Whidbey in Winter: Lose the crowds off-season at this island getaway

Double Bluff Beach on Whidbey Island

Beach trails, mountain views and waterside towns draw thousands of visitors to Whidbey Island, just a 45-minute drive and 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle.

"It's a close-in destination for a mini-vacation," says Mary Jo Oxrieder, of Raven Rocks Gallery and Gifts at Greenbank Farm  where weathered red barns house artists, a pie maker, winery and cheese shop.

Wait until summer to take this day-trip, and you'll face long ferry lines and traffic along the highway that cuts across the island to scenic Deception Pass.

Go now, as my husband and I did on a recent winter weekend, and you'll find artists such as Oxrieder alone in their galleries with plenty of time to talk; distilleries and wineries welcoming visitors into their tasting rooms, and open tables at popular restaurants.

Get an early start, because there's much to explore. Whidbey is 55 miles long, but just 12 miles across at its widest point, making it easy to find most anything. In the interests of time, we tackled the south and central parts of the island, going as far as the historic town of Coupeville, but skipped busier Oak Harbor, home to the Whidbey Naval Air Station.

Here's the plan:

8:30 a.m.
All aboard 

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.

Cafe in the Woods

9 a.m.
Breakfast in the woods

Head north on WA-525 S. for five miles, then detour onto forested S. Crawford Road to Mukilteo Coffee Roaster's 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 omelette (your choice of cheese, veggies, smoked salmon etc.), and take a deep breath. The roasting plant is next door.

Hats from Nepal at Music for the Eyes

10:30 a.m.
Explore Langley

Take some time to wander around the city of Langley, the island's main tourist hub, 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 stocked with treasurers from Central Asia, Tibet and Nepal where the owners have worked or traveled. 

Get out for a hike

So many choices. One of the most popular summer hikes is in Ebey's Landing near Coupeville, with a bluff trail along a ridge overlooking the water. It's accessible year-round, however winter days can be windy, so an inland destination can make more sense this time 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 ($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 two-mile stretch of salt water beach strewn with driftwood, and an off-leash area for dogs. 

1 p.m.
Island history

Drive 18 miles north to Coupeville, one of the oldest towns in Washington 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 tribes, and visit the shops and galleries in the historic 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 historic Toby's Tavern.

Pies galore at WhidbeyPies

2:30 p.m
Pie and coffee

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. 

Saved from development by community leaders and investors was the 150-acre former Greenbank Farm, a former loganberry farm acquired by Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in the 1970s.

Mary Jo Oxrieder at Raven Rocks gallery

Next door to Raven Rocks Gallery is the Artworks Gallery, a cooperative of island artists including fiber artist Marcy Johnson and woodworker Jim Short. 

Picnic tables next to a demonstration garden draw 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. 

3  p.m.
Get in the spirit 

Three distilleries, all family-owned, offer free tastings and tours. 

Mutiny Bay spirits

Closest to the main highway are Mutiny Bay in Freeland, and Whidbey Island Distillery,  closer to Langley. The tasting room at Mutiny overlooks a neighbor's blueberry patch, the source of fruit the Stallman family uses to make their small-batch blueberry liqueur.

A tasting in Whidbey Island Distillery's "bunker"

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. 

Cultus Bay distiller Kathy Parks

Off-the-beaten path, but worth the drive is Cultus Bay Distillery run by Kathy Parks, 77, in old boathouse on the southeastern tip of the island. Parks drives visitors down to the estuary in a golf cart to show off her home-built stills, and tasting room where bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey and grappa line the shelves.  

Committed to using and recycling local products, she 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.  

4:30 p.m.
Wine, art, food

Wine, art, food 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 ferry. There's live music on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons; locally-made jewelry for sale and a menu featuring island-sourced salads, mussels, beef and lamb. 

If you go

Getting there: From Seattle, drive north on Interstate 5 and take Exit 182 and follow WA-525 N to the Mukilteo ferry dock. Distance is about 25 miles. Crossing time aboard a Washington State ferry to Clinton on Whidbey Island is 20 minutes. 

Winter hours: Hours vary in the off-season. Check opening and closing times before visiting. Best days are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. 

Upcoming events: Whidbey's festival season kicks off with the Penn Cove Musslefest, March 7-8. in Coupeville. Chowder tastings, live music, boat tours and more. 

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on February 25, 2020

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