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.
All three properties (plus nearby Lake Crescent Lodge) are operated By Aramark, which packaged the multinight trip as one of its specials.
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.
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.
When we got out of the car at Sol Duc Hot Springs, my 7-year-old son proclaimed, "This place stinks." 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.
Despite rainy weather, we hiked to Sol Duc Falls -- a little less than a mile along a wooded trail that was lush and gorgeous despite the darkened skies.
Dinner was 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 -- it is lacking 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 Web site calls them "rustic, charming cabins," but honestly, it should have 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. It gave us a few more feet of space.
On day two, 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.
Then, we hopped in the car and drove to Kalaloch Lodge 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 before enjoying a cozy night reading and playing games in the cabin.
The next morning, we had a tasty breakfast at Kalaloch Lodge (French toast, eggs and bacon, breakfast burrito) before heading back toward the interior of the peninsula and 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 later in the summer for a paddle on the lake.
Dinner was in the Roosevelt Dining Room, named after the lodge's most famous guest: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited in 1937. 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 we found a mile-long interpretive trail close to the lodge and ambled through the soggy rain forest of moss, mushrooms, nurse logs and an endless variety of Northwest native plants. Drops of water were 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 and varied. Even with Sol Duc's shortcomings, the trip earned the motto "Best of the Northwest."
Or at least "Good, Better, Best ..."
If you go:
Lake Quinault Lodge, Lake Crescent Lodge, Sol Duc Hot Springs and Kalaloch Lodge have a variety of lodgings, which include amenities such as fireplaces, views and kitchenettes, and also rent outdoor equipment, such as canoes. All four resorts have restaurants.
Most rooms rent for between $200 and $300 in the summer, though special deals are available. Be sure to ask about prices for extras. Call (866) 297-7367 for reservations, or go to www.olympicnationalparks.com.