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

Sunset

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

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

Because islanders spend so much time traveling together, theferry has become a floating living room for them. Over morningcoffee, local gossip, and a shared newspaper ― a 15-minuteexchange ― lifetime friendships are formed.

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

Washington's transportation department has floated the idea ofbuilding a bridge out to the island. But again, the ferries broughtthe community together: Every time, residents fought the plan. Theyworry that faster access to the mainland would ruin the slow paceof the island. And diminish connections built over years of livingaccording to the rhythm of the ferries (www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferriesor 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

MORE GREAT GATHERING SPOTS

Post office, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Downtown homesdon't have mail delivery, so residents chat here when picking upmail. Closed Sun. Fifth Ave. between Dolores and San CarlosStreets.

Hot springs, Thermopolis,Wyoming. Hot springs are popular in cold winters; admission tothe bathhouse at Hot Springs State Park is free. 220 Park St.;(800) 786-6772.

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