Beaches, Whales, History, Scenery: Whidbey Island Makes for A Unique Vacation

By JACK McNEEL

Folks in inland states like Montana and Idaho often look for “something different” when they go on vacation. Whidbey Island might be just that place with its combination of beach and fishing activities plus numerous parks, wonderful scenery, rich history, and unique lodging. It’s all within a day’s drive for all but those living in eastern Montana.

Reader’s Digest agrees, picking the island as a finalist in their “Nicest Place in America” contest this past winter. That publication writes not only of the many facilities, scenery, and events but also of the unity of people and communities.

Whidbey Island is located off the northwestern tip of Washington State, accessible either by Deception Pass Bridge, a lengthy, toll-free bridge near Burlington, Wash., or by ferry from Mukilteo to the south end of the island. It’s only about a 10-minute crossing, and rates are low.

On a recent trip we opted to arrive via the bridge and leave by ferry. Deception Pass Bridge has been described as the most photographed spot in Washington. It dates back to 1935 and is actually two bridges that arch over Deception Pass, separated by just a short section of roadway. The first bridge is 511 feet long and the second is 976 feet in length. A fenced walkway attracts visitors wanting to spend time and view the water racing below.

The state park at Deception Pass Bridge has miles of trails and is reported to be the most popular state park in Washington. Walking the shoreline, we observed seals and a variety of water birds.

Spring, summer, and early fall are the prime times for visitors. Despite many lodging options, it’s advisable to make reservations in advance during those months, an indication of how desirable the island is for vacationers.

Want to try digging clams? What about setting pots for crabs? You can fish from a boat, but it’s also possible to fish for salmon from one of several beaches.

Whale watching is also popular. Some whales are visible from shore as they breech, but tour boats are also available to let tourists get closer to these incredible creatures. March through early May is the best time to see gray whales, while pods of orcas pass through in the late fall.

The town of Oak Harbor is the island’s largest community and only a few minutes south of Deception Pass Bridge. It’s similar to many towns on the mainland with the same chain stores but has many smaller, unique stores as well.

We chose to stay at an Airbnb a short distance from town, enjoying the quiet and having deer wander past. The ocean was only a couple hundred yards away. Many overnight accommodations are available.

The PBY Naval Air Museum is located here, a must-see for those who remember World War II when these amphibious planes (Patrol Bomber Y) were stationed here to help protect the Pacific coast.

The island has a lot of history. The town of Coupeville is the second oldest town in Washington and was established prior to Washington becoming a state. It’s a small town with some quaint shops, and the aura of “age”. More than 100 buildings are on the National Historic Register.

Fort Casey State Park, offering 467 acres for camping and hiking, lies 4 miles from Coupeville. Admiralty Lighthouse is located here, a popular sight for individuals fascinated with the old lighthouses that guided ships to safety. Admiralty Lighthouse was constructed prior to the Civil War, with huge guns placed to protect the sound still on view. Visitors can explore nearly 11,000 feet of shoreline as well.

Fort Ebey is about an equal distance from Coupeville and was part of the coastal defense system during World War II. Today, 25 miles of trails and 3 miles of coastal shoreline provide for beach combing, fishing, bird watching, picnicking, and camping.

Captain Whidbey Inn, a favorite stop on our trip, is located within Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve. It was built 110 years ago and retains that early 1900 rustic, but elegant, old world charm. We shared a BLSST sandwich and even that was larger than we could finish, as wonderful as it was. (Everyone recognizes a BLT but the SS added “smoked salmon” to the sandwich, appropriate for an island meal.)

We liked Oak Harbor, loved Coupeville, and absolutely adored Lanley, the southernmost of the “major” towns. It has a lot going on for a small community. The town itself has a population of slightly over 1000, but the district kicks that number up considerably. We chose another Airbnb, and it was instant love: an older building, hidden in the forest, beautifully maintained both inside and out, with lots of nice touches. But everyone has their own desires and lots of options are available.

A printed walking guide for Lanley will lead you to such shops and locations as an historical museum, a fine fabrics and antiques store, art galleries, a rare book store, an ice cream parlor, and wine shops. Many wine grapes grow on the island, and, if that’s your thing, you can visit the Spoiled Dog Winery, Dancing Fish Vineyards, Blooms Winery, and others. Most also provide a tasting room.

Art galleries abound as well. A brochure for the Whidbey Art Trail guides you to the 17 galleries sprinkled throughout the 58-mile island.

If the natural world aligns more to your interests, you might try Whidbey Island Kayaking out of Langley for beginners and experienced kayakers alike. Or take a whale-watching boat where you’re pretty well assured of seeing whales.

Make a point of visiting Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens with its trails leading through their 10-acre display garden and 43 acres of trails near Greenbank, midway between Coupeville and Langley. It has not only thousands of rhododendrons, but also magnolias, dahlias, lilies and more. Whidbey Island offers it all.

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