WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. – Everyone who lives on this artsy destination just an hour from downtown Seattle says pretty much the same thing.
Sure, it’s fun to visit the big city, but it’s always a relief to return to their charmed world when they board the ferry from Mukilteo.
“When you get on that ferry, you feel like you can breathe again,” said Karen Hagstrom, a volunteer at the Langley Whale Center.
“It certainly raises the stress level when you leave the island,” said Dave Broberg, owner of the Blue Goose Inn in Coupeville. “It’s just so relaxing to be here.”
The long, skinny island – the biggest in Puget Sound – remains largely a pastoral landscape filled with some of Washington’s nicest parks and two attractive historic towns with excellent restaurants, galleries and shops. It’s close enough to do as a day trip, but feels far enough away to spend a weekend.
Spring is a great time to visit. Gray whales return to the waters around the island in March and April. Miles of beaches and parklands stand ready to be explored.
Hiking on the island
Seven state parks are scattered around Whidbey Island, offering excellent access to hiking trails and beaches.
Deception Pass State Park at the north end of the island is the state’s most visited park for a reason. Scenic trails sprawl across its 4,134 acres, from the island’s highest point at Goose Rock (elevation 484 feet), to fabled Deception Pass, a narrow current-filled channel around the tip of the island that flows like a river during tidal changes.
To the south of Deception Pass, you’ll find two former military installations that have been turned into state parks. Fort Casey and Fort Ebey, overlooking the Salish Sea on the island’s west coast, were constructed as coastal defense fortresses in the early 1900s. Today, tunnels and batteries are still there inviting exploration, along with a couple of big guns at Fort Casey. Best of all, both parks offer sweeping views of Puget Sound, Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. At Fort Casey, the handsome Admiralty Head Lighthouse is an added attraction to explore.
One of the most popular coastal hikes in Washington state is at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. From the Prairie Overlook parking lot near the town of Coupeville, the trail travels 5.6 miles past one of the Ebey family blockhouses, constructed by settlers as protection against native tribes. It wasn’t exactly successful – Isaac Neff Ebey was killed and beheaded by local natives in 1857.
The trail offers big views for nearly all of its length, stretching through open farmland and climbing 260 feet onto a bluff above the Salish Sea, then looping back along some of the wildest beaches on the island.
“That feeling of walking around with such openness is what makes it so great,” said Kristen Griffin, manager of Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.
The bluff trail is the most popular attraction in the 18,000 acre reserve, but “people can always find the elbow room even on busy days,” Griffin said.
Other worthy parks for visits include Joseph Whidbey State Park near Oak Harbor, which looks west to the Strait of Juan de Fuca; South Whidbey State Park, which has miles of old-growth forests; and Double Bluff Beach, a county park that offers access to a dog-friendly strand near the town of Freeland.
Whidbey also has several privately owned gardens and farms to explore. Earth Sanctuary is a peaceful nature preserve with walking trails and a retreat center. Greenbank Farm has trails around its popular commercial operation. Meerkerk Gardens has an array of trails that take in its displays, including a large selection of rhododendrons.
Coupeville and Langley
These two historic tourist towns are perfect stops on a tour of the island.
Coupeville is on Penn Cove, the mussel capital of Washington, and is one of the state’s oldest towns.
Its historic waterfront has nice restaurants, serving the freshest mussels you’ll ever taste, and several exceptional inns. One of the best is the Blue Goose Inn, side-by-side Victorian homes that have been tastefully updated. A hearty breakfast is part of the package.
Inn owners Dave and Becky Broberg, who moved to the island from Colorado, are in their sixth year in Coupeville, a place they now love.
“We searched all over the country before moving here,” Dave Broberg said. “It’s a slower-paced lifestyle that we really like. We can walk to everything in town.”
In Langley, spring brings whale season. Several gray whales swing by the waters of Saratoga Passage to visit during their annual migration from Baja California to Alaska.
“It’s the same whales that come back every year,” said Monte Hughes, owner of Mystic Sea Charter, a whale-watching business. “Langley is the gray whale-watching capital of Washington.”
From the small marina in Langley, Hughes takes groups out for three hours and guarantees whale sightings.
You can also see gray whales swimming by the Langley waterfront. Visitors and townsfolk ring a large bell on First Street whenever a whale is spotted, something that can happen several times a day. Besides gray whales, Orcas and humpbacks are regularly seen around the waters of Whidbey Island.
Other communities to explore
Freeland, a small community in between Langley and Coupeville, also has its share of attractions. The former hippie community – it started as a socialist commune in the early 1900s – has a nice beachside park and lots of galleries, restaurants and shops.
Oak Harbor, on Whidbey’s north end, is the commercial hub of the island. It is home to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, a familiar presence as jets occasionally run drills in the area. This has led to occasional clashes with residents who don’t like the noise, but most islanders take the Navy’s presence in stride.
“The noise is just part of living near a military base,” Broberg said.