Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Camping and Cabins on Camano Island

Camano Island is barely, barely an island. You just about have to break out a magnifying glass to see the slender thread of blue that earns the place its island stripes. Both times we went there this summer, the kids peered out of the car windows as we went over the bridge, inspecting to make sure that there was a trickle of water to verify that we were, indeed, going somewhere that had earned the title of “island.”

So, to start: I cannot recommend camping on Camano. The campsite is well-run, clean and in a pleasant location. But that ground was far and away the absolute pebbliest, hardest, most uncomfortable ground we camped on all summer, and we did alotta camping. It’s not as if I just chuck the tent on the ground and set it up without going over the ground even a little to try and get the worst offenders out of the way.

I should add that we camped shortly after the monster heat wave (okay, Seattle’s version of a monster heat wave), when Seattle hadn’t seen any measurable rain for many weeks. So you should probably take my fussing with a generously-sized lump of salt; we went to that campground at the point when ground throughout the region was baked to a bumpy lumpy, rock-hard consistency. The campground has the virtue of being located first-come, first- serve, which, with enthusiastic little campers jumping out of their skin to Go! Camping! is an undeniable bit of appeal, even if you have to arrive by 2pm on a Friday to get a spot for a summer weekend.
The thing is, Camano also has some kick-ass little cabins at Cama Beach State Park. Which are possibly the worst-kept secret in the region, but they’re fantastic if you can get one. That's a big "if." They book 9 months in advance for most reservations and 18 for group ones (but you get kicked back to regular reservations if you drop below the minimum group number), so although it may seem crazy, you’d best get on the phone ASAP; they’ve already got a loooong wait-list for July 4th weekend, 2010.

The cabins are tiny. Wee. Itsy bitsy. You might be getting the idea that they are not large, and they are not. Nor are they private; you can't quite reach the next cabin from your window, but almost (I'm short, so perhaps someone with longer arms would be in luck). The whole place, although neat as a pin, has the friendly, shaggy feel of a campground, with the same kind of requests on quiet hours (which is to say: don't stay up drinking and talking loudly with friends past 10pm and the folks with kids won't encourage their little hellions to run around screaming before 7am).

The cabins have hot and cold running water, refrigerators, and a microwave. Note the lack of “oven," “stove” or “bathroom” in the description. You have to bring your own linens, pots and pans, cutlery, and schtuff. Technically, camp stoves and the like are forbidden, but we brought our little camp stove to use outside in case it appeared that sensible use was allowed, and noticed that many people brought considerably more elaborate stoves and grills. Enforcement on camp stoves and grills appears to be on a common sense level. Unless you score one of the deluxe cabins (you get a teeny tiny bathroom with your teeny tiny cabin), you will be heading to the bath-house. Which is clean, and has actual hot water for the token-operated showers (and if you've ever taken a frigid camp shower, you will appreciate how nice it is to have hot water, not "hot" water). You have to schlep all your gear down the hill, either in a wheelbarrow or by taking the shuttle. Effectively, it’s camping with a roof. And indoor heating. It’s an old fishing resort from the thirties that’s been fixed up by the state parks. It retains, in a quietly alluring way, the feel of a place from another era. The place as a whole is absurdly, wonderfully, wholesomely idyllic. The Center for Wooden Boats has their Camano Island outpost at the end of the double row of cabins, which only adds to the charm of the location. They rent boats and crab-pots (I cannot really relate how much Curly wanted to rent a crab-pot and cook up some fresh, squirming crabs, and yes, this is the same kid who will be dressing as a crustacean for Halloween) and there are sometimes sailing lessons. Curly and Stumpy were going to head out for one, but it was blustery and wet enough that it was a no-go, at least for a 7-year-old. On Saturday mornings in the summer the Center has toy boat building, with a couple of different wood boat shapes for the kids to choose from, and hand tools they can use. Curly and my boy were over the moon about their toy boats, which were given the place of honor at the front window. We stayed there over Labor Day weekend and managed to snag one of the waterfront cabins (you can see from the view out the window; if that's not waterfront enough for you, consider renting a houseboat). The weather was blustery and autumnal, which made a roof and interior heating really pleasant to have, especially with the view of Saratoga Passage and Whidbey from the front window (complete with the toy boats). We would go outside and practice rock-skipping, or run around, and because of the long views across the water, we could see squalls as they approached. When the squalls arrived, we would head inside and play board games until the weather improved. I am going to note for the record that Miss Scarlet and Professor Plum can suck it. I am a little weary of Clue. And Monopoly. Still, even with the overload of board games, it was delicious being snugged into a cozy, tiny cabin with Stumpy and the kids. Adding to the enjoyment was the whole not sleeping on the ground thing, which, as much as I enjoyed camping over the summer, was a nice change of pace.

I’ll say it again: call them NOW. Get yourself on a waitlist, because the place is not a secret, and will only become less of one.

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