Whidbey Island, just off the coast of Washington State, is a destination all serious travelers need to add to their list. A 55-mile long green strip, stretched between Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Whidbey is blessed with surprisingly moderate weather. It enjoys four distinct seasons, but without the extremes endured by many other northwestern areas.
I was extremely pleased with the diversity of the island’s landscape and the close-knit sense of community I felt as I traversed the island from south to north. Whidbey has wineries, distilleries, a lavender farm, cattle ranches, produce farmers, talented chefs, beekeepers, cheesemakers and clever entrepreneurs and artists, too numerous to mention. It would take several weeks to explore the island properly, yet even in my three days there, I was fortunate to meet a number of these residents and enjoy the gorgeous scenery that is Whidbey Island.
Getting to Whidbey Island can be a challenge, but your efforts will be rewarded. There are two ways to access the island — by Washington State Ferry on the south end or by means of the Deception Pass Bridge on the northern end. A shuttle also runs about every two hours from Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport to the island. A reservation is recommended for the shuttle especially during the busy summer months. The ferry is first-come-first-served.
When you arrive on Whidbey, you will find you’ve entered another world. I began to relax on the ferry ride over, promising myself I would leave “my worries and my hurries” behind. After settling into The Inn at Langley, I decided to wander a bit, trekking down the hill to see if any shops were still open. The colorfully painted store fronts of Langley were a treat for the eye. As I strolled, I indulged in luscious, rich chocolates from Sweet Mona’s, a superb cup of coffee from Café and Books, and the best lobster roll I’ve eaten outside of Maine at the Saltwater Café.
My favorite spot to explore by far was the historic 1920’s Star Store, an honest to goodness old-fashioned grocery store. The towering narrow shelves and sometimes crowded aisles brought back fond memories of older grocery establishments I frequented as a child. Of course, the Star Store was brimming with colorful local produce, meats, and cheeses, an extensive wine and liquor selection, along with local craft beers, one of Whidbey’s trademarks…everything local, if possible.
While walking back to the Inn around sunset, I noticed another Langley trademark — wild rabbits. They were hopping and nibbling everywhere, all colors and sizes, stopping only to pose for my camera, and then they were off in a flash. If Whidbey didn’t already have my heart, Langley’s charming furry residents certainly won me over.
After a restful evening listening to the waves outside my balcony, I headed for Mukilteo’s Coffee Roasters and the Café in the Woods. As I discovered, just finding places on Whidbey can be an adventure in itself. Following several winding roads through looming evergreen trees that seemed to touch the overcast sky, I finally saw a sign for the coffee roasters. An arrow pointed the way farther into the dark green woods, and the narrow road led to a rather large opening with an unremarkable metal and wood building at the center.
The unmistakable aroma of freshly roasting coffee filled the parking area and drew me in. I was unprepared for the magical world behind the ordinary door I entered. Startled by a massive golden dragon’s head protruding from near the ceiling over the baristas’ station, I craned my neck to look at the nearly ten-foot silver carp “swimming” on the ceiling. Farther in, café tables were surrounded by a backdrop of Tuscan villas and Italian countryside. Mukilteo’s is a favorite with the locals, and I was starting to see why. As wonderful as the café and roasters are, I discovered it’s the owners, Gary and Beth Smith, and the outstanding staff that makes Mukilteo’s such a special place. Not only do the Smiths give back in a big way to the local community, but they also give back to the coffee growers and their often impoverished communities.
I had a chance to sit down for a few minutes with Gary and Beth and listen to their amazing story. Stories are my passion, and I found that on Whidbey stories of struggle, success, determination, and courage are the norm. This is a community of extraordinary people. People from diverse backgrounds, cultures, religions, and politics together are able to create a wonderful place to live and work. To me, that is one of the best things about Whidbey.
Another couple, Vincent and Tyla Nattress, offer cooking classes, wine appreciation, and farm-to-table dinners that will leave you wanting to start your own garden and raise hens. At Chef Vincent’s, produce is only steps away from the kitchen, and he carefully chooses local producers of seafood and meats to complement the seasonal vegetable and fruit selections. The night I was there, some of the treats we enjoyed were Scarlet Runner Beans and Sweet Corn Succotash, Braised Beef Tortellini and Roasted Eggplant Caviar, and Ebb Tide Strawberries & Crispy Meringue with Crème Fraiche Ice Cream. The farmhouse dinners and cooking classes are popular, and reservations are highly recommended.
Near the “waist” of Whidbey Island (which is only about 1.5 miles wide), on Penn Cove, sits the seaside village of Coupeville, famous for its delicious mussels. Penn Cove mussels are sought after world-wide, and if you pass by the cove going north, you can see the long rectangular mussel beds that produce this seafood wonder.
Coupeville has its own claim to fame as the setting for the Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman movie, Practical Magic. You can visit the 1890’s former pharmacy building where the scenes in Sally’s shop, Verbena Botanicals, were filmed. Today, it houses the bakery Knead & Feed. I dropped by to take a look inside and sample some coffee and one of their snickerdoodle cookies that were as big as my head. The entire town was painted white for the movie, and many of the shops maintain that look even today.
I also stopped by the Lavender Wind shop on the corner of Alexander and Coveland Streets. Housed in a restored 1916 craftsman home, the shop offers dried lavender goods, gift items, and delicious baked goods you can enjoy in their cozy tea room. I’ve wanted to try baking some lavender scones, so I picked up some culinary lavender along with some great baking tips from Sarah Richards, the owner. If you have time, visit the lavender farm about three miles north of Coupeville. On a clear day, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A small shop at the farm is open in summer.
Busier than the other parts of Whidbey, Oak Harbor has about 23,000 inhabitants, the island’s largest population. Here you will find the only big box stores and chains. The Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is here, and it is not uncommon for conversations to be temporarily drowned out as low-flying Navy jets do their fly-bys, but no one seems to mind. The Coachman Inn is reasonably priced and centrally located to several attractions like the PBY-Naval Air Museum and Deception Pass State Park.
My favorite chef in Oak Harbor, not only delivers a spectacular culinary experience but gives his heart and soul to the island community. Chef Fraser donates his time to several community projects. Eight out of the last 12 years, his mentorship has brought home Washington State’s “ProStart Invitational” culinary competition title to Oak Harbor High School. When you go, ask to be seated at the chef’s counter for an up-close view of the kitchen and a chance to speak to him. Fraser’s Gourmet Hideaway is an experience you don’t want to miss.
Whidbey Island is a patchwork of landscapes, people, and lifestyles worth exploring. It is a destination I hope you add to your list. I’m glad it was on mine.