Northwest travel: A quick escape to Whidbey Island

A mere 24-hour trip from Seattle can seem like a journey far away. For starters, all those lovely views ...
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Admiralty Head Lighthouse. (Tom Albers)

A mere 24-hour trip from Seattle can seem like a journey far away. For starters, all those lovely views ...

On a Tuesday morning, we ate a leisurely breakfast at Dish in Seattle, where there was not the wait one suffers through on a weekend just for the privilege of dining there. Dish is a sweet little "Freelard" (Fremont-Ballard) breakfast nook with a diner feel but much better food than the average diner. The only problem with Dish, besides the weekend swarms, is they don't accept credit or ATM cards. Twice one of us has had to trek to the nearby Fred Meyer ATM for some dough.

Neither was there a crowd this particular Tuesday at the ferry in Mukilteo. We waited only 20 minutes or so, and the ride across to Clinton was about as long. Once on the Whidbey Island side, we drove through Langley just to see if it is as quaint as everyone says, and it is, but we weren't interested in that this time, despite the fact that a swarm was ensuing.

We pushed on to the narrowest part of the island, and a spit of a town called Greenbank.

In Greenbank is the quintessential Northwest experience: a log cabin in the woods. At Guest House Log Cottages, you can stay in one of six cottages set within a 25-acre patch of woods with a wildlife pond, copious pots of flowers, and a pool and hot tub. There's even a chicken coop from which the green and brown eggs in your cottage's refrigerator are taken. The log cottages themselves are both rustic and comfortable, with full kitchens and baths with Jacuzzi tubs. They kept the B&B doily factor to a minimum, opting instead for antique farm implements and pioneering tools that fit Whidbey's history, even if they bear the names of points further east. We stayed in the Tennessee and gazed at the stars through skylights over both the tub and the feather bed.

That afternoon, we hiked at nearby Greenbank Farm, which was once the largest loganberry farm in the U.S. and dates back to the early 1900s. There we were treated to glorious views of Puget Sound on both sides; the island is so narrow here, you can stand on the hill above the farm and see Admiralty Inlet on your right and Saratoga Passage to your left. The trail winds through the woods and circumnavigates berry fields and pastureland for llamas. At the trailhead, there is a slightly vandalized and neglected but still fascinating diorama of the marshland beyond, where the U.S. Navy once practiced munitions drops. The marshland is now protected; it is one of the few remaining Northwest coastal wetland preserves. The Farm boasts cheese and wine shops selling regional goods. We thought Rainforest Red, from Lost Mountain Winery, one of the best blended wines we'd ever tasted. The winery is located on the other side of the strait near Sequim.

If it weren't for the tenacity of island residents, there would be a housing development of 700 homes in place of this living-history farm. Chateau St. Michelle Winery purchased the farm and intended to redevelop it in 1995, but in response to local resistance, they instead negotiated a sale to Island County, the Port of Coupeville, and The Nature Conservancy. Today the farm is managed by a non-profit board of directors who live on the island.

We drove back south to Bush Point to watch the sunset but were unnerved by warning signs at every turn reminding us that most of the point is private. Only a narrow strip of beach is public, and the rude-seeming signs made us feel threatened. The sunset itself managed to steal the show, however, explaining why the point is coveted.

The next morning, we drove through intermittent sun and fog to Fort Casey State Park. The beach off Highway 20 near Crockett Lake was surreally beautiful; a lone fisherman cast his line from shore, and through the dense fog we could hear but not see the ship traffic through the inlet. At the fort, we toured the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, an apparently popular destination which quickly became crowded, but we didn't mind sharing the spiral staircase to the Fresnel lens nor chatting with visitors up from San Diego. The homemade exhibits were a welcome change from the over-engineered blockbusters we're used to seeing, and they were no less successful in helping us imagine life here when Whidbey was still wild.

Once the fog cleared, we climbed the Civil War-era gunmounts and gaped at the 360-degree visual extravaganza one can only experience in the Northwest: the tip of Mount Rainier a seeming apparition in the distance; the ferry bound for Port Townsend leaving a toothpaste-white wake in the calm waves; the sugared tips of the Olympics. Even Mount Baker appeared over the horizon.

After an all-too-brief (we would have liked to hike and beach comb here) visit, we drove further north to Ebey's Landing, a well-known and well-loved hiking trail. The Mountaineers' book Best Loop Hikes Washington was helpful. The five-mile loop winds along the beach, takes a short but grueling turn upward to the top of a bluff, and then heads back to the parking lot, affording the hiker views of bucolic farmland backed by Mount Baker, the sun squinting off the waters of Admiralty Inlet in sharp fractals, and shipping lane traffic heading through the strait. The Olympics likewise are close enough to examine in craggy detail; settler Isaac Ebey used to row across the Inlet to Port Townsend, where he was a customs official.

Though this is a well-known hike, what's not as well known is that the pickleweed (aka "sea beans") growing in profusion around the salt marsh lagoon is edible. At Ballard's Sunday Farmer's Market, you can buy the same from a group calling themselves Wild, Foraged and Found. Although of course you wouldn't want to harvest from this preserve, the sea beans are delicious – salty and crunchy, they're best blanched and tossed with a bit of melted butter.

We drove back to Seattle via Deception Pass, stopping in Mount Vernon for excellent vegetarian pizza at Pacioni's on 1st Street.

If you go

Lisa Albers visited the establishments mentioned here unannounced, and she paid regular rates, with no special accommodations.


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