Whidbey Island: A Precious Gem Next to the Emerald City
Right in Seattle's backyard, Whidbey Island is a quick escape so close to the city that it is easy to overlook.
Just a 20-minute ferry ride from the landing at Muckilteo (pronounced Muck-ul-tee-oh), located about 26 miles north of Seattle, Whidbey Island is enjoyable year-round for day-trips and weekend getaways. Despite the island's proximity to a city famous for its soggy climate, Whidbey is situated just far enough from the mainland to be sheltered by the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and receives just half of the rainfall that pelts the Emerald City each year.
Whidbey is a laid-back island paradise. The easygoing island community runs on its own time with comforts you can't find at home. The island boasts 148 miles of coastline, a thriving arts community in the waterfront village of Langley, historic inns, wineries and farm stands, and several beautiful state parks with public beaches. And it is all spread out with plenty of room to spare in a quiet, unspoiled rural setting. Whidbey is 45 miles long, making it second largest island in the continental United States. Only New York's Long Island is bigger. From the Clinton ferry dock at the south end of the island, the entry point from Seattle, Highway 20 runs the length of Whidbey all the way to the breathtaking Deception Pass State Park and Bridge that connects Whidbey to the mainland at the north end via Fidalgo Island.
Having lived on and around Whidbey all of my life, the time I spend there now is more as a returning admirer than as a visitor. I never tire of the thrill of the sea air in my face as the ferry departs for the short crossing. Introducing first-timers to Whidbey's beauty is always a joy.
Kickin' Back, Whidbey Style
Nothing about Whidbey Island is assuming or a tourist trap, but there are several must-see points of interest for day-trippers and weekend visitors. From the south end, the first hot spot is the quaint village of Langley by the Sea. Langley is located about six miles north of Clinton. The town sits atop a bluff overlooking the Saratoga passage where Orcas leap through the water and gray whales are a regular attraction on their annual migrations from Alaska to Baja. Langley's charming downtown is filled with shops, eateries, a movie theater and playhouse, lodging and beautifully restored historic homes. Don't miss the fantastic water view and lunch or dinner at the historic Doghouse Tavern in Langley. At http://www.whidbey.com/, the Island County home page, information is available from each of the island's chambers of commerce, which include the areas of Langley, Oak Harbor, Central Whidbey, Camano Island, Clinton and Freeland. Langley is also home to the Whidbey Island Center For the Arts (www.whidbey.net/wica), featuring concerts, theatrical performances and arts workshops.
One of Whidbey's more intriguing modern tales of triumph is that of Greenbank Farm (www.greenbankfarm.com), the site of the nation's largest Loganberry operation. In 1995 the well-known Washington winery Chateaeu Ste. Michelle purchased the property and sent islanders into a panic by announcing plans to close the farm and develop the property for housing. By 1997 the island community had worked with various public agencies to buy the land back. Island County, the Port of Coupeville and the Nature Conservancy now own the farm, which features its own winery and a farmers market. Each July a Loganberry Festival is held at the farm to celebrate a fruit that was first produced in California when a judge in Santa Cruz accidentally crossed blackberries and red raspberries in the late 1800s.
Another town that shouldn't be missed is the mussel capital of the world, Coupeville. This place that time forgot is located on beautiful Penn Cove. Coupeville is Washington state's second oldest town and boasts more than 100 buildings listed on the state's historic register. On the first weekend of March, Coupeville throws a party celebrating its famous shellfish. The Penn Cove Mussel Festival organization keeps a Web site at http://www.whidbey.net/coup/mussel.htm with more information about the event.
The most populated community on Whidbey is Oak Harbor, located at the north end of the island. Oak Harbor is home to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. (www.naswi.navy.mil). Visitors will find shopping and dining spots in Oak Harbor, in addition to live theater at the Whidbey Playhouse.
At the far north end of the island is Deception Pass, one of the most breathtaking and scenic areas on earth. High above the narrow strip of water that separates Whidbey from Fidalgo Island, engineers constructed a bridge that arcs across the foaming water below. Vehicle turnouts on either side of the bridge allow visitors stop and walk across the bridge. The 4,000-acre Deception Pass State park on the Whidbey side offers camping, hiking and some of the world's best scuba diving at the Rosario Beach Underwater Park located a couple of miles north of Deception Pass. Get the latest on Puget Sound diving at Whidbey-based Northwest Dive News (www.nwdivenews.com).
Visit www.whidbey.net/islandco/ for detailed information about visiting Island County, which includes Whidbey Island and nearby Camano Island. The state of Washington keeps an updated list of ferry schedules online at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/. Armchair travelers can take a virtual tour of the island at http://www.traxmaps.com/swi/.
Whidbey is famous for its bed & breakfasts but there are hotel and motel lodging options as well. For visitors who enjoy the intimacy of an inn, arrangements can be made online through the Whidbey Island Bed & Breakfast Assn. (www.whidbeyislandbandb.com/). A wonderful selection of bed & breakfasts dot the island, offering everything from a the 28-acre Colonel Crockett Farm in Coupeville to Clinton's Brierly Manor, an English Tudor retreat. A comprehensive list of hotels, motels and B&B's on the island is available at http://www.whidbey.net/.
Lost in Paradise
Whidbey is ideal for those seeking fast relief and is a perfect place for longer sojourns as well. And if the allure of living in the slow lane begins to fade, Seattle with all of its big-city pizzazz is just a ferry ride away.
Gina Bacon is a freelance writer based in Camas, Wash. She is a regular visitor to Whidbey Island and considers herself an island ``native," having been born at Whidbey's Naval Air Station in 1968.
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