A few weeks ago, if you’d asked me where Walla Walla was, I would probably have guessed somewhere in Australia. It just has that sound about it.
Obviously I would have been entirely wrong. It turns out that Walla Walla is in Washington State in the US, about four hours inland from Seattle, and there’s not a kangaroo in sight.
Why is this relevant? Well, we were recently invited by the nice people of the Courtyard by Marriott to come experience the wines, art, and general wonder that is Walla Walla, as part of their celebrations in opening the 1000th Courtyard Hotel. Which also happens to be in Walla Walla.
Excited to visit a new state, Jess and I packed up our bags and went to see what this town has to offer beyond a sparkly new hotel. We were not disappointed. Here are a few of the things we got up to.
What to do in Walla Walla
Walla Walla is a gorgeous town of around 35,000 people, nestled near the Blue Mountains, the start of which can be seen from town. The city’s Main Street has won awards for being the prettiest in the country, and the town has also won awards for being home to the friendliest people.
We certainly wouldn’t dispute either claim – we wandered up main street on foot and also took in the pretty Whitman College Campus, which was very picturesque. We also received a warm welcome everywhere we went. A good start for Walla Walla.
But there’s got to be more than just a pretty main street and college campus to make you want to visit, right? It turns out there is. The main attraction in Walla Walla nowadays being:
Move over Napa Valley. Well, shift to the left a bit. Just, make some room, ok? Ok. Because Walla Walla is bursting onto the wine scene.
Ok, so bursting onto the wine scene may be a bit of a stretch. Walla Walla and its surrounds were actually some of the first wine growers in Washington, way back in the mid-19th century. Although the inhabitants got a bit distracted from their wine growing efforts by the gold rush, after which bad weather and prohibition put the nail in the original wine industry in the early 20th century.
Fast forward a bit to the end of the 20th century, and Walla Walla decided to have another crack at the wine making whip. It started small, but the quality of the wines spoke for themselves, and now there are almost 150 wineries who call Walla Walla home, making world class wines, with Cabernet Sauvignon being the most popular of the grapes. In 2014, Walla Walla was named a top ten wine destination in the world by Wine Enthusiast.
We did a tour with local wine tour company Imbibe Wine Tours, and owner Jay took us to a couple of wineries (usually the tour visits four or five but we had a shorter version).
We were delighted to visit and do a full tour of Pepper Bridge Winery, owned by three families, and we were even more excited to be given a personal tour by one of the owners, Norm McKibben.
Norm has been in the area for over 25 years, and started some of the earliest vineyards here. His passion and enthusiasm for both wine making and the area shone through as he guided us round, and we felt lucky to have a personal tour with such a character. The wines, naturally, were rather splendid, which we tried with both Norm and Katie Regnier, who manages the Pepper Bridge Wine Club.
We also did a tour of Pepper Bridge’s sister winery, Amavi Cellars, both of whom have winemaker Jean-François Pellet in charge of the wine creation process. As with Pepper Bridge, we tried an excellent selection of wines, and also took advantage of the Imbibe Wine Tours lunch option – a giant platter of locally sourced meats, cheeses and vegetables.
If you’re in Walla Walla, you have to try the wine. A wine tour is a great way to do that, with many of the wineries offering tastings. You can read more about the wineries of Walla Walla, and learn which ones offer tastings, at the Walla Walla Wine website, and also at the Wines of the Pacific North-West website.
So that was a lot about wine. But it turns out there is more than wine to Walla Walla. Because Walla Walla is home to The Foundry.
You probably have no idea what I’m talking about. But the chances are, that you will have seen the fruits of the Foundry’s labour at some point in your travels.
You see, the Foundry is one of the largest contemporary art foundries in the world. Some of the world’s greatest artists have used these facilities to have their works realised, before being put on display around the world. Artists such as Deborah Butterfield, Jim Dine, Paul McCarthy and Maya Lin have had their works created here – you can see a more complete list at the Foundry Portfolio page.
We were given a tour by Dylan Farnum, an enthusiastic dynamo of a man, who also happens to be both the Foundry director and the chap largely responsible for turning it into the powerhouse it is today – staffed by over 150 people, and exclusively creating art projects.
Unfortunately you can’t visit the Foundry as I did, unless you happen to be a local schoolkid – this is a working factory, and it’s not really set up to handle guests. Yes, I was lucky.
The good news though is that The Foundry also have a vineyard, and their tasting location is also home to a gallery and displays of some of their work. You can also take the Whitman College Sculpture Tour (PDF), which will lead you on a 1.5 mile route around the beautiful Whitman College campus, past a number of pieces, some of which were cast at The Foundry. Fitting, as the owner of The Foundry, Mark Anderson, is a Whitman alumni.
If you want to learn more about The Foundry, there’s also a book about the place that you can read.
So – wine and art. It seems only fair to round off this post of recommendations for Walla Walla with a bit of talk about food.
Yes, Walla Walla is also a bit of a foodie paradise it turns out. Seriously, I know, this town seems to have it all.
We dined out a couple of times. Once was at T. Maccarone’s, where we had a whole pile of Italian style food. I know, describing food this good as a pile is probably not how you’re supposed to do it, but this is why I’m not a food blogger. We also ate at the Maple Counter Cafe, which offered mind blowing portion sizes, all day breakfasts and an excellent pancake selection. I didn’t really need to eat again that day.
There’s a lot more to do in Walla Walla that we didn’t get a chance to experience on our first trip. If you have more time, then we’d suggest checking out the Fort Walla Walla Museum, a huge attraction across 17 buildings which covers the history of the region and is set in the original 19th century Walla Walla military fort.
Other attractions include the Kirkman House Museum and the Dayton Historic Depot, to name but a few – see more options on the TripAdvisor page for Walla Walla. There are also musical and cultural events (Foo Fighters in August 2015!), farmer’s markets (Walla Walla is famous for onions!), as well as outdoor activities including hiking.
For even more ideas on what to do on your visit to Walla Walla, check out the Walla Walla Tourism portal, which has event listings as well as a whole series of visitor resources to help you plan you stay!
When to visit
Walla Walla has a fairly traditional climate with four distinct seasons. Summers are hot, Winters are cold and snowy. Spring and Fall are probably the best times to visit, although keep an eye out for major events as accommodation is likely to fill up in advance.
May is the Spring release weekend in Walla Walla for the wineries, so is liable to be a popular time to visit.
How to Get Here
We flew to Pasco direct from San Francisco, from where it was around a 50 minute drive to Walla Walla – there is also a bus service between the two towns. Walla Walla does have an airport, with a couple of daily services to Seattle on Alaskan, from where you can fly locally and internationally.
Walla Walla is also not too far from Seatlle or Portland by car, around four hours of driving, and Greyhound operates various bus services which you can use to get to Walla Walla.
Where to stay
We were invited to Walla Walla by the Courtyard by Marriott, which is the 1000th Courtyard Hotel now open in the world – a fairly major achievement! Situated a two minute drive, or ten minute walk, from main street, this brand new hotel was just perfect for us.
There were a few features that I really enjoyed. The massive TV in the room was nice, but it was the little touches like the power sockets everywhere (and USB ports too!), the Bluetooth enabled speaker system and the custom designed sofa in most rooms that made it for me. There was also a microwave and a fridge in every room, although the on-site Bistro (with Starbucks coffee!) catered to our needs so well that we didn’t really need that.
The other feature I really loved, particularly as a long term traveller, was the on-site coin operated laundry facility with complimentary detergent! Seriously, the number of times I’ve been stung by a business hotel for exorbitant laundry fees when I just need a few items doing… or turned to my sink for a spot of sock-washing…
Anyway, there are more features that I should mention. Fast, free wi-fi throughout, which shouldn’t need to be mentioned in this day and age, but since some places still insist on charging then it still warrants mention. Other touches include the use of local artists for the artwork throughout the building, and another favourite of mine – the use of reclaimed wine barrels for the furniture!
There’s also an exhibition kitchen which is going to be used for cooking classes and demonstrations, a small swimming pool, outdoor whirlpool, well equipped gym, library and business centre. The food is served via the Bistro, where we had excellent Starbucks coffee and tried various breakfast options, and the hotel really embodies the “Have a Little Fun” spirit of the Courtyard. So yes, I have no problem recommending this as a base for your stay.
We had a lot of fun in Walla Walla, thanks to the Courtyard people, taking part in a fun opening night party, as well as all the activities, and we really loved the hotel, so naturally I would recommend them as your first point of call when planning a trip to Walla Walla.
If you’re looking for something a little different though, then check out the HotelsCombined listings for Walla Walla, for more options across various budgets and to get the best deal.
So you know: We were invited to Walla Walla to take part in the Courtyard1000 festivities by Couryard, who covered our accommodation, tours, meals and transport for the trip.