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TRAVEL: Whales, art and fields of flowers await north of Seattle

LA CONNER, Wash. -- It was like one of those cartoons where the wafting smells of baking pull the cars right off the road -- eerrrk! -- and drivers float out their windows. They drift past the Dungeness crabs, local chevre cheese, organic leeks a...

Skagit Valley
The Skagit Valley north of Seattle, is an agricultural region known for its bulbs and flowers.

LA CONNER, Wash. -- It was like one of those cartoons where the wafting smells of baking pull the cars right off the road -- eerrrk! -- and drivers float out their windows. They drift past the Dungeness crabs, local chevre cheese, organic leeks and fair-trade coffee to the ice cream counter, where the smell of fresh, warm waffle cones is so delectable they can barely drool out their orders.

You doubt me? The vanilla ice cream cone was so big I had to hold it with two hands. It took me half an hour to eat. The single scoop was as big as a head of broccoli.

Afterward, my arteries had to call 911.

Visitors to the Skagit (rhymes with "gadget") Valley 70 miles north of Seattle generally do not comment on the ice cream right off. They comment on the brilliant fields of flowers and pleasant visage of snowy Mt. Baker presiding over the flat, fertile farmland.

They might mention the cute town of La Conner, a favorite among artists, on the Swinomish Channel.

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They might drop helpful hints that La Conner is just 20 minutes from the Anacortes ferries to Victoria, British Columbia, and the San Juan Islands. Or that it's near the busiest state park in Washington, Deception Pass.

They might describe it as a decent one-night stop between Seattle and Vancouver.

But the best metaphor for this earnestly rural region, I think, is the Snow Goose Produce Market in Mt. Vernon, where even the ice cream seems somehow more wholesome than the suburban kind. Basically an overgrown roadside stand on Fir Island Road, Snow Goose sells produce, fish, shellfish, dairy, bread, wine and flowers, each of them grown, caught or created locally by artistic-type farmers and fisherfolk.

As you approach the store, homemade wooden signs proclaim the charming wares: "Fresh Black Cod" and "Indian Candy Smoked Salmon." In the center of the shop is a pile of bright baskets made by a women's co-op in Uganda. Along the walls hang Cambodian silk scarves whose proceeds, shoppers will be relieved to know, benefit education for Cambodia's needy children.

Located between the I-5 freeway and La Conner, Snow Goose lures Seattle weekenders, second-home owners, artists, garden tour groups, ferry catchers, cyclists and locals.

Enter Snow Goose a frazzled city dweller? Exit in an ice cream nirvana state. Enter as a stressed-out traveler? Exit as a peaceful wanderer of the Skagit Valley.

"We actually had to slow down when we came," says Lori Farnell. She's a Spokane native who owns the Wild Iris Inn, an 18-room lodging in La Conner, a popular haven for tired Seattle Type A's.

"People come here just to get away from everything."

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The region's most colorful claim to fame is the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Every April, the fields erupt in a show of half a million tulips, courtesy of the Washington Bulb Co., the nation's top tulip grower. A million visitors pour onto the rural roads to visit the company's Roozen Gaarde spread in Mt. Vernon, northeast of La Conner, riding bicycles, eating ice cream, buying flowers. Visitors also can catch a swath of yellow daffodils in March or a blanket of purple and white iris in May.

The art haven of La Conner contains galleries and restaurants, plus the Rainbow Bridge (which, for some reason, is solid orange), the totem pole at the Swinomish Indian tribal community, the boardwalk along the water, a quilt museum and the Museum of Northwest Art.

Venture farther afield to see more. I drove the quaint Farm-to-Market Road north until it ran into Chuckanut Drive, then went north. On this vestige of the old Pacific Coast Highway, I pulled off at every chance to see the incredible coastline views of Samish Bay, the Taylor Shellfish Farm, Chuckanut Bay and Larabee State Park.

You also can drive I-20 west to the Anacortes area (about 20 minutes) to do an orca whale-watching trip, without having to take the ferry to the San Juan Islands first. About 9 miles south of Anacortes is Deception Pass State Park, with its famous and frightening bridge across the deep rushing water between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands.

And when you're driving around lapping up the atmosphere, you will notice one more interesting thing. The shape of snow-covered Mt. Baker in the distance may remind you of something awfully familiar.

Ah, yes. A gigantic pyramid-shaped scoop of vanilla ice cream.

If you go:

Getting there: Take I-5 north from Seattle about 60 miles; exit at No. 221. Follow signs about 10 miles west to La Conner. The Amtrak Cascades train stops in nearby Mt. Vernon on its way from Seattle to Vancouver.

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Lodging: Wild Iris Inn, 121 Maple Ave., La Conner ( www.wildiris.com , (800) 477-1400); Katy's Inn, 503 S. Third St., La Conner ( www.katysinn.com , (360) 466-9909).

Attractions: Snow Goose Produce Market, 15170 Fir Island Road, Mt. Vernon ( www.snowgooseproducemarket.com , (360) 445-6908).

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. See daffodils in March and iris in May, but the big showstoppers are tulips in April ( www.tulipfestival.org , (360) 428-5959).

La Conner Quilt and Textile Museum, 703 S. Second St., La Conner. ( www.laconnerquilts.com , (360) 466-4288).

Museum of Northwest Art, 121 S. First St., La Conner (contemporary and historical Northwest art; www.museumofnwart.org , (360) 466-4446).

Taylor Shellfish Farm, 2182 Chuckanut Drive, Bow ( www.taylorshellfishfarms.com , (360) 766-6002).

Mystic Sea Charters Whale Watching, Anacortes ( www.mysticseacharters.com , (800) 308-9387).

Deception Pass State Park ( www.parks.wa.gov ); one great way to see the famous bridge is to take a boat tour (888-909-8687; www.deceptionpasstours.com ).

Tulip Country Bike Tours offers 4-6 hour tours around Skagit Valley ( www.countrycycling.com , (360) 424-7461).

For more: www.skagittourism.com; www.laconnerchamber.com

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