By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
If you are not excited by the look-alike, interchangeable sterile boxy hotel rooms of most of the country, especially those that seem to line every freeway interchange, you are in luck – at least if you want to stay in Bellingham.
If you are not familiar with Bellingham, the news is even better.
Hotel Leo and the Heliotrope, both in Bellingham, capture and embody the historic/artistic vibe of the city.
Yes, the stereotype is largely true that Bellingham has a strong hippie strand – but it, like every historical strand, is only one of many.
Along with that sensibility is a more muscular, hard-working, maybe even lumberjack, fisherman and industrial motif.
All of which are embedded in these hotels.
Other cities might have their clusters of bearded, hipster coffee snobs, but where else but Bellingham would have, because it has had them for more than a century, bearded lumberjack mini-brewery artisans?
A standard look-alike hotel could be anywhere; in fact that’s the point. Freeways, strip-malls, interchangeable food and chain stores; you can find those in the nameless blur of Anytown, USA.
But you won’t find places like The Heliotrope and Hotel Leo just anywhere. In fact you won’t find them outside of Bellingham.
The Heliotrope is a converted motor-hotel from the early 1960s. Picture your classic roll-your-car-right-up-to-the-door kind of place – except with a “PNW modern lodging” vibe.
The Heliotrope, geared primarily to college students, comes equipped with a growler jug in the refrigerator for the local mini-brew and, my favorite feature, a blackboard-painted door with a jar of multi-colored crayons and a note that encourages comments or artistic contributions. (https://www.heliotropehotel.com/)
The Hotel Leo is a vintage hotel, built in 1883, when people like Mark Twain came through town – and it still feels like the kind of place where someone like that would saunter into the lobby. You can see more on the back-story of Hotel Leo here – https://www.thehotelleo.com/our-story.
The Hotel Leo, unlike The Heliotrope, has meeting rooms, an event ballroom, a dedicated bar – dedicated to gin, that is, especially local gins (within a 100 mile radius). Who knew there was such a thing as local gin?
They will also feature a full bar with specialty drinks that are “versions” of what was popular when the hotel was originally built.
The floor features an old school pool table, nicely appointed rooms (many with views) and the building as a whole has the feel of the atmosphere for an Agatha Christie mystery novel.
It would be difficult to design a more ideal setting for a murder mystery dinner. Or historical ghost-story night.
The Hotel Leo is a place to linger, to meet others, to change one’s destiny.
If you are social-distancing, living under the radar, living a life of mystery or traveling incognito as a guest of the witness protection program, The Heliotrope might be more your style.
The two hotels have very different identities, but both bring to mind, in their own ways, traditional visions of hospitality.
The Hotel Leo has the feel of a country inn from a distant, more elegant age.
Anchored in the middle of the historic downtown area, Hotel Leo (https://www.thehotelleo.com/) is a mix of Old-World charm (be sure to take a close look at the original tile-work and wood craftsmanship) and modern comforts.
And each room and lobby area features paintings or sculptures by local artists.
If you ever need a justification for saving/restoring/rehabbing a historic site, especially one on the scale of Hotel Leo, this is your exhibit A.
Modern construction cannot match the inherent, irreplaceable character of a building of this stature.
Many far newer projects will come and go, but buildings like this will never be built again.
Add in a movie room, ballroom and a community library with near-by pool table, and you have an atmosphere of conviviality most of us might consider near-extinct – no matter how essential it might be to a cohesive community.
Hotel Leo is also pet-friendly and affordable.
If you have reason to go to Bellingham, I suggest that you add to the memorable nature of your trip by staying at one of these historic and certainly one-of-a-kind places.
And if you don’t know Bellingham, I suggest one of these hotels as a home base to explore a new, historic and always fascinating city.
As travel restrictions loosen, and the weather improves, (and presumably, the Canadian border stays closed) you might consider a journey into the past, the future, the upper-left corner mystery city of Washington state.
And when the Canadian border does reopen, Bellingham is the ideal layover for those of us from the South Sound region if we want to cross the border in the early morning hours.
But be forewarned, the charms, mystery and unrivaled craftsmanship of Hotel Leo will not be quickly forgotten.
After all, you never know what your bearded lumberjack concierge might have waiting for you.