Plunk a nickel into the old-time gumball machine inside the historical museum here, pull the lever, and if you're lucky you'll get a fortune along with your chewing gum ...
COUPEVILLE, Whidbey Island — Plunk a nickel into the old-time gumball machine inside the historical museum here, pull the lever, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a fortune along with your chewing gum.
“You have a very strong mind,” mine said. “Once you decide, four men couldn’t change your opinion.” So here’s what I’ve decided about this central Whidbey Island town and the forests, beaches and prairies that New England sea captain Thomas Coupe described to his wife as an 1850s “Garden of Eden.”
You can do it in a day. But you really should stay longer.
If it’s boutiques and a fancy dinner you want, head for Langley, the town closest to the ferry dock, convenient for day-trippers from Seattle in search of an instant fix of island tranquility.
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Starbucks and Safeway more your style? Then it’s Oak Harbor near the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station at the north end of the island.
Coupeville, on the other hand, is literally someplace in between.
Located mid-island, it still feels more like the pioneer town it was in the 19th century when Coupe laid claim to land on the shores of Penn Cove, and turned Coupeville into a major Northwest port for the farming and maritime trade.
Locals gather at the Coupeville Coffehouse to watch the sea gulls and chew on topics such as if you had to choose between sex and dark chocolate, which one would you pick?
Take it from George Lloyd, the owner of Elkhorn antiques and a Coupeville resident for 35 years. “It’s the last place on the island that moves at a slow pace.”
So get an early start. There’s an hour and a half to two hours of driving and ferry-riding between you and the smell of salt air.
Sail across the Sound
Board the Clinton-Mukilteo Washington State ferry for a 20-minute crossing across Possession Sound to Whidbey Island.
Follow two-lane Highway 525 toward Coupeville (28 miles) past the roadside stands selling fresh dahlias and basil. Notice how the forests give way to open land. These are the Whidbey Island prairies, large and fertile farmland areas formed on the sites of ancient lakebeds.
Chances are it will be dry in Coupeville even if it’s raining in Seattle or Langley. Whidbey Island is about 50 miles long. The northern half lies within the Olympic rain shadow, and rain averages just 18 inches annually compared to 30 inches in the southern half.
Breakfast with Henry
Find the Coupeville Coffeehouse in the yellow building with the red trim at 12 N.W. Front St., overlooking Penn Cove harbor. A wagon shop and blacksmith once occupied the lower level of the yellow building where partners Kim Noel and Shelby Eckroth serve up $6.95 breakfast burritos and gluten-free brownies and banana bread.
A wild blue heron nicknamed Henry usually makes an appearance most mornings and afternoons on a sandbar near the red warehouse at the end of the wharf. Find a seat on the deck, or inside at one of the wooden tables or overstuffed chairs under a sign that says “Loitering is encouraged.” Linger over a “tuxedo mocha” made with island-roasted organic coffee and a squirt of white and dark chocolate.
Walk the waterfront
Coupeville is part of a 25-square-mile area called Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, a 17,400-acre national park area that includes federal land, two state parks, private farmland, and a collection of historical buildings and Victorian-style homes in and around the old waterfront.
Stop by the Island County Historical Society Museum, 908 N.W. Alexander St. (www.islandhistory.org), for a gumball and a fortune and brochures for a self-guided walk around town and a 43.5-mile driving and bicycling tour of the reserve.
Start at the Coupeville Wharf and Warehouse at the foot of Northwest Alexander. Steamboat service connected Coupeville with Seattle and Everett until a bridge built in 1937 at Deception Pass linked the north end of Whidbey to Fidalgo Island and Anacortes.
On display are the preserved bones of Rosie, a 33-foot gray whale washed ashore in 1998. Her remains hang from the ceiling along with those of Rudy Valentino, an 8-year-old, 400-pound porpoise found on Valentine’s Day, 2004, in Clinton.
The walking tour includes 64 landmarks. To see them all would take up the better part of a morning or afternoon, so pick and choose, and leave time to browse through the shops and art galleries, many housed in buildings that look the same as they did a century ago.
Elkhorn Trading & Antiques, 15 Front St., was the first post office. “People used to sit in the windows and watch the boats arriving with the mail,” says George Lloyd. The Kingfisher Bookstore, across the street at 16 N.W. Front, was Benson Confectionery in 1916. A Chinese laundry occupied the lower level of where Knead & Feed, 4 N.W. Front, turns out giant cinnamon rolls that you can smell from the street.
The houses of former sea captains and merchants are scattered throughout the town. Anna’s Tea Room, 606 N. Main St., feels more like the home of an eccentric East Coast auntie than a sophisticated English tearoom, and that fits Coupeville’s small-town image just fine.
Order a pot ($3 for a small, $5 for a large) and pick your own cup and saucer from a cabinet filled with a collection of mismatched china. Settle into the sofa by the window or a corner table and plan your afternoon over lunch or warm scones with clotted cream and jam.
Owned by a livery stable owner named Carl Gillespie, the house was moved here from across the street in the 1970s.
Explore the Reserve
Named for Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey, one of the island’s early permanent settlers, Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve (www.nps.gov/ebla) includes eight miles of beach with a bluff trail looking out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca; paths through the prairies; a historic lighthouse at Fort Casey, a former military base, now a state park; forest land and lots of places for bird-watching and observing wildlife.
The driving tour takes about two hours, longer with stops. Best advice: Drive to a few different spots, then explore on foot.
Start at the beach at Ebey’s Landing (follow the map in the back of the brochure because signs are few). There’s a choice of two hikes: a 3.5-mile loop trail along a bluff that skirts the Strait. The other is a shorter walk inland through the prairie to a pioneer graveyard called the Sunnyside Cemetery.
Kids will enjoy a visit to the Admiralty Head Lighthouse at nearby Fort Casey. Built with walls 18 inches thick to withstand earthquakes, it’s open to the public for free, self-guided tours Fridays-Sundays, 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.
When Sarah Richards bought a hayfield inside the reserve in 1998, she consulted a county extension agent about what she could do with the land. Because the property didn’t include irrigation rights, he advised her to look for something that didn’t require water.
“We had to scratch our heads to figure out what to grow,” she recalls.
The result is the Lavender Wind Farm at 2530 Darst Road, three miles from the Coupeville waterfront. Named for the high winds that blow off the strait in winter, the farm contains 2.5 acres of organically-grown lavender.
Come pick your own, buy a plant or walk the outdoor labyrinth Richards planted using a Hopi Indian design. Bunches of dried lavender hang from the ceiling of a small shop stocked with vanilla-lavender ice cream bars, jellies, teas, pillows and sachets. Richards sells essential oils that she extracts by hand with a copper still behind the shop. The farm is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. See www.lavenderwind.com, or call 877-242-7716 for driving directions.
Sample the seafood
Connoisseurs consider Penn Cove mussels to be some of the world’s finest. In Coupeville, they’re farm-raised by the Penn Cove Shellfish LLC. All the restaurants serve them along with local crab, oysters and clams.
The Oystercatcher, 901 Grace St., is a favorite local spot, but it’s under new ownership and not due to reopen until the end of this month or early next month.
Families like the Mad Crab, 10 N.W. Front St., for the water views and homemade crab cakes. If you’re over 21 and up for some fun, try Toby’s Tavern, 8 N.W. Front, a local hangout in an 1890s-era former beer parlor. Grab a window table or a seat at the mirrored bar and order a pint of the Parrot Red ale brewed in Anacortes. Mussels are $11 for a pound including garlic bread. The goldfish crackers are free.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org