandkitchen.com).
• Closer to Interstate 5 is 2-year-old Kulshan Brewing, whose Kulshan Fresh Hop Ale took first place in the Yakima Valley Fresh Hop Ale Festival this past fall. Kulshan doesn't serve food but frequently features local food trucks (kulshanbrewery.com).
• Two new breweries, Aslan Brewing and Wander Brewing, are slated to open in or near downtown this year, which will bring the brewery count in Bellingham's city limits to five.
WHERE WE STAYED - AND OTHER LODGING
A bed-and-breakfast near downtown that sounded good was closed when I visited, so I chose the four-mile drive east of town to the Tree Frog Night Inn (treefrognight.com).
Eco-conscious? You'll love this place. It was built with sustainability in mind, from the naturally pigmented clay walls to the efficient radiant-heat in the bathroom floor (a delightfully toe-friendly eco-amenity on a cold morn).
Kara Black and Kurt Yandell, founders of progressive-minded Duwamish Cohousing in West Seattle, moved to Bellingham in 2005 and built two lodging suites next to their home on five wooded acres above Squalicum Creek. A third lodging room is in the main house.
My choice was the Coast Salish Suite, beautifully decorated with art and carvings by local Native artisans and lots of custom design touches. A stand-alone gas stove provided cozy heat in the living room. Nearby, a sauna. Outside, a hot tub.
It's a bed-and-breakfast, but opting out of breakfast holds the nightly rental to $110 on a winter weeknight ($140 on weekends). Add $30 for breakfast for two.
The only downside: The suites, while in a separate building, look right at the front windows of the main house, a few steps away.
Other choices: Three nonchain hotels situated away from the freeway - my first criteria - are well-regarded, but pricey:
• Top-rated on TripAdvisor is the Fairhaven Village Inn, in the district for which it is named (fairhavenvillageinn.com).
• Also in Fairhaven, but more bayfront, is the luxurious Chrysalis Inn and Spa (thechrysalisinn.com). Winter weekend rates start at $219 per night, with no extra charge for the trains running beneath your window.
• On the bay closer to downtown - next to a marina, a little farther from trains - is the Hotel Bellwether, with winter weekend rates starting at $189 (hotelbellwether.com).