Sometimes you’re just city weary and need to getaway, see greenery and breathe fresh air. For those lucky enough to live in the Northwest and particularly in the Seattle area, there’s no closer natural retreat than Whidbey Island, the so-called “garden island.” For visitors from outside the Northwest, Whidbey Island is a great place to hang your hat for a few days or more to get an authentic sampling of Puget Sound island life.
Located just 30 miles from Seattle, Washington, Whidbey Island is easily accessed via Washington State Ferry from the south or from Deception Pass Bridge in the north. The island, 35 miles long and 1.5 to 12 miles wide, is the largest island in Washington and the fourth longest and largest island in the United States. Yet the island boasts only 58,000 residents and, thanks to forward-thinking planners who fiercely protect the area’s agricultural land and natural areas, Whidbey is a lovely, rural world away from the hustle and bustle.
I begin my exploration of Whidbey Island in the tiny historic village of Coupeville. After stashing my bags at the comfortable Coupeville Inn,I stroll a couple of blocks down to the town’s main street. Founded in 1852, Coupeville is the second oldest town in Washington and the false-fronted buildings and wooden sidewalks retain its pioneer feel. Located right on beautiful Penn Cove, you can practically taste the area’s briny beginnings in the salt air. Many of the original Queen Anne, saltbox, and blockhouse style pioneer homes still climb the bluff overlooking the water.
Though only a couple of blocks long, downtown Coupeville is filled with interesting shops and restaurants. It’s early and I pause in front of the Knead and Feed café and bakery’s large window to watch the baker shape dough into loaves of bread. For more than 30 years, former school-teacher-turned-chef Janette Omar and her family have been delighting customers with fresh-from-the-oven breads, pies, cinnamon rolls, and other dishes like creamy shrimp bisque. Today, sister Marcia carries on the culinary tradition. www.kneadandfeed.com/story.html
I poke my head into several shops, including Aqua Gifts and Beyond the Sea, where I pick up a few gifts for friends. At Collections, you’ll find terrific women’s fashions; at Elkhorn Trading Company antiques; and at Bayleaf, foodies will love the artisan breads and foodstuffs.
On the waterside of the street, Mosquito Fleet Chili draws my attention and I find a cozy café tucked down a half flight of stairs overlooking Penn Cove. For the past three years, Rita Tomayko and her baker-husband Chris, have been serving guests their trademark beef-veggie chili (made with organic, island-produced Three Sisters Beef), from-scratch soups, and pies, cookies, and cinnamon rolls. The chili smells irresistible, so I opt for a small cup and it’s packed with beef, corn, and tomatoes and topped with cheese and sour cream. This chili is thick and hearty with a bit of heat that’ll keep the chill off. I take one of their cinnamon rolls to go. When I eat it later in the day, I find it consists of thin layers of sweet dough loaded with cinnamon. It’s the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever eaten. I wish I’d bought a dozen! ( Mosquito Fleet Chili’s wonderful cinnamon roll recipe. )
To get a glimpse of early life on Whidbey, I stop at the Island County Historical Society Museum next to the wharf (NW Alexander and Front Street). Outside is an old blockhouse, a tiny, two-story fort built in 1855 where residents could gather in case of an attack. In the museum, there are displays of arrowheads, baskets, old hardware, clothing, farm equipment, and household goods used by past island residents. www.islandhistory.org/home.htm
When I meet my friends at Ciao, Coupeville’s newest pizza place, the smells wafting from the wood-fired ovens make my stomach growl. Owner Mark Laska says he selected Coupville because of Ebey’s Prairie, the first National Historical Reserve established by Congress to preserve agricultural land. Nearly all of the restaurant’s products come from farms in Ebey’s Landing.
“I judge food by how long it takes to get from the farm to your plate,” says Laska. “From our second story windows, you can see where nearly everything on your plate was produced.”
Ciao specializes in Neapolitan-style pizzas, chewy in the middle with crispy edges. Laska says the secrets to his crust are Caputo flour imported from Italy and Whidbey’s mineral-rich water. “The minerals in our water corrode your pipes, but it makes the best pizza crust outside of Naples.”
The restaurant offers a wide range of pizzas, including Coupevilla Ciao (chicken sausage, spinach, walnuts, and parmesan and fontina cheeses) , the Prairie (oyster mushrooms and friarielli, a vegetable similar to broccoli rabe), Margherita (with housemade fresh mozzarella), and the Penn Cove (mussels and clams).
Penn Cove: Best Mussels on the Planet
Not far from Coupeville is Penn Cove Shellfish. I’ve heard that Penn Cove mussels are some of the best in the world and I’ve arranged to meet Keith Haddock, national sales director for Penn Cove Seafood, to see for myself. (During the annual Whidbey Island Mussel Festival in March, the company gives tours to visitors.)
Penn Cove Shellfish was the first and now is the largest mussel farm in the United States. The company chose Penn Cove because the cove’s warm, shallow waters and the influx of nutrients from the Skagit and Stillaguamish Rivers create the perfect environment for mussels.
“We don’t take anything from the water and we create lots of biodiversity with our mussel rafts,” says Haddock, as we churn out into the cove in one of the company’s shallow-draft aluminum boats. “Mussel farming is one of the greenest industries around. Everyone from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to Sea Watch has determined that mussel farming doesn’t harm the environment.”
The sun is bright as we approach the first rafts, long rows of logs with lines attached. Resident seals bask in the sun and pay little attention to us as we dock alongside. Haddock pulls up one of the lines and it’s crowded with thousands of tiny mussel shells.
“We don’t seed the mussels or do anything to them,” he explains. “We just give the mussels a place to grow and let nature take its course.”
The company has 75,000 lines in the water to which the baby mussels attach themselves. To ensure the mussels adequate room to grow, when they’re about six months old, workers pull up the lines and strip off the mussels. They’re then placed in long, thin net baskets on the lines that form “mussel sausages.” Plastic disks separate each sausage net, and they’re put back in the water. Within three weeks, the netting dissolves and the mussels continue to grow another six to eight months to maturity. When they’re harvest ready, workers pull up the lines and de-beard the shells and bag them up for shipment around the northwest and elsewhere. The company also sells and ships oysters and clams produced from other farmers in the area. www.penncoveshellfish.com/
After our tour, we drive along country roads that wind past verdant farms with stunning water views. We turn off and head down a long driveway to Cook on Clay, the home and studio of master potters Robbie Lobell and Maryon Attwood who produce elegant and sturdy flameware cooking pots.
“My teachers saw Corning come out with Pyrex and they wanted to make cookware out of clay,” explains Lobell. She’s standing inside a light-filled studio surrounded by dozens of pots in various states of production. “They developed a clay body that has very little expansion when it’s fired.”
Lobell and Attwood fire the pots, which can be used in the oven, BBQ, grill, or stove top, at 2300 degrees F. for up to 26 hours in their soda-vapour kiln. It results in cookware that are as beautiful to look at as they are to cook with. Their cookware is available here in their small retail store, online, or at a few stores on the island. I can’t resist and treat myself to a small square baking dish. (Later I find I wished I’d bought a whole set of this remarkable cookware. See our full review of Cook on Clay cookware .) cookonclay.com/
Our final adventure for the day is a tour of Desolation Pass. We meet Captain Brett of Deception Pass Tours and climb aboard his powerful jet boat, Island Whaler. Deception Pass is a strait that separates Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island. The narrow pass got its name by deceiving explorer George Vancouver into thinking Whidbey was a peninsula, not an island.
The waters of Deception Pass are filled with wildlife – eagles, sea birds, otters, seals, porpoises, even an occasional whale. As we motor past Ure Island, our interpretative guide Cameron tells us that this island was home to pirates who traded in Chinese workers. On the steep embankment, he points out a small cave, which served as a prison between 1910 and 1914. Today, it’s a nesting area for peregrine falcons.
Between Cameron’s colorful stories, Captain Brett hits the throttle and we speed across the water, the wind whipping our hair. We round a bend and fall silent at the stunning sight of Deception Pass Bridge. Built in 1935, the 976-foot bridge spans the distance between Whidbey Island and Fidalgo Island. Seeing the 180-foot high structure from the water gives a whole new appreciation for this engineering wonder.
We cruise into open water so we can get a better view of the Pass and the bridge. After we take dozens of photos, Captain Brett powers up our boat and we happily motor back to the marina. www.deceptionpasstours.com/
All that salt air has stimulated our appetites and my friend suggests Frasers Gourmet Hideaway in Oak Harbor. While most of the island is rural, Oak Harbor is a thriving small town with all the conveniences and shops you’d find in any suburban area. Frasers Hideaway is one of its many culinary gems.
Veteran chef Scott Fraser was born in Canada and has impressive cooking credentials, including graduating from Pierre Dubrulle French Culinary Arts School and cooking at Vancouver’s Hermitage and Le Crocodile. About five years ago, after operating another restaurant in town for more than a decade, he and his wife designed and built Frasers Gourmet Hideaway.
It’s light and airy, with sage-colored walls, simple, cloth-covered tables and a lighted bar where guests can eat and watch the chefs cook. We choose to sit at the bar and it’s fun to talk with and watch Chef Scott and his staff up close.
We want to try a variety of dishes, so we opt for small plates. We order the warm goat cheese salad that consists of spinach, cippolini onions, thinly sliced apples, and baked semi-soft, ash-rind cheese. It’s a lovely creamy, crunchy start to our meal. The tomato, basil salad features thin sliced roasted tomatoes and fresh, creamy mozzarella cheese. Next come a bowl of Penn Cove mussels that have been lightly steamed in white wine. They’re delicate, slightly chewy, and have a deliciously briny flavor that tastes like the sea. The dish is so good I take a moment to say a silent thanks to all those little mussels growing in Penn Cove.
A small plate of squash blossoms arrives, stuffed with shrimp and Chinese sausage and tempura fried so that they’re crispy. The sweet-hot sriracha chili sauce it’s served with gives a little extra kick. Next come Fanny Bay oysters, some raw and others baked with bacon. Chef Scott serves these clean-tasting raw oysters with a spicy cocktail sauce and freshly grated horseradish that brings out all the ocean flavor. Our final entrée is a plate of sablefish served with green pea risotto that has a light, slightly smoky flavor.
We’re not really hungry, but the desserts are too irresistible to pass up. We order a delectable and smooth Chocolate Pate with candied cranberries and a silky avocado ice cream; a creamy white chocolate cheesecake; and fresh fruit served in a crispy cookie shell with a foamy sabayon.
As we linger over cups of rich coffee, Chef Scott tells us about ProStart, the high school culinary program he’s been involved with for the past 10 years. He mentors high school students for three months, helping them prepare for a national culinary competition. His students have taken national honors four times. (See RFT Contributor Marilyn McFarlane’s review of Frasers Gourmet Hideaway.) www.frasersgh.com/
As we drive along the water toward my hotel, we watch the lights of Victoria come on across the water on Vancouver Island. Tonight I’ll fall asleep at the Coupeville Inn listening to the gentle sound of waves. Tomorrow it’s back to the city. Even though I’ve only been here a short time and have seen just a tiny portion of Whidbey Island’s charms, I feel relaxed and refreshed. Whidbey Island is, indeed, not far, but a world away. by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor