Back then, it was called the Bloedel residence, and Mr. and Mrs. Bloedel handed out Halloween candy to neighborhood kids adventurous enough to knock on their door.
Dad said he’d take us if their main gate was open. A red delicious apple and one Andes mint (unique for the time) was our treat. In my teens, I attempted to ride my 10-speed through that gate and around their private estate, as it looked like a park. Trespass for exploration was common in those days. Invariably, a kind groundskeeper or gatekeeper found, and escorted me off the property. When the Bloedels passed away and left their estate in trust, no one knew what would happen. Mr. Bloedel did. He planned gardens on a monumental scale. Today, we are all the beneficiaries. And now, it’s called The Bloedel Reserve.
Riding a Washington State Ferry from Seattle to get there is a treat in itself. On sunny days, volcanos and mountain ranges surround the Puget Sound. Islands and peninsulas blend into one another. Eagles and ospreys soar; gulls draft off the ferry. Dramatic storms roll in and out. Occasionally, seals, porpoises or orca swim along–usually announced by the crew. Vessels of all shapes and sizes navigate the same waters. We arrive on Bainbridge Island after 35 minutes of blissful decompression from the noise and chaos of Seattle.
Driving north off the ferry–we slice the island in half vertically–the Reserve is up near Agate Pass. Forest is the norm. Arriving at that familiar main gate, a smiling keeper has our name on the guest list. “You sure picked a great day to visit.” Our beaming grins affirm. We park, receive a map, updates on the day’s activities and specimens in bloom. We ask which direction to start in. “Whichever way–it’s all gorgeous.”
It’s so quiet I can hear bees buzz nearby and birds singing faraway. Wind rustles through branches. Suddenly, silence is broken by loud voices distant. My friend and I look at each other and begin to whisper. This is hallowed ground.
Level of landscape detail and manicure is akin to palace gardens at Versailles. Yet it doesn’t feel manipulated. Over a dozen areas are themed and have mature trees, shrubs, flowers, groundcovers. Five distinct water features, including a bird marsh. Four meadows. Rare rhodies and trees. Hard to believe Seattle is so close.
Starting in a wide, rolling meadow, we enter a wood (Camellia Walk), noting a bivvy of blooms: trillium, bleeding heart, hyacinth, violet, and oxalis; spicy, heavy scents of cherry, camellia, and rhododenderon overwhelm. We amble toward the Reflection Pool and a bench there, taking it all in.
Light and shadow play upon trees, water, lawn and hedge. Streams burble nearby. More birds sing. Another waft of rhody fills my nose. Losing myself only a few minutes into being here, it hits to me: this is a natural paradise.
After observing a robin pull its lunch, we move on to the Moss Garden, where roots appear as fingers stretching out over vibrant carpet. Several tiny streams are punctuated by skunk cabbage’s banana yellow flowers, adding an equally bright color to the kelly green expanse.
Crossing the former driveway, a mature katsura tree stands sentinel over a multi-stone path leading us through a torii gate to the Japanese Garden. The guest house there has the finest decking I have ever seen. Through the open shoji screens, I spy sets of original George Nakashima furniture. On one side, the structure overlooks a sand and stone garden; the other, a pond and gardens designed by Fujitaro Kubota, of Seattle’s Kubota Gardens. More heaven.
We resume our walk in the forest. And then it comes into view: the mansion, dwarfed by nature. I stand slack-jawed. It’s like a painting. And it appears we are the only two people at the Reserve. Stunning.
Continuing along the former driveway past a trio of magnolias beginning to drop their blooms’ jumbo petals, we loop around to The Glen, where rhododenderons are also blooming. Before I see them I smell their spicy, deep scents. Some are massive–growing two stories tall. A waterfall flows from the Swan Pond, to a creek along the Orchid Trail, to the Christmas Pond, where candelabra primula are in full bloom, among others nearby.
Walking on, Agate Pass comes into view at The Bluff. We’re at least a hundred feet above the beach, looking out at north Seattle. Another bench tempts us. So peaceful. An eagle cruises past.
Taking the Trestle Bridge Trail to the The Boardwalk, we run into oyster mushrooms fruiting on a downed red alder. Several ducks and geese sound our arrival to the Bird Marsh.
Water reflects the surrounding trees’ dappled white bark and shrubs’ pink blooms. New horsetail shoots are everywhere. A woodpecker hammers. It is otherwise quiet and still. The temp drops as the sun hides behind ominous clouds. We have been fortunate to avoid rain this spring day. Time to exit.
As we leave, I again realize what a treasure the Reserve is. Just a ferry ride away. Everyone owes it to themselves to visit. Anytime is a great time. It’s Paradise Found.