SEATTLE — Good. Better. Best.
That's a fair three-word description of a recent tour of three Olympic National Park destinations: Sol Duc Hot Springs, Kalaloch Lodge and Lake Quinault Lodge.
The trip was motivated by a "Best of the Northwest" special offered by Aramark, which operates all three properties (plus nearby Lake Crescent Lodge). The deal: three consecutive nights at any of the resorts for a package price of $399 — including a $40-per-night resort credit to sweeten the offer.
Even without the price come-on, which expires soon, the idea of sampling three Olympic lodges had a special appeal. My family had not visited the Olympic Peninsula in years but had fond memories of the ancient forests and rugged beaches of Washington's wild west. We decided to circle from north (Sol Duc) to south (Lake Quinault), stopping at Kalaloch in the middle.
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That turned out to be the best route, as the accommodations grew progressively more appealing as we went along. Had we started at Lake Quinault and ended at Sol Duc, we might not have finished the trip so satisfied.
Sol Duc Hot Springs
When we got out of the car at Sol Duc Hot Springs, my 7-year-old son proclaimed, "This place stinks." And he meant it literally. The mineral waters that give the area its name smell strongly of sulfur and the odor permeates the grounds, the cabins and even the lodge and restaurant.
Four outdoor, spring-fed pools are the main attraction: three for soaking (warm, warmer and hot) and one full-sized for swimming. The original inhabitants of the area considered the pungent waters curative, and the first health spa was built on the site nearly 100 years ago. Today, visitors come to soak and also to hike the many trails that lead deep into the forest.
Hiking was at the top of our agenda, but a vigorous spring storm dashed our ambitions. Rain, hail and snow deterred us from walking any farther than Sol Duc Falls — a little less than a mile along a wooded trail that was lush and gorgeous despite the darkened skies. Weather also intruded on our soak in the pools, which was bookended by mad, frigid dashes to the changing rooms.
We applied our $40 resort credit to dinner in the lodge — the only available restaurant for at least 15 miles. The food (crab cakes, fish-n-chips, chicken strips) was adequate though high-priced, given the coffee-shop ambience.
A night curled up in front of a fire in the lodge with a good book would have capped the evening nicely, but Sol Duc offers no such experience. One of the drawbacks is a lack of the kind of communal spaces associated with the great lodges of the Western parks, such as Timberline or Paradise.
At Sol Duc, once the sun goes down, guests are relegated to their units — Aramark's website calls them "rustic, charming cabins," but honestly, they should've stopped at "rustic." The cabins are small and dark, with only the most basic furnishings. We paid $20 extra for one with a kitchenette; we didn't use it much, but we were glad to have it. Without the extra few feet of space, claustrophobia would have set in.
On day two of our Olympic sojourn, we left Sol Duc early and high-tailed it to the coast. At Ruby Beach, we lucked into the only sun we found on our vacation and scored three hours of beachcombing, tide-pool hunting and rock-skipping on one of Washington state's most savagely beautiful shorelines.
When the rain caught up with us, we hopped in the car and drove to Kalaloch via Forks, where we stocked up on groceries in one of the many stores sporting a Twilight Saga-inspired "Bella shops here" sign.
At Kalaloch, another extra $20 bought us a night in a sweet cabin on a bluff above the Pacific. Nothing fancy, but blonde wood, big picture windows, a built-in eating nook and a sofa helped us feel at home as we watched the weather roll over the ocean. During a lull in the rain we took a solitary walk on the beautiful, windswept beach. And while our plans for a nighttime beach bonfire were scuttled by a storm, we enjoyed a cozy night reading and playing games in the cabin.
Lake Quinault Lodge
The next morning, our $40 resort credit bought us a tasty breakfast at Kalaloch Lodge (French toast, eggs and bacon, breakfast burrito) and then we headed back toward the interior of the peninsula and our final destination: Lake Quinault Lodge. It was a short drive — under an hour — and we hadn't been out of the car for five minutes when my son with the sensitive nose asked, "Can we stay here an extra day"?
Lake Quinault Lodge makes that kind of impression. The setting is breathtaking — a vast lake surrounded by pristine forest. The historic lodge, built in the 1920s, fits right in — a grand, cedar-clad homage to old-fashioned craftsmanship. Inside, a huge, stone fireplace warms a welcoming lobby where guests read, do jigsaw puzzles, play the piano and play games.
Visitors here choose to stay in one of three buildings: the lodge itself, with the most traditional hotel rooms; the Boathouse, a 1923 annex with a kind of quaint, knotty-pine charm; and the Lakeside building, a more modern, three-story wing with spacious accommodations suitable for families. All three are close to resort activities.
And there is plenty to do, rain or shine. We swam in the indoor pool, played ping-pong in the lodge basement and then sat happily by the fire, making plans to come back in the summer sun for a paddle on the lake.
That night we applied our $40 resort credit toward dinner in the "Roosevelt Dining Room," named after the lodge's most famous guest: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited in 1937. Our credit didn't go far, because the menu is pricey. But unlike many resort restaurants, which have a captive clientele, this one is worth every penny. Chef Patrick Norris delivered a fabulous pan-seared halibut ($30) and rib-eye steak ($27) to the grown-ups at our table, and a just-right pizza to our son ($7).
The next morning — our last on the peninsula — we found a mile-long interpretive trail close to the lodge and ambled through the soggy rain forest. Moss, mushrooms, nurse logs and an endless variety of Northwest native plants surrounded us. Looking up, we watched drops of water dripping off Douglas fir branches a hundred feet in the air — falling ... falling ... falling onto our upturned faces.
The dizzying scale of the trees, the vegetation practically erupting out of every surface, put an emphatic exclamation point on the end of our three-day tour. The journey from Sol Duc to Kalaloch to Lake Quinault had been eventful, varied and — thanks to Aramark's package deal — economical. Even with Sol Duc's shortcomings, the trip rated the motto "Best of the Northwest."
Or at least "Good, Better, Best ..."
IF YOU GO:
Participating lodges: Lake Quinault Lodge, Lake Crescent Lodge, Sol Duc Hot Springs, and Kalaloch Lodge. You must stay a minimum of three nights in any combination and the offer expires June 15.
PRICES: Prices start at $399, though there may be surcharges for anything considered an "upgrade," including fireplaces, views and kitchenettes; additional occupancy; or equipment rentals, such as canoes. Be sure to ask about prices for extras. Additional nights are available for $99/night after three nights.
RESTAURANTS: All four resorts have restaurants. The "Best of the Northwest" package price includes a $40 resort credit per night, which may be used in the restaurant.
MORE INFORMATION: The "Best of the Northwest" Olympic Peninsula package can only be reserved by phone: 866-297-7367. For more info, go to www.olympicnationalparks.com.