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

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

 Whidbey Island linked to another island by Deception Island Bridge

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

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.

How far is Whidbey Island from Seattle?

The seahorse-shaped island is about 35 miles northwest of Seattle. From the Mukilteo ferry terminal north of the city, it’s just a 20-minute ferry ride over to the island. 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

Outdoor patio with ornamental pool in front of the Inn at Langley

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

Courtesy of 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 visited in the winter and loved it. 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 (winter rates), 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 $76/night (depends on the season fluctuations), goingtocamp.com

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, though it’s not currently available for rent. The other seven cabins are a mix of glamping and more traditional (two even have bathrooms with showers).

Salty Vons Waterfront Inn

Book now: From $350/night, saltyvons.com

Once the Coupeville Cash Store, this historic building is now a three-suite inn. It’s perfect if you’re looking for a longer-term stay (each unit includes a fully appointed kitchen and a washer and dryer) with a homey feel. Both the two-bedroom upper and lower waterfront suites have superb views of Penn Cove and Mount Baker while the smaller studio suite looks out over the inn’s garden and the Coupeville historic district.

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.


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 are legendary with their communal tables, surprising wines, and affordable, creative menus. (Nattress aims to never recreate a dish.) Orchard Kitchen also sells 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. Also check out its Seabiscuit Bakery, which traffics in croissants, hand pies, and breads make from local grains.

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.

Savory is dinner-only, but this new restaurant has captured local hearts and bellies. Dishes are creative, but comforting: carbonara with roasted garlic and curly mafalda noodles, smoked salmon linguine, a spiced-up version of chicken cassoulet. Plus: It offers takeout when the kitchen isn’t too busy.

Guests seated at long, communal dinner table in a vineyard

Orchard Kitchen is known for its communal dinners with a constantly changing menu.

Courtesy of Orchard Kitchen


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 re-create the whole experience at home.

While oysters and those famous Penn Cove mussels are certainly featured prominently at the Oystercatcher, the menu goes far beyond shellfish. New owners, Ben and Sophia, continue to focus on seasonal, local ingredients—current highlights include mussels and clams adobo, dry-aged New York steak with padron pepper succotash, and smoked duck with a tumeric puree.

As a solo traveler, I ordered an embarrassing number of baked goods, including an unforgettable salted rye chocolate cookie, from Little Red Hen (now in a new location on Grace St.). 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 duo who once ran the seafood restaurant—the bread they serve there became so popular, they decided to launch a bakery, which is now their full-time focus.

The former Little Red Hen location is now occupied by Molka Xete, an all-day Mexican restaurant with breakfast burritos and a small-but-mighty-selection of lunch and dinner bites, and Overboard, a cocktail-and-bites bar with fun cocktails made with local ingredients. Try the Oslo is the Manhattan of Norway, a Scandinavian spin on a Manhattan with one of Overboard’s savory tartines.

Washington is known for its apples, which are the focus of the new Greenbank Cidery, which makes eight ciders from heirloom apples grown on its Whidbey Island orchard. Visit the tasting room to try the barrel-aged Gravenstein or the floral Rhuby Tuesday.

For lunch or dinner, check out the new Gordon’s Fusion Cuisine, run by chef Stewart, who helms the Gordon’s on Blueberry Hill, a longtime island favorite in Freeland (about 18 miles south). The menu is Asian-inspired, with Vietnamese bánh mì, Korean bibimbap, Japanese tonkatsu sandwiches, and more.

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.

The Mad Batter Bakehouse does indeed make kooky (but delicious) treats. Cookies are the specialty—from the s’mores-inspired Slow Burn to the Earl Grey and lavender Alice—but the coffee drinks are equally creative.

Go to the Tipsy Jellyfish for the name, stay for the wine, which is heavy on Washington bottles but also global in nature. Owner Kathryn Muniz had spent decades in the wine industry before opening this cozy spot in the heart of town.

Things to do on Whidbey Island

An orca whale in Puget Sound

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

Courtesy of Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism

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.
  • The Whidbey Camano Island Land Trust maintains two relatively new trails. There’s the 1.5-mile long Beach View Farm Trail (no dogs allowed), which stretches from Oak Harbor to the West Beach. There’s parking at either end, so you can start from inland or at the beach. And then there’s the slightly more difficult 1.6-mile-long Strawberry Point Preserve Trail, which winds through forest, wetlands, and meadow.
  • 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.

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.

  • Get in the creative spirit at the new LGBTQ+-owned Meet Market, which offers everything from knitting circles, to pumpkin-painting nights, to pottery workshops. The market is also, truly, a market with excellent art supplies, cool gifts like tees and notebooks, and pieces made by local artists.
  • 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 Studio (where established national artists lead workshops).
 The “Soaring Eagle” installation surrounded by tall trees in Price Sculpture Forest

Coupeville artist Greg Neal sculpted the Soaring Eagle installation for Price Sculpture Forest.

Courtesy of 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.
  • If you visit during the fall and like Halloweeny things, check out the Halloween in Coupeville, It’s Practically Magic event in October (date to be announced soon). The movie Practical Magic was filmed here in the late 1990s, and the event will celebrate that with a pumpkin race, parade, movie nights, and a self-guided walking tour, which you can do anytime.

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?

Empty country road heading into sunset

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

Photo by Denis Hill

How to get there

  • To take the ferry from Seattle: Drive 25 miles north on I-5 and WA-525 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 $10.
  • 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.

This article was originally published in 2020 and most recently updated on September 29, 2023, with current information.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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