In terms of travel partners, you can’t get any bigger.
From early March to mid-May, gray whales make a stop in Saratoga Passage off the southern tip of Whidbey Island, Washington, to feed on ghost shrimp during their annual 3,500 mile migration from Alaska to Baja California, Mexico.
The grays can be as long as 50 feet and weigh nearly 40 tons. For the past two decades, an average of 10 to 15 grays have returned to the water near Langley, Washington. This year’s migration to the whales’ spawning waters is expected to be the biggest on record, said Monte Hughes, co-owner of Mystic Sea Charters.
Members of the pods are named by townspeople who celebrate their arrival with a festival and parade. This year, the festivities will be April 18.
And though the water may be crowded with whales in late winter and early spring, the ferries won’t be as crowded with the human tourists as they will come summer.
Just hop a ferry
Early in the day, it’s an easy hour’s drive from downtown Seattle – including a 20 minute crossing on a state ferry that departs twice hourly from Mukilteo, landing in Clinton on Whidbey. Views of Saratoga Passage and the snow-capped Cascades are splendid and once you’re off the boat, Langley is just five miles down the road. ( wsdot.com/ ferries)
Although you can often see whales from shore, Mystic Sea Charters guarantees close up viewing for photography enthusiasts on daily three-hour naturalist-led cruises. If you’ve never seen a whale blow a 20-foot high stream at close range, it’s a sight you’ll never forget. ( www.mystic seacharters.com)
Martha’s Vineyard of the West
You can go for an afternoon of whale watching and easily be back in Seattle by nightfall. But chances are, you’ll want to stay a day or two once you’ve arrived in this laid-back little town. It’s filled with so much to see and do, whether you’re a nature enthusiast who enjoys a good hike through the forest or run along the beach, or a lover of art, theater, fine dining, wine and boutique shopping. There’s something to keep everyone entertained.
• The Boatyard Inn, 200 Wharf Street in Langley’s marina, has pet- and family-friendly suites with fireplaces, full kitchens and outdoor decks with barbecues that offer prime whale viewing. Wake up to the sound of waves lapping the seawall just inches from your private deck or lay in bed watching the sunrise over Saratoga Passage. If you’re a couple looking for a romantic retreat, book the Marina Suite, where you can whale watch while soaking in an ultra deep tub for two. ( www.boatyardinn.com)
• At Useless Bay Coffee Company, 121 Second Street, organic beans are roasted several times weekly and delicious baked goods are produced from scratch daily. The café is also known for a wide variety of delicious grilled panini. Take home a bag of Useless Chicken, Beef or Pork Rub – you’ll be hooked after one barbecue. ( shop.uselessbay coffee.com)
• Make the newly opened Langley Whale Center, 117 Anthes, your first stop after breakfast. Here you can learn all about the orca and gray whale populations that feed off the local waters, view films, artifacts and converse with marine biology experts. ( www.orcanetwork.org/)
• The two-block area encompassing First and Second streets is filled with galleries, retail shops, boutiques and restaurants. Here are a few to explore:
The Star Store, 201 First St., is part gourmet grocery and part eclectic mercantile, filled with colorful offerings for kitchen, bath and the latest casual fashions for the whole family. You’ll leave with a treasure or two – without breaking the bank. ( www.starstore whidbey.com)
Whidbey Island Natural, 107 First St., has produced organic bath and skincare products on the island for 20 years. Take home a bottle of Deception Pass (rosemary eucalyptus) Bubble Bath – it works magic on sore muscles. And pick up a glow-in-the-dark rubber ducky while you’re at it. ( www.winatural.com/)
Chocolate Flower Farm-The Garden Shed, 224 First St., began as a nursery specializing in chocolate (maroon-colored) plants and rare perennials. The nearby 1923 farm is open in summer, but irresistible items like chocolate scented candles, raspberry & chocolate jam and chocolate mint tea are sold in town all year. Take home a chocolate flower seed kit. ( www.chocolate flowerfarm.com)
And a few more: Gregor Rare Books, 197 Second St., www.gregorrare books.com; Museo, 215 First St., www.museo.cc; Music for the Eyes, 314 First St., musicfor theeyes.com/; and Knitty Purls, 210 First St., www.knittypurls.com.
• For a relaxing lunch, dinner, or taste of locally produced wines, try one of these:
Café Langley, 113 First St., a cozy Mediterranean grill offering delicious Greek food and an extensive wine list – with selections from several Whidbey winemakers. ( http://cafelangley.com)
At Village Pizzeria, 198 First St., watch whales while enjoying New York-style pizza and antipasti platters. ( www.yelp.com/ biz/village-pizzeria- langley)
Portico Latin Bistro (opening mid-March down the hallway from Whidbey Island Natural) will have Mexican, Cuban and tropical cuisine in an intimate dining room with water views. Coconut, banana and guava desserts will be featured. ( www.porticolatin bistro.com)
Prima Bistro, located above the Star Store, 201 1/2 First St., has classic French cuisine with a casual Northwest vibe. Lyonnais salad, steak frites, clams and chorizo along with a stellar bar. ( primabistro.com)
At Ott & Murphy Wines Tasting Room, 204 First St., sip award-winning O&M wine on Friday and Saturday evenings, when cabaret acts entertain. ( ottmurphy wines.com)