Fairhaven's Winterfest lights up the season
by Mary Vermillion
In the closing months of the year, the sun sinks quickly over historic Fairhaven Village on the south side of Bellingham. On these chilly, ink-black nights, locals seek the light of good company. And the organizers of the November 29-December 21 Fairhaven Winterfest are happy to oblige with activities that gather neighbors—and visitors—together for seasonal magic.
Fairhaven—a compact, six-block patchwork of 17 red-brick Victorian buildings and contemporary architecture inspired by the 19th century—is a charming canvas for a holiday festival. The Village was one of four pioneer settlements along the bay. Founded in the 1800s, Fairhaven has survived booms and busts, welcoming prospectors in the 19th century, hippies in the ‘70s, and entrepreneurs and artisans in more recent years. Today, the Village is a thriving hub of art galleries, cocktail bars and brew pubs, restaurants, and locally owned shops.
“Fairhaven is one of Washington’s best-kept secrets. We love our community and want to share it.” Scott Ward,
Executive Director Historic Fairhaven Association
For years, Fairhaven’s holiday celebrations were subdued. Neighbors and business owners would string lights and welcome local families for visits with Santa (or the Grinch). There was a community tree lighting. Then, in 2009, the Fairhaven Village Inn began to offer free horse-drawn carriage rides, which many families have since made a part of their annual holiday tradition.
Last year, volunteers with the Historic Fairhaven Association saw the potential of an old-fashioned holiday celebration in the Victorian-era Village. They officially grouped the home-spun events under the banner of Fairhaven Winterfest and began to dream of bigger things.
Leading the effort is the association’s executive director and local artist Scott Ward. It’s a perfect job for Ward, who, as a child, never wanted to stop believing in Santa. “I remember being 8-years-old, sitting in the backseat as we drove home from my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve, and listening to the radio as the announcers tracked the progress of Santa’s sled,” he says. “Even though I knew Santa wasn’t real, I wanted him to be. I wanted the magic.”
Events filled with child-like wonder
Ward and Fairhaven Winterfest volunteers are conjuring that child-like wonder by continuing traditions such as visits with Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus), a Victorian mailbox where children can post letters to Santa, a 5 p.m. November 24 tree lighting followed by a carol sing-along, and free carriage rides each weekend through December 21. They’ve amplified the magic with new attractions, including a firelight stroll on December 14th, 5-8pm and the annual 'Dropping the Holiday Yule Log' on December 20th, 6-7pm, and a December 21 caroling competition.
Browsing around the village
Patrons enjoying the warmth of the firepit at Stones Throw Brewery.
Local businesses are tying in their own special events, including a Winterfest charity ball at photographer Peter James’ Fairhaven Studio and Gallery. Over at Stones Throw Brewery, bartenders will tap a Winterfest oatmeal stout with hints of cherry. Grab a pint and gather around the tap room’s outdoor fire pits with the locals to listen to live music. And Village Books and Paper Dreams—one of the nation’s best independent bookstores—will have its usual full slate of literary events. Visit Fairhaven Winterfest for a complete list of events as well as dates and times.
Adding to the wintery scene: miles of ice-blue LED lights hem the pergola and trees of the historic Village. “It’s like walking through a night sky,” Ward says of the lights. “There’s something magical about it.”
Places to Stay
For the best experience, Ward encourages visitors to plan their trip for the festival’s opening weekend. “To get the full Fairhaven experience, come the first weekend when everything starts,” he says. “Take the train and book a room at The Chrysalis or Fairhaven Village Inn. Join the Friday Art walk, visit the Holiday Market and all the weekend events. Local stores are decorated, and you can start your holiday shopping. We’ll light the tree and sing carols together. You’ll get a true sense of community.
“Fairhaven is one of Washington’s best-kept secrets,” Ward adds. “We love our community and want to share it.” That’s a welcome invitation as the dark nights of winter approach.
Things to know before you go...
Gift shopping and plenty of places to eat, drink and be merry are all part of the year-round Fairhaven experience. Photos ©Bellingham-Whatcom Tourism
If you go: At just six square blocks, Fairhaven Village is perfect for strolling, stopping along the way to shop the independently owned businesses, to linger over a meal or a cup of coffee, or to raise a glass with friends.
How to get there: Fairhaven is 90 miles north of Seattle. If you drive, there is free, convenient parking. Visitors who arrive via Amtrak or the Alaska Ferry may walk the few blocks from the train station and ferry terminal to the heart of the historic village. For more information, visit fairhavenwinterfest.com or bellingham.org.
Spend the weekend: Book soon. Hotels and B&Bs fill quickly on weekends.