Beach trails, mountain views and waterside towns draw thousands of annual visitors to Whidbey Island, just a 45-minute drive and a 20-minute ferry ride from Mukilteo, north of Seattle — that’s no secret.
“It’s a close-in destination for a mini vacation,” says Mary Jo Oxrieder, owner and resident artist at Raven Rocks Gallery & Gifts, which is located at Greenbank Farm, where weathered red barns house artists, a pie shop, a winery and a cheese shop.
So here’s the insider info: Wait until summer to take this day trip and you’ll face long ferry lines and traffic along the highway, which cuts across the island to scenic Deception Pass State Park. Go now, as my husband and I did on a recent winter weekend, and you’ll find artists like Oxrieder alone in their galleries with plenty of time to talk, plus distilleries and wineries welcoming visitors into their tasting rooms and open tables at popular restaurants.
Get an early start, because there’s plenty to explore. Whidbey is about 55 miles long, but just 12 miles across at its widest point, making it easy to find most anything. In the interest of time, we tackled the south and central parts of the island, going as far as the historical town of Coupeville, but skipped busier Oak Harbor, home to the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Here’s the plan:
All aboard, 8:30 a.m.
Leave the city behind as you board an early ferry for the 20-minute crossing from Mukilteo, north of Seattle, to Clinton on Whidbey Island.
There’s rarely a wait this time of year, but allow extra time for the drive (around 45 minutes from Seattle), depending on traffic, and check online for scheduling.
Grab breakfast in the woods, 9 a.m.
Head north on state Route 525 for 5 miles, then detour onto forested South Crawford Road to find Mukilteo Coffee Roasters’ Cafe in the Woods.
The outdoor patio buzzes in summer, but winter draws loyal locals indoors to sip cinnamon-roll lattes around burl wood tables. Murals and Led Zeppelin posters decorate the walls. Order a farm-to-table omelet (your choice of cheese, veggies, smoked salmon and more) and take a long, deep breath. The roasting plant is next door.
Explore art in Langley, 10:30 a.m.
Take some time to wander around the city of Langley, one of the island’s main tourist hubs, with shops, galleries and restaurants overlooking Saratoga Passage. Watch the glassblowers at Callahan’s Firehouse Studio & Gallery inside the city’s old firehouse, or take a virtual trip to Nepal or Uzbekistan at Music for the Eyes, which is stocked with treasures from Central Asia, the Middle East, Tibet and more places the owners have worked or traveled.
Get out of town for a hike, 11:30 a.m.
So many choices. One of the most popular summer hikes is Ebey’s Landing near Coupeville, with a bluff trail along a ridge overlooking the water. It’s accessible year-round, but winter days can be windy, so an inland destination might make more sense this time of year.
One of my favorites is the Earth Sanctuary, 72 acres of old-growth forest in the village of Freeland, owned by entrepreneur Chuck Pettis and open to the public (admission is $7). Discover waterfowl, a stone-sculpture garden and a labyrinth as you follow a self-guided tour through wooded wetlands.
For a beach walk, try nearby Double Bluff Beach, with a 2-mile stretch of saltwater beach strewn with driftwood and an off-leash area for dogs.
Learn some island history, 1 p.m.
Next: Drive 18 miles north to Coupeville, one of the oldest towns in Washington, a spot on scenic Penn Cove known for its mussels.
Rural Whidbey comes alive here in summer at the Saturday farmers market. Winter days are better for visiting the free Island County Historical Museum to learn about the island’s original Native American tribes, and to visit the shops and galleries in the historical buildings along Front Street.
Penn Cove Gallery displays the work of 26 Whidbey artists who make handwoven scarves, wood carvings and jewelry. Open for a lunch of mussels and beer with a view is Toby’s Tavern, housed in a merchant building constructed around 1890.
Stop for pie and coffee, 2:30 p.m.
Homes have replaced much of what used to be farmland on the island, but not everywhere. Detour off the main highway and you’ll come upon working farms, artists’ studios, distilleries and wineries.
They’re certainly still worth seeking out.
One such spot is the 150-acre Greenbank Farm, a former loganberry farm acquired by Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in the 1970s and saved from development by community leaders and investors.
Next door to Oxrieder’s Raven Rocks Gallery is the Artworks Gallery, a cooperative of 15 island artists in every discipline, from fiber artist Marcy Johnson to woodworker Jim Short and beyond.
Picnic tables next to a demonstration garden attract visitors to Whidbey Pies in summer, when it’s hard to find a seat inside the 12-table cafe. We walked right in for coffee and a slice of salted caramel apple pie that would’ve been worth waiting some time for — but we never had to find out.
Get in the spirit, 3 p.m.
Three distilleries, all family-owned, offer free tastings and tours around the island. (Be sure to drink responsibly and arrange for a sober driver.)
The tasting room at Mutiny overlooks a neighbor’s blueberry patch, which is the source of fruit that the Stallman family uses to make their small-batch blueberry liqueur.
At Whidbey Island Distillery, visitors are invited to descend the stairs into the “bunker,” a daylight basement turned into a tasting room, and sample rye whiskey or liqueurs made from berries grown in Sequim for another locally tinged tasting.
Off the beaten path — but worth the drive — is Cultus Bay Distillery, operated by Kathy Parks in an old boathouse on the southeastern tip of the island.
Parks drives visitors down to the nearby estuary in a golf cart to show off her home-built stills, and to showcase the tasting room where bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey and grappa line the shelves.
Cultus is committed to using and recycling local products, so Parks mills island-grown barley and sends the spent grain to a Whidbey sheep farmer. She proudest of her EFD 81 whiskey, named for her husband, fallen Everett firefighter Gary Parks.
Cap the day with wine, art, food, 4:30 p.m.
Art, food, wine and music come together at Blooms Winery, which serves light meals from 11 a.m. into the early evening at its 5511 Bistro in Freeland.
Come for a tasting and stay for an early dinner before heading back to the boat. There’s live music on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons, plus locally made jewelry for sale and a menu featuring island-sourced salads, mussels, beef and lamb.
Eat, drink, be merry — then head back to the ferry full, content and knowing you accomplished about as much as one can on a day trip to Whidbey Island.
But only if you go in the winter.