Best gathering place: Vashon Island ferries, Washington

For Sunset's fourth biennial salute to the West's best communities, we turned to the ultimate experts: our readers.

There aren't many ways to leave Vashon Island, a 12-mile-long landmass south of Seattle in Puget Sound. And that suits residents just fine.

Four ferries do the bulk of transporting people and cars to and from this island. En route to Southworth, the Olympic Peninsula, or Fauntleroy, drivers are likely to get out of their cars and chat about the Seattle Mariners as the island recedes. From the decks, passengers can spot orcas or porpoises leading another boat's route.

Because islanders spend so much time traveling together, the ferry has become a floating living room for them. Over morning coffee, local gossip, and a shared newspaper ― a 15-minute exchange ― lifetime friendships are formed.

Islander Mike Sudduth has been commuting on the ferry for more than 30 years. His ferry circle has a monthly potluck feast. "We celebrate birthdays, Cinco de Mayo, dead authors. And one time we had a party to celebrate a new La-Z-Boy chair," Sudduth says.

Washington's transportation department has floated the idea of building a bridge out to the island. But again, the ferries brought the community together: Every time, residents fought the plan. They worry that faster access to the mainland would ruin the slow pace of the island. And diminish connections built over years of living according to the rhythm of the ferries ( www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries or 206/464-6400). ― Lisa Taggart

VASHON ISLAND ESSENTIALS

FOUNDED: 1792

ELEVATION: 317 feet

AVERAGE COST OF 3-BEDROOM, 2-BATH HOME: $262,000

AVERAGE JANUARY TEMPERATURES: High 52°, low 30°

LOCAL PLEASURE: Coffee on the ferry

INFORMATION: Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce, www.vashonchamber.com or (206) 463-6217

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