Dec 1, 2023

Small-Town America awaits one mile from the Canadian border in Blaine

The Railway Cafe in Blaine, Wa.

Vicka Haywood pulls a batch of orange-blackberry scones from the oven in the back of a vintage caboose overlooking the harbor in Blaine, Washington.

Her Railway Cafe, complete with wheels and train tracks, sits just a mile from the Peace Arch border crossing between the U.S. and Canada.

Travelers going in either direction always guaranteed a brisk  business. 

Then came the Covid pandemic. One of the nation's busiest border crossings  closed to nonessential travel. Traffic slowed to a trickle.

 "I realized then, this is what a small town in America is supposed to be like," she says. Starbucks and other places closed, but the Railway Cafe remained open for take-out, catering to police, borders officials, and families meeting at Peace Arch Park, a neutral space where Canadians and U.S. citizens could gather.

Sitting above Drayton Harbor overlooking Semiahmoo Bay in the Strait of Georgia, Blaine, population 6,000, is what many consider a way station between Bellingham and Vancouver B.C. 

Many pass through without stopping, but a pleasant few hours await those who do. A detour to what locals call the "Peace Arch City"  will indeed bring you solace before or after a long drive on Interstate 5.

Vicka and Rodney Haywood in their Railway Cafe

Start with a stroll along Peace Portal Drive, the main drag though town, and coffee, breakfast or lunch at the Railway Cafe. Relax on the deck overlooking the Blaine marina, or get cozy inside the 1921 caboose decorated with vintage signs, a faux  fireplace and red formica tables.

Vicka, born in Moldova and raised in Israel, bakes her scones, muffins and cookies one batch at a time in a small convection oven in the back of the railway car her husband, Rodney,   found one for rent on Craigslist.  

Filling her case on a recent morning were strawberry turnovers, raspberry-coconut scones and a Middle-Eastern spinach and feta breakfast treat encased in sheets of phyllo dough.

"My staff and I don't rush," reads a sign above the cash register. "If you have no patience, you're on the wrong train."

Marine walks

Walk it off with a two-mile stroll along the Blaine Marine Park Wharf Loop trail.  Bike or walk on paved and gravel trail past covered waterside shelters, picnic areas, benches and a playground outfitted with jungle gyms shaped like a lighthouse and a ship.

Birdwatchers in Blaine

Drayton Harbor is an important stop along with nearby Birch Bay, for migrating shorebirds and seabirds along the west coast. Birdwatchers are out most mornings as the migration goes into late fall and some birds spent the winter here. 

 A short walk from town is Peace Arch Park, unique in North America for being the only park where people from the U.S. and Canada can meet without crossing the border.

The Canadian side was closed during the pandemic, but U.S. officials kept the Washington side open, enabling families and others separated by the border closure, to meet, enjoy picnics and walks along garden paths. 

South of Blaine in the community of Birch Bay is Semiahmoo County Park, CQ near the Semiahmoo Resort, CQ a waterfront destination built on a former salmon cannery site. The park sits on a 1.25-mile peninsula known as the Semiahmoo spit. Flat trails for walking or biking open to views of Mount Baker, the Twin Sisters and other peaks. 

Lunch stop

Always busy on a nice day is the patio at the Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. CQ 

Order at the bar, find a seat and a waiter will appear with plates of locally-harvested oysters, bowls of oyster stew, oyster (or cod or shimp) tacos or overstuffed Po'Boy sandwiches.  

The patio at Drayton Harbor Oyster Co.

Eat here, and you'll support the success of a statewide shellfish recovery program in waters once so polluted that the health department prohibited harvesting.

After years of effort in tracking down and cleaning up pollution, much of Drayton Harbor was considered recovered by the end of 2016, and year-round harvests resumed for the first time in 20 years.

Dessert awaits just up the street at Edaleen Dairy CQ founded in 1975 by Ed and Aileen BransmaCQ in the heart of Whatcom county dairy country. Stop in for soft serve at small town prices. 

Sustainable shopping

Tucked into an alley off Peace Portal Drive is the Living Pantry, CQ an "almost" zero waste store owned by Shawna and Seppi Morris CQ 

The idea is for customers to bring their own containers to refill with natural cleansers, soaps and other liquids stored in big glass jugs. Because so many of her customers are travelers who don't come with empty jars, the shop compromises with some packaged versions of unpackaged bulk products.

Dryer balls from New Zealand

On the shelves are bees wax food wraps, flavored toothpaste  powders, solid dish soap discs made to last for months, and wool dryer balls from New Zealand designed to save energy by reducing dryer time.

Happy hour

Two recommended stops: The tasting room at the Glacial Lake Missoula Wine Co.,  housed in a former garage, and Beach Cat Brewing, a few miles south of Blaine on scenic Birch Bay.

Wine lovers will be intrigued by how Vancouver owners Tom Davis and Tracey DeGraff use Washington-grown grapes to produce an "enrobed" wine that combines red and white grape varieties into a single wine. The unfermented skins of red grapes are used to enrobe white grape juice and transform it into a red wine by fermentation. Tasting room hours are limited, so check before visiting.

Reports are that Beach Cat Brewing plans to open in Blaine sometime in the next year. In the meantime, enjoy a bike ride or stroll followed by a beer named after your favorite cat at its tap room on the beach at Birch Bay. 

If you go:

Downtown Blaine is 22 miles north of Bellingham, Wa. and one mile from the U.S/Canada Peace Arch border crossing. 

Find tourism info and maps at here. The Blaine Welcome Center is at 546 Peace Portal Drive.

Peace Arch Park is called Peace Arch Historical State Park on the Washington side.  A state park Discover Pass is required for parking. Day passes can be purchased at the park. 

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on Nov. 3, 2023


  1. I enjoy your columns in JoeSentMe including this one about Blaine, however the link to the Railway Cafe connects to a different website, an interesting website for a company with non alcoholic drinks but still not the Railway Cafe.

  2. Thanks. I live 100 miles away, but haven’t discovered Blaine. Been there, of course.