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Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Fond Farewell to Mar Vista

Lime Kiln Point State Park is one very special place in my heart. It's where my best orca encounters have happened, where I've met so many amazing people, and where I continue to spend a lot of time every summer. But if you asked me where I fell in love with the San Juan Islands, I would tell you it was at Mar Vista Resort.

The sign at the entrance to Mar Vista

The 40-acre resort just south of False Bay opened about 75 years ago. In addition to two homes near the top of the property, it contains eight rustic cabins spaced out over the grassy meadows that gently slope down towards the water. The small cabins are clean and simply outfitted. This is a place you go to get away from it all: no internet, no TV, no phones or cell service.

One of the two-person cabins at Mar Vista

I believe I first stayed at Mar Vista in 2001 when my mom and I came to spend two weeks on San Juan Island after coming here for a family vacation the year before. We booked the cabin at the very end, closest to the water: Number 8, named the Gillnetter. We liked the location because we knew it would give us a chance to see whales from our lodging. It was something I was so excited about I couldn't quite believe it was true. When we pulled up and started unloading the car, I remember my mom looking out to the water and saying, almost casually, "There's a whale".

"No way!!" was the response from my 16 year-old self. I dropped whatever I was carrying and scrambled for my binoculars, running to the point to watch as a couple of whales made their way slowly north. By the time they had passed and I came back, my mom had finished unloading and was starting dinner. When the time came to eat, we sat at the tiny table in front of the kitchen window eating our hot dogs and baked beans. Our meal was interrupted by the whales passing again, this time heading south.

A panorama of the view from the bench at the point at Mar Vista - click to see a larger view
Less than a day into our stay, my mom and I agreed that no matter what, we would spend at least a week at Mar Vista every summer together. ("Could you ever imagine," we mused during that first visit, "living on San Juan Island?" Little did I know what my future held! I'm living proof that if there's a will there's a way.) For the next few years, we always made sure our first dinner on the island was the same: hot dogs and baked beans were lucky, and brought the whales.

It wasn't just the resort's prime location on the west side of the island where the whales pass by that made it such a special place - far from it, actually. Even when the whales aren't around, the wildlife is abundant. Deer, eagles, otters, raccoons, harbor seals, great blue herons, and many other bird species frequent the property. I remember my mom waking me one morning to peek through the shades out the window where a mama deer had tucked her twin fawns into some grass just feet away from where we stood. The two babies gazed up at us with open, trusting brown eyes, as curious about us as we were about them.

A yearling deer at Mar Vista

 From the cabins, north of the point overlooking Haro Strait, you can walk through a tunnel of foliage down to the water's edge where there's a small, private cove. It's here where the families of otters and harlequin ducks frolic, and it's one of the best little beach-combing beaches on the island.

The cove at Mar Vista

At the end of the summer of 2003, when it became apparent I would be spending more and more time on San Juan Island in the coming years, my family bought a houseboat in Friday Harbor. We still visited Mar Vista every year, however, and after I started living on the island full time in 2007, Mar Vista became the place my parents would stay every time they came to visit during April-October, the season the cabins were available for rent.

One spring, we watched numerous bald eagles engage in courtship behavior right at sunset:

Courting bald eagles at sunset at Mar Vista

All of the west side of San Juan Island is stunning for watching sunsets, but some of the best I've ever seen have happened at Mar Vista:

Mar Vista sunset - September 2008
Mar Vista sunset - October 2010
Mar Vista sunset - June 2013
This is pretty much how I always felt when I was at Mar Vista:

Monika enjoying another Mar Vista Sunset - September 2009

Over the year's I've gotten to share Mar Vista with so many family and friends. Here's my niece making her first exploration of San Juan Island, holding the hand of her dad and my brother in 2008:


In early 2008 came the sad news that Lee Bave, who had owned Mar Vista since 1957, had passed away. Her children decided to sell the property, and it was listed for something like 14 million dollars. Mar Vista never did much advertising, but word of mouth kept the bookings coming in and many people returned for a visit every year as my family did. All of the regulars were devastated, wondering if this visit to Mar Vista would be their last.

The Mar Vista property is so beautiful and relatively undeveloped, I thought it would make a great acquisition for either the San Juan Preservation Trust or the San Juan County Land Bank. Could you just imagine, I thought, if this place became public land?! Positioned partway between Lime Kiln and American Camp, the other west side shoreline public accesses, it would also fill in a gap for shore-based whale watchers. I started a petition that quickly gathered nearly 500 signatures, asking local organizations to help save Mar Vista. It soon became apparent that the necessary funds just wouldn't be available, however. Meanwhile, the real estate market took a turn for the worst, and no one made an offer on the property. For five years, things continued more or less as they had, with the same family of caretakers running the resort every summer and the same devoted visitors making the pilgrimage every year to come visit this special, restorative place.

My favorite cabin at Mar Vista: Number 8, the Gilnetter

This year came the news that we all knew was inevitable: the property was selling. So many of us, my family included, have been saying for years that if we won the lottery the first thing we would do is buy Mar Vista. Ironically, a couple from the east coast that won the lottery are the buyers, though they've never actually stayed at Mar Vista before. It sounds like they are good people and will appreciate the beauty of the place, but sadly this means that as of July 8, 2013, Mar Vista will be closed.

My parents came up to spend one last long weekend at this amazing place. They invited me and Keith out to have dinner there and watch one last sunset. Appropriately, just like my first dinner at Mar Vista, my last one was also interrupted by whales. Preparation had to be halted when Keith saw the splash from a tail slap out the window, and we all ran out to the point. The whales are never as close to shore at Mar Vista as they sometimes are further north along Land Bank and Lime Kiln, but on this night they were about as close as I have ever seen them. It was L-Pod, and they were in a lazy, playful mood. I don't think I've ever seen so many tail waves!

L-Pod whales off Mar Vista - June 29, 2013

A whale spyhops off the rocks at Mar Vista - June 29, 2013
After a while, the whales turned and meandered back south, and we headed back inside for one last delicious dinner cooked in the cabin's not quite fully equipped kitchen. After dinner, before Keith and I left to head back home, we all stood outside in the darkness of the warm summer evening looking up the stars. That's another thing we've done a lot of at Mar Vista - star-gazing. My dad, an astronomy major, pointed out some of the summer constellations. My mom spotted a satellite passing by overhead. It was a perfect last evening at Mar Vista, but it was bittersweet. It's a place I will definitely miss.


Robyn said...

That was beautiful, Monika. Thank you for sharing your story.

I am so happy to hear a couple bought the property and not a corporation.

You really made me smile tonight and think of so many family vacations when I was a child. Thanks again!

Vera said...

Your post brought tears to my eyes. So many wonderful memories!

The K said...

Nicely done, as always. Mar Vista will continue to be my favorite vacation resort for a long, long time. Your post does a lot to help keep those memories alive. Thank you.

Nicolas (Nico) said...

I think my mum would love to stay there when I'll return

Lois Evensen said...

Such a beautiful place with wonderful memories....

Anonymous said...

I stayed there last summer, my first trip to San Juan Island. As a single 51 yo woman on my first vacation alone, it was a bit too isolated for me, but I could still feel the magic of the place. My dinner got cold as I sat and stared at the sunset. I too had dreams of buying the property with lottery winnings, and either turn it over to the Land Conservation group, or modernize the cabins a little (WIFI) keep it going as a resort. I hope the new owners don't change it too much.

Unknown said...

Apparently, the new owners are clear-cutting.

Monika said...

Yes, it's a very sad turn of events.

Unknown said...

Lee Bave was my grandmother. I loved Mar Vista. Unfortunately my dad is, well, an idiot, and I can count on both hands how many times I visited there. My sisters and I tried to find a way we could keep the resort, but like you said, funds just wouldn't allow it. I do love reading other peoples stories about the resort. Yours is wonderful and heart warming.

Unknown said...

I just read your story and even though we only stayed there onw summer (in fact, this same week 4 years ago!) we agree our time here was one of our best vacations. Just read of the sale this evening. We're truly sorry to learn that it's now a private property. :-(