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A Ferry Ride Away, a World Apart: A Weekend Retreat to Whidbey Island

By Aislyn Greene

Dec 18, 2020

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Deception Island Bridge—the 85-year-old span that connects Whidbey Island with Fidalgo Island—is one of Washington’s most iconic sights.

Photo by Michael Stadler

Deception Island Bridge—the 85-year-old span that connects Whidbey Island with Fidalgo Island—is one of Washington’s most iconic sights.

Hop on a ferry and 20 minutes later, you’ve traded Seattle streets for the best of the Pacific Northwest island life.

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As a kid growing up in Seattle, I thought Whidbey Island was this magical place. The family of one of my best friends, Elise, had a vacation home there, and I would listen with total absorption to her—definitely exaggerated—stories of wild animals (I believe bears were mentioned once or twice), fairy-filled forests, and adventures on Puget Sound.

My fangirldom grew more realistic in adulthood (bears are extremely rare on the island—as are fairies), but it’s never waned. There’s something about Whidbey’s mix of tranquil nature, artsy and historic towns, and world-class seafood—including the famous Penn Cove mussels—that conjures a bit of magic, even as an adult traveler. 

Last December, just a few months before the world went sideways, I spent a long weekend on the seahorse-shaped island about 35 miles northwest of Seattle—my first trip back in a few years.

How far is Whidbey Island from Seattle?

It’s just a 20-minute ferry ride over to the island if you leave from the Mukilteo ferry terminal north of Seattle. You can also drive onto Whidbey if you head much farther north and launch your trip in North Whidbey, but my preferred route is a mix of the two: Ferry over and drive home, letting Deception Pass Bridge be the last Whidbey thing you see.

Here are a handful of my favorite ways to spend a weekend on the island.

Where to stay

The Whidbey Island–based artist Georgia Gerber created the bronze penguin sculpture at the Inn at Langley.

Captain Whidbey Inn

Book now: From $225/night, expedia.com

I spent my mini island retreat at the Captain Whidbey Inn, which landed on AFAR’s 2020 best new hotels list. The restored 113-year-old inn, set on the famous-for-its mussels Penn Cove, really shines in the summer, but I loved my winter visit. The inn was quieter and decked out for the holidays. At night, I could cozy up in front of the lobby fireplace with a book and a cocktail and, in the morning, cozy up in front of my cabin’s fireplace with a book and a cup of local brew.

The Inn at Langley

Book now: From $275/night, expedia.com

For waterfront indulgence, you can’t beat the Inn at Langley. Each of the 28 rooms offers a peek at the Saratoga Passage, the part of Puget Sound that separates Whidbey and Camano Islands, and within minutes you can be standing on the strip of pebbly beach that fronts the inn. (It also takes seconds to stroll into town.) All rooms include fireplaces and balconies—and welcome your canine friend. 

Deception Pass Cabins

Book now: From $55/night, goingtocamp.com

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Want a deeper connection with nature? Book a few nights at one of the eight cabins in Deception Pass State Park. The fully equipped Ben Ure Cabin, located on an island only accessible by kayak or rowboat (so pack light!), is a local favorite. The other seven cabins are a mix of glamping and more traditional (two even have bathrooms with showers). Currently, only the mainland cabins are open, though the park hopes to reopen Ben Ure in spring 2021.

Where to eat

Whidbey residents’ connection with the land (and sea) is deep and it plays out across the island. Most restaurants are grouped in the island’s three major towns: Langley in South Whidbey, and Coupeville and Oak Harbor in North Whidbey. Here’s where to taste the bounty. (Note that all restaurants are currently offering takeout and/or outdoor dining.)

Langley

At Orchard Kitchen, run by Vincent Nattress who grew up on the island and went on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, meals are planned around whatever is ripe that week. Set on a five-acre farm, Nattress’s multicourse farmhouse dinners were legendary pre-COVID with their communal tables, surprising wines, and affordable, creative menus. (Nattress aims to never recreate a dish.) Currently, diners can replicate the experience through Orchard’s Friday meal kits: say, grilled lamb, delicata squash, and fingerling potatoes. Orchard Kitchen also sells breakfast kits and CSA boxes and runs a farm stand.

Eat the sea at Saltwater Fish House & Oyster Bar. Oysters (try the fried oysters and chips), lobster rolls, crab cakes, seafood—the only trick, really, is making a decision. Keep an eye out for Saltwater’s new weekend pop-up, Salt & Sea Provisions, featuring baked goods (croissants, pot pies) from its new bakery, Seabiscuit Bakery, as well as picnic foods, and cocktail kits with vespers and Manhattans.

Get your ramen fix at Ultra House, where the noodles are chijire (the classic wavy kind) and the Japanese beverage menu is extensive. Sip a Toryu Rising Dragon Junmai sake, slurp your spicy miso ramen, and check out the fun merch—you could leave with a full belly and an Ultra House hoodie. Note: It also offers gluten-free ramen.

Come spring and summer, the Oystercatcher offers plenty of outdoor seating for seafood lovers.

Coupeville

Fulfill your Italian fantasies at Ciao Food and Wine, where you can demolish a thin-crust margherita pizza, sip an organic Italian red, and load up on Italian pastas and sauces and housemade burrata to recreate the whole experience at home. You can also do that last part from the safety of your living room via its online store.

While oysters and those famous Penn Cove mussels are certainly featured prominently at the Oystercatcher, the menu goes far beyond shellfish. Current takeout highlights include blackened rockfish with hush puppies and a brussels sprout slaw, plus a Korean short rib and shiitake pot pie (yes, please).

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As a solo traveler, I ordered an embarrassing number of baked goods, including an unforgettable salted rye chocolate cookie, from Little Red Hen. But the breads, naturally leavened and some made with grain grown right on the island, are the real showstoppers. If your loaf of sourdough seems similar to what you used to sop up mussel juices at the Oystercatcher, that’s because it is! Little Red Hen is owned by the same duo that runs the seafood restaurant—the bread they serve there became so popular, they decided to launch a bakery.

Oak Harbor

Frasers Gourmet Hideaway isn’t so hidden anymore. This surf-and-turf restaurant run by the local Fraser family consistently pops up on Whidbey Island “best of” lists. Seasonal Northwest ingredients are the stars: mussels in the seafood chowder, Dungeness crab stuffed into chicken. Don’t overlook the fondue, a decadent mix of roasted garlic and brie, with bread and veggies for dipping.

Run by a couple of Texas expats, BBQ Joint offers real-deal Southern barbecue—as in thick, hickory-smoked ribs, juicy pulled pork, and savory brisket sold by the pound. Sides aren’t an afterthought. Baked beans are slow-cooked with bacon and tomato; collard greens are zhuzhed up with three kinds of meat. 

What to do

Different types of orca whales can be spotted in the waters of Puget Sound year-round.

Get back to nature

For many, including myself, Whidbey’s main draw is the landscape. Views of Puget Sound and the Cascades are plentiful, and the island is home to dozens of beaches and more than 50 parks, including Deception Pass, Washington’s most visited state park.

  • In the national park system, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve stands out by preserving both culture and ecology. The preserve contains the historic town of Coupeville (home to century-old buildings), prairies, and coastal territory. The reserve is also home to a fantastic six-mile round-trip hike that takes you through wildflower fields, high up on coastal cliffs, and down to a beach with some of the island’s best views.
  • Deception Pass State Park is Washington in a nutshell. Bald eagles soar above old-growth forest, cliffs tower over driftwood-strewn beaches, waters burst with marine life (orcas, sea lions, and porpoises are all spotted here). There are 3,854 acres to explore, 38 miles of hiking trails, and all manner of camping to be had. And of course, there’s the pass itself, marked by the 18-story Deception Pass Bridge—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—that links Whidbey with Fidalgo Island.
At Marbley, learn how to float acrylic paint on the surface of water—an ancient technique—and then dip paper, silk, or wood to create a one-of-a-kind gift.

Or maybe discover your artistic nature

Whidbey is also home to a number of working artists, drawn to the island’s natural beauty and its history. The modernist painters Margaret and Peter Camfferman lived in Langley in the early 1900s, establishing the island as an artists’ colony. But no need to have an art degree to play an artist for a day. 

  • At Marbley, you can learn how to marbleize water by floating drops of color in liquid, then “print” the pattern on a silk scarf, a piece of paper, or a section of wood.
  • If you want a true arts immersion, register for a multiday workshop at one of Whidbey’s many art schools, including the Pacific Northwest Art School (watch for plein air painting and fiber arts workshops) and Whidbey Fine Art Art Studio (where workshops are led by established national artists). 
Coupeville artist Greg Neal sculpted the “Soaring Eagle” installation for Price Sculpture Forest.

Or combine the two!

  • Hike through the 16-acre, kid-friendly Price Sculpture Forest, which opened in fall 2020 and mixes art into a variety of natural settings. Along the trail, you might encounter an unsettling pair of beeswax-covered legs in motion among the brush or a life-size T-Rex, crafted from driftwood and ready to pounce.
  • Once you’ve got the hang of the art-nature walk, go bigger at the 72-acre Earth Sanctuary. This nature retreat and sculpture park features trails, a Native American medicine wheel (with a baby whale skull), a labyrinth, and sculptures like the new Ley Line installation, a 56-foot section of burnt driftwood placed on the “power centers” known as ley lines, which many believe contain special energy.
  • Explore murals at the Allgire Project, an indoor-outdoor gallery with 13 walls featuring nine different artists. This is more urban nature than Fern Gully nature, but still, it invites you to breathe in clean air while also breathing in large-scale pieces by artists like Yvonne Chan and Ariel Parrow.

Buy pretty locally made things 

I’m not a huge shopper, but there’s something about small-town shops that gets me every time. I love the emphasis on local art and usually wind up with an armload of gifts for others (and for myself, if we’re being honest).

In Langley, I hit Edit—a clothing and design shop that feels just a hint Goopish—and bought some gorgeous vintage glassware at Marcel. I drooled over the kitchen section at the mercantile-like Star Store, and reined in my booklust at Moonraker Books.

In Coupeville, I was not as successful at reining in my booklust at the Kingfisher Bookstore and bought a variety of lavender-scented gifts at the Lavender Wind Farm Store—and bookmarked a visit to the farm for future summer visits, when lavender is in season.

In Oak Harbor, I only had time to peruse the paper, art supplies, and local tchotchkes at the gift-and-crafts store Frida’s, A Beautiful Mess. How could you not visit a place with a name like that?

Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, on the western side of Whidbey Island, preserves early 19th-century life on the island.

How to get there

  • To take the ferry from Seattle: Drive 25 miles north on I-5 and WA-525 25 to the Mukilteo ferry terminal. From there, ferries to Clinton, Whidbey Island, leave every half hour between 4:40 a.m. and 11:45 p.m. The ride is about 20 minutes long and you can walk or drive on. Vehicle fares from $7.85.
  • To drive on (or off) the island: From Seattle, take I-5 north to Burlington, then take WA-20 west toward Fidalgo Island. Eventually, you’ll cross over Deception Pass Bridge, depositing you in North Whidbey (Oak Harbor is the first big town you’ll hit). This route takes a little over 2.5 hours.

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