Whidbey Island: A World Apart From the Ordinary

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WHIDBEY ISLAND: A WORLD APART FROM THE ORDINARY
By Hilarie Larson

 

From history and nature to wine and local cuisine, travel writer Hilarie Larson discusses her adventures on Whidbey Island in Washington State, on Big Blend Radio.

 

When Isaac Neff Ebey settled on Whidbey Island, in 1850, little did he realize the legacy of his pioneering spirit would be alive and well in the 21st century. Today’s visitor can travel the entire 55-mile length of the island on a nationally designated Scenic Byway, soaking in majestic scenery and meeting innovative locals who’d live nowhere else.

The island was first ‘discovered’ by Spanish explorers, although, like neighboring isles, the Skagit Nation and other indigenous peoples had been there for generations.  In 1792, Captain George Vancouver arrived aboard the H.M.S. Discovery. Expedition members Joseph Whidbey and Peter Puget mapped the region, lending their names to the island and surrounding waterway, claiming it all for the British Empire.

The first permanent settlers arrived around 1850, due to the Donation Land Claim Act, which gave free homestead acreage in the Oregon Territory to white American citizens. Isaac Ebey staked his claim in the fertile, maritime prairies of Admiralty Inlet on Whidbey’s eastern shore.

By 1851, he was joined by his family and close friend Samuel Crockett, who travelled from Missouri to this western Eden. All was idyllic. Ebey farmed wheat and potatoes, became the island’s first Justice of the Peace and was a Representative to the Oregon Territory Legislative Assembly. More settlers arrived – some to farm and others lured by the sea. The natural harbor of Penn Cove, on the western side of Whidbey, attracted shipping merchants, like Captain Thomas Coupe, while shipbuilders appreciated the abundant forests. For Ebey, however, it all came to a rather grizzly end in 1857 when he was killed (some say beheaded) by visiting natives in retaliation for the murder of a tribal member.

The area remained unchanged for over a hundred years, until it caught the eye of developers in the 1970’s. Locals, many descendants of the original homesteaders, wanted to preserve a way of life and their historic farms.  Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, the first of its kind in the country, was created in 1978, “in order to preserve and protect a rural community, which provides an unbroken historical record from nineteenth century exploration and settlement in Puget Sound to the present time” according to its charter. A trust, comprised of the Town of Coupeville, Island County, Washington State Parks and the National Park Service, was formed to manage the reserve and protect the long tradition of both maritime and farming traditions. It’s a unique, cooperative venture that works, mostly due to the commitment by all to preserve their heritage and prosper at the same time.

“There is a ‘place based’ economy, that helps keep this place special.” says Kristen Griffin, Reserve Manager. “There is a tradition and a pattern of economic activity that is dependent upon this area retaining its sense of place, and its distinct rural agricultural character. This includes businesses tied to our scenic beauty, peaceful way of life, healthy environment, access to nature, outdoor recreation opportunities, small scale agriculture, local food and wine, and history and heritage.”

Visitors to the reserve will find a living, breathing park, with 85% of its 17,572 acres still in private hands. A host of organic food producers call the Reserve home.  At Eckholm Farms, you’ll find heritage fruit trees, pigs, chickens, some friendly Scottish Highland Cows, and delicious, all-natural honey from apiaries located within the Reserve.  Through detailed pollen analysis, owner Bruce Eckholm can tell you the plants visited by the bees – fascinating!

The Muzzell family, Ron, Shelley and their three daughters Jennifer, Jessica and Rachel, are the enterprising force behind 3 Sisters Farm.  Grasslands within the Reserve provide pastureland for their famous grass-fed beef which you’ll encounter on many local menus.  Stop by their Farm Store for a selection of fresh meats and unique local products. The west side of the Reserve is home to a different type of farmer, Penn Cove Shellfish, whose savory, sweet mussels are famous around the world.

History aficionados will appreciate the landmark buildings, such as the original home of Isaac Ebey’s father, while nature lovers will find a host of walking and biking trails encompassing sea, woodland and prairie views. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the majestic Olympic and Cascade Mountain ranges and bird watching locations abound.

Overlooking Admiralty Inlet, Fort Casey (built from 1897 to 1907) was part of the defense of Puget Sound. The remains of the mammoth gun and mortar housings are a reminder of the military importance of the island and considered one of the best examples of late 19th century coastal fortifications in the country. Admiralty Head Lighthouse, a landmark of the area, is now an interpretive center and the State Park offers hiking, camping and scuba diving at the Underwater Marine Park.

Coupeville is a decidedly charming town with a vintage seafront and Victorian era architecture. Keep an eye peeled for metal plaques describing the heritage of the various buildings, including The Knead and Feed.  Erected in 1871 as the Sedge Building, this quirky little bakery is better known as Sandra Bullock’s shop from the film ‘Practical Magic’ which was shot in Coupeville. A block or so away from the sea, you’ll find a delightful white house that’s home to Lavender Wind (their farm is located on the eastern edge of Ebey’s Landing Reserve).  Locals love to dine at The Oystercatcher and feast on grilled Spot Prawns, Penn Cove Mussels and homemade pickles. Chef Tyler Hanson also bakes fabulous Sourdough made from his own wheat – can’t get more ‘farm to table’ than that!

And if you thought the Northwest coffee obsession started in Seattle, think again! In 1969, Jim and Dave Stewart bought a small coffee roaster and opened a shop on Front Street. It was called The Wet Whisker and changed its name to Seattle’s Best in 1990, fueling the gourmet coffee revolution.

Venture north to visit Oak Harbor, the largest town on the island.  It’s named after the majestic Garry Oak trees that line the downtown streets, the only species of oak native to the Pacific Northwest. Oak Harbor is also home to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. The base was constructed just prior to America’s entry into World War II as a refueling station and for taking on bombs and supplies. PBY (Patrol Bomber Consolidated Aircraft Corp) Amphibious patrol bombers were based here in 1943 and active in the Aleutian Campaign.  The fascinating PBY Naval Air Museum is well worth a visit, with its interactive displays and wonderful collection of aircraft and uniforms.

Oak Harbor has grown over the years, but Pioneer Way retains its small-town charm with ample shopping and dining options, including  Fraser’s Gourmet Hideaway.  Scott Fraser, Vancouver, BC native and accomplished chef, designed and built the restaurant himself in 2006. Now joined by his daughter, he presides over this cozy, elegant yet casual establishment, orchestrating a calm culinary dance from the central open kitchen.  Grab a seat at the onyx counter for an up-close look and enjoy the locally sourced, French inspired cuisine.

Geographically, Oak Harbor is in the middle, or ‘the waist’ of the island, as locals say, which makes it a great base for discovering Whidbey.

Where to stay: The Coachman Inn is a family owned and operated motor inn with a 3-Diamond award from the AAA.  Rooms are clean and spacious with ample parking and easy access to the main island highway.  Built in the late 1970’s the Coachman has a great, vintage vibe with up-to-date amenities like hi-speed wi-fi and complimentary breakfast.

At the northern tip of Whidbey Island is the most visited of Washington State’s Parks – Deception Pass. Encompassing 4,100 acres, the park was constructed in the 1930’s as a Public Works Project by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and their readily identifiable structures compliment the dramatic beauty of park. The majestic bridge (a National Historic Monument) joins the island to neighboring Fidalgo Island and on opening day in 1935, welcomed 700 cars. Today, the park sees 2 – 3 million visitors a year who come to enjoy the outdoor activities, campsites and perhaps spy Orca or Humpback whales.

The southern part of Whidbey Island is a forested oasis of arts, crafts, small agri-business, more coffee, a distillery and wine!  At the heart is the captivating village of Langley.  It’s small and walkable, yet filled with color, scrumptious temptations and the sound of the sea.  You can spend your day learning how to blow glass at Callahan’s Firehouse Studio, poke your head into an intriguing gallery, wander through the labyrinth that is the Star Store (including a fabulous local grocery section), or stroll the seawall. Follow your nose to Sweet Mona’s Chocolates – a cute yellow house that produces acclaimed confections.  Try the creamy caramels, decadent truffles or sip a ‘Truffle Shot’.  The upper dining deck of Primo Bistro is a perfect place to sip a glass of wine and savor the house smoked charcuterie and locally inspired cuisine of Chef Sieb Jurrains.  He and his wife, Jenn, opened the restaurant eleven years ago and followed up with the nearby Saltwater Café. If you seek unique, make a reservation for dinner at The Inn at Langley.  Chef Matt Costello presents a 4-hour, set-menu, culinary experience. As Chef Matt puts it, you’ll encounter some ‘surprises’ as he presents local and international ingredients in new and novel ways.

Where to Stay:  The Inn at Langley is classic, Pacific Northwest elegance.  Weathered wood mingles with clean lines in the relaxing spa-inspired guestrooms.  Sit on your private deck and listen to the waves of the Saratoga Passage, soak in your spa tub and gaze out the window or cuddle up in front of the fire. And do not miss breakfast – a buffet brimming with locally sourced creations.

A true embodiment of the ‘locavore’ movement is found just outside of town at Orchard Kitchen. Chef Vincent Nattress hails from Coupeville but spent years in kitchens throughout Europe and in California’s Napa Valley.  It was there he met his wife Tyla and together, they settled in Whidbey. Here, they make food they grow themselves, serving what’s ready and fresh.  Each week, they create a new menu, with wines impeccably paired by sommelier Tyla. There is one dinner service with seating at farm style tables or, if you’re lucky, at the kitchen bar. Fresh at its best.

Off in the wilds of Whidbey’s forests is the Café in the Woods.  You’ll know you’re there because you can smell the beans roasting at affiliated Mukilteo Coffee Roasters.  Owner Gary Smith searches the globe sourcing beans from family owned plantations.  Known as the “Coffee Man” in China, Gary now leaves the roasting to his loyal team while he travels and teaches, procuring, selling and leaving a positive footprint.  This is coffee and cuisine with a conscience.

In 2009, Steve Heising was inspired by a glass of whisky. The idea of distilling took hold and after conquering the license regulations, Whidbey Island Distillery was born.  This labor of love has rewarded the family with awards and recognition for their whisky, vodka, rye and assorted liqueurs flavored with locally sourced berries. Stop by their tasting room ‘in the Bunker’, sample their signature Loganberry liqueur, and get crafty cocktail inspiration.

Be prepared for some delicious surprises when visiting Whidbey Island’s wineries.  While most oenophiles would expect to find crisp, refreshing white wines on the menu, few would imagine encountering locally sourced Pinot Noir!  Whidbey Island Winery planted their vineyards near Langley in 1987 and produced their inaugural vintage in 1990.  White varieties Siegerrebe (think lychee, white blossoms, pear, and a touch of spice) and Madeleine Angevine (nectarine, citrus and peach blossom) are both bone dry and pair perfectly with local seafood. Pinot Noir joined the lineup when the owner of the Star Store in Langley decided to try some vines at the very southern tip of the island and has been a success ever since.

When Karen and Jack Krug decided to plant vines on Whidbey Island, in 2003, they wanted to grow Pinot Noir. It took time and research to find just the right clone to thrive in the cooler, maritime influenced climate, but they persevered. Spoiled Dog Winery still grows only Organic Pinot Noir, although they create other wines from sourced Washington State fruit.  You can taste the wines and meet the spoiled dogs at their peaceful vineyard near Langley.

A mere 30 miles east of the bustling metropolis of Seattle Washington, Whidbey Island is easy to get to and hard to leave.  Isaac Ebey would be proud.


If You Go:
How to get to Whidbey Island: 
Washington State Ferries travel from Mukilteo to Clinton on the south end of the island and from Port Townsend (on the Olympic Peninsula) to Keystone near Fort Casey State Park and Coupeville.

– Drive over the Deception Pass Bridge from Fidalgo Island on State Highway 20.
If you fly into SeaTac Airport (Seattle) book a seat on the SeaTac Shuttle.  You’ll be chauffeured to Mukilteo and onto the ferry and there are stops from Langley in the south to North Oak Harbor.

For more information, visit: https://whidbeycamanoislands.com


 

Hilarie was a guest of Whidbey and Camano Island Tourism but all comments and opinions are her own.

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

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About the Author:

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

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