Courtesy of the Inn at Langley
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Book now: From $55/night, 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. 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Or combine the two!
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?
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