December 14, 2016
By Victoria Ortiz
Photo at right: Tyler Alves walks along the top of old-growth driftwood found on a beach near the ferry terminal at Clinton, Whidbey Island. Photo by Victoria Ortiz
Whidbey Island is the fourth largest island in the contiguous United States and sits only 30 miles north of Seattle. It’s also 180 degrees different from the hustle of urban life. The 15-minute ferry ride between Mukilteo and Clinton on the south end of the island relaxes the shoulders and welcomes you to “island time.”
Whether you enjoy combing the beaches for sand dollars on Useless Bay, poking through art shops in downtown Langley, or strolling the wind-swept bluffs of Ebey’s Landing, there is plenty to discover on the south end of Whidbey this winter — and without the three-hour summer ferry lines.
On the Menu
You’ve filled the car’s gas tank. Now fill your own. Breakfast at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters is the premium fuel to start your day. Tucked into the forest near the town of Langley — a short six miles north of the Clinton ferry dock — the café features locally inspired organic fare such as artisan-roasted coffee and a generously portioned breakfast burrito.
Sitting in the heart of Langley, right between scenic water views and First Street, the lines at Village Pizzeria may keep people at bay in the summer, but in the winter you can pick the best window seat and enjoy their famous pesto pizza.
Shorter days also mean more time to cozy up to a fire with a good drink. Fortunately, South Whidbey features an array of wineries, breweries and distilleries that offer tastings year-round. One of the best is Whidbey Island Distillery, a world-renowned destination thanks to their award-winning blackberry liqueur. A friendly host will give you a tour of their operation followed by a tasting. Beware of putting the liqueur on vanilla ice cream; henceforth plain ice cream will seem so, well, vanilla.
Locals say that the local crab tastes sweeter in winter. On South Whidbey the crab can go from the ocean floor to cooked-and-cracked on your plate within an hour. Seasons, limits and the methods for catching crab vary, so check the regional Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife site for information if you plan to catch them yourself.
South Whidbey sits on a meteorological banana-belt so a wet winter day in Seattle usually results in a day of sunshine on Whidbey. The island boasts hiking, biking and coastal trails with spectacular views of Mount Rainier, the Cascades Range and the Olympic Mountains.
The country’s first national historic reserve at Ebey’s Landing includes Fort Ebey State Park which is located on the western shore mid-island. A 5.6-mile trail loops along a bluff overlooking farmland and Puget Sound, then drops down to the rocky shore where the Coupeville Ferry crosses in and out of view on its way to Port Townsend. If you’re into forts, check out Fort Casey State Park, 8.5 miles south of Fort Ebey.
Found on the western end of South Whidbey, Useless Bay, so named for the lack of protection it provided mariners, features one of the best beaches on the island for four-legged friends and their companions.
Double Bluff County Park, on the northern end of the bay, stretches four miles along Whidbey’s coast and is one of the only dog-friendly parks on the island. Stroll the driftwood beach and comb the shore for treasures while you and Rover take in the fresh air and views of downtown Seattle.
A scenic 15-mile drive from the ferry dock in Clinton on State Route 525 — the road that connects the south to the north end of the island where it turns in SR 20 — takes you to South Whidbey State Park, a day-use only park which offers both coastal and forest walks. Head down to the beach at low tide for crabbing or savor an opportunity for quiet contemplation as you meander through the ferns in the old-growth cedar and fir forest.
Going About Town in Langley
Arts and culture on South Whidbey blossom in the winter, particularly in Langley. The Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, WICA, is found on the northeast side of town and keeps a full calendar of plays, music performances, author talks and artist workshops.
Take time to browse the local artistry on the first Saturday of the month at the Langley Art Walk, when multiple galleries along First and Second Streets open their doors from 5 –7 p.m. to showcase local paintings, pottery and sculptures, oftentimes with accouterments such as refreshments and live music.
In an age of movie theater monopolies, the historic Clyde Theatre on First Street maintains its hometown charm. Oftentimes the manager who sold you the ticket will stand in front
of the screen and welcome you before the show.
The cinema fills up, even on weekdays, for popular screenings of blockbuster hits and indie-award winning movies, so get your seats early and enjoy a bucket of $1 popcorn.
The annual Holly Jolly Holiday Parade at 11 a.m., Dec. 3 in Langley celebrates the beginning of the Christmas season. Later that day, the nearby town of Coupeville revels in its Greening of Coupeville as it welcomes Santa Claus at its parade at 3 p.m. followed by a tree-lighting (and weather permitting, boat parade in Penn Cove).
January brings the Polar Bear Plunge at noon, Jan. 1 at Double Bluff Beach in nearby Freeland. The Langley Main Street Association hosts the Sea Float Scramble at 11 a.m., Jan. 7 where local glass artist Callahan McVay creates unique floats and casts them into the water at Seawall Park where young and old can hunt for glass treasures to take home.
Langley hosts the annual Welcome the Whales Parade and Festival in April. Sponsored by the Orca Network and the Langley Chamber of Commerce, this funky spectacle honors the return of the gray whales to Whidbey Island with interactive displays, activities and a parade. Located across the street from the Chamber, docents are available all year at the Langley Whale Center to explain fun facts about this incredible species.
Less than three miles of ocean separate South Whidbey from the mainland, yet the transition is so palpable that locals refer to their monthly grocery runs as “going overseas.” This slower and friendlier way of life charms its visitors all year, so take time to discover its winter wonders.
Victoria Ortiz is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. In 2015 she took the plunge and quit her job to indulge in cycling, backpacking and travel adventures around the globe. Find her at VictoriaO.com