Most of us spend hectic days and quiet nights searching for home. Several years ago I found mine on Whidbey Island, a sea-horse shaped stretch of land made up of beaches and bluffs, villages and farms.
Just a 30-minute drive and a short ferry ride north of Seattle, the island takes me back to a New England summer 30 years ago when the woods smelled of birch and maple and life was as simple as a drive in the country.
The quiet times and the wooded countryside do much to conjure up those memories, but it's Whidbey's bed-and-breakfast homes that reawaken my sleeping youth.
Although B&B; means different things to different people, it reflects an old-fashioned painting here. It's the smell of coffee and muffins, the sounds of kitchen pans and quiet conversation. It's the sun sliding into bed with you at dawn and the birds calling you from dreams.
Mother and Daughter
At Home By the Sea, on East Sunlight Beach Road in Clinton, it's the warmth of Sharon Fritts-Drew and her mother, Helen.
Sharon arrived on the island in 1979 after 10 years in Afghanistan and Iran. She brought her Middle Eastern treasures with her and moved self and baggage into a half-finished house overlooking Useless Bay, which is anything but that to the thousands of geese, ducks, gulls and sandpipers that call the inlet's calm waters home.
"I got lonely in this big house by myself," Sharon said, "so I ran an ad in the paper for bed and breakfast. To my surprise, somebody answered it and here I am, seven years later, enjoying life as an innkeeper."
Sitting in the living room, sipping coffee and looking through windows across the beach to the bay and its backdrop of bluffs and mountains tells you everything you need to know about Home by the Sea.
Except for the squawk of a gull, it is quiet. The smell of freshly ground coffee or home-baked muffins fills the two-story cedar house, while a bright afternoon sun blankets potted plants.
A wood stove and an upright piano portray turn-of-the-century America, but tribal Persian carpets and a brass samovar let you know that this is a worldly place.
The upstairs guest rooms offer more of the same, including the views. Persian pieces dot nooks and crannies and comforters cover iron beds. Terry robes and large towels are hung for evening dips in the hot tub. Doubles are about $72. For reservations call (206) 221-2964.
If tranquil and eclectic describe Sharon's home, country elegance best defines Caroline's Country Cottage on 6th Street in Langley. Formerly Sally's, this remodeled turn-of-the-century farmhouse sits on a knoll overlooking the village and Saratoga Passage.
Caroline Satterberg and her husband, Jack, took over for Sally in 1985, but little else has changed. Breakfast still offers a sun-room setting, with homemade breads, egg dishes and fresh fruit, while the decor remains bright and gracious.
Sea-green floral-print wallpaper freshens the living room, which otherwise looks quite formal with its Belgian draperies, Louis XIV clock and mixture of French Provincial and Queen Anne furniture. However, this impression is deceiving, as the house is otherwise warm and friendly, especially the two upstairs guest rooms.
Catherine's Room is my favorite. The sloped ceiling, fir floor and brass bed make me feel completely at home. And the windows never let the Pacific Northwest out of sight: Puget Sound glistening in the sunrise, the summer snows clinging desperately to distant mountain slopes.
Downstairs a third, more modern room features the advantages of maximum privacy and starlit nights, with an entrance onto a patio, hot tub and skylight that open onto the stars. Doubles are about $65. For reservations call (206) 221-8709.
On the outskirts of town, at the corner of Coles and Brooks Hill roads, the Saratoga Inn shatters the theory that an inn must be old to have charm. The inn does cheat a little--it looks old: owners Debbie and Ted Jones planned it that way.
The two-story, shingle-clad Cape Cod looks more like a New England inn with roots in the Revolution than a modern lodge built to welcome its first guests in 1983. Sunburst gables, beveled-glass windows and wide verandas are framed by English cottage gardens and a picket fence, while inside are hardwood floors, hanging quilts, fireplaces and a blend of country antiques.
The only things missing from this otherwise historic-feeling inn are things I don't miss--drafty windows, thin walls and a general lack of hot water.
The conveniences and charms of this place are best appreciated in the five upstairs guest rooms. Although Queen Anne's Lace features the best water and mountain view, Willow remains my favorite.
I suppose the willow queen bed and nearby rocker bring back memories of my dad's favorite chair, where he spent most Sunday afternoons. But there are other charms, too: a brick hearth hosting a Franklin stove, a blue-and-white wall quilt, the blue ceiling and window trim. Doubles start around $65. For reservations call (206) 221-7526.
Warmth and Friendliness
There are lots of reasons to stay at a B&B;: home-cooked breakfasts, residential settings, cozy atmospheres, but it's the friendliness and the warmth of the innkeepers that really make the difference. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Pillars by the Sea on East Bayview Avenue in Freeland.
A knock on the door brings smiles and gentle handshakes from Ellen and Walker Jordan, retirees who saved this two-story gabled house from falling into Holmes Harbor. In 1979, they bought the place, restored and renovated it, then opened the doors to guests in 1983.
The home has all the features that guests to Whidbey Island have come to expect: a homemade breakfast served in a setting of cranberry crystal and polished silver, three guest rooms with antiques and floral-print wallpaper and a quiet environment alongside the sound.
But my love for the place comes not of these things. It's the Jordans who give me cause to sit five minutes longer, even though my ferry to Seattle tugs at its restraints. I enjoy hearing the stories of the Walker Jordans' most recent trip and like to linger over the family pictures on the walls.
I am intrigued by Ellen's embroidery and charmed by Walker's love of conversation. Most of all, I like the feeling of friendship. Two can experience these things for themselves for about $60. For reservations call (206) 221-7738.
Smorgasbord of Choices
Finally, Guest House is the best B&B; experience I have encountered on the West Coast. On East Christenson Road off Washington 525 in Greenbank, Guest House offers a smorgasbord of choices, minus the customary fawning over breakfast, which is optional and costs extra here.
Actually, there is no guest house, unless you count the owner's farmhouse that offers one accommodation. Instead, lodging is made up of three cottages and a large log home, all surrounded by woods, wildlife and water.
Hansel & Gretel, Farm Guest Cottage and the Carriage House name the cottages. The first has a sleeping loft and oak furniture, the second knotty pine walls and antiques, the third a parlor stove and large deck. Each has a kitchenette.
On a much larger scale, the lodge seems like a rustic mansion with conveniences such as a sky-lit steeping tub, a modern kitchen and a loft bedroom. The setting is anchored by a massive stone fireplace and brightened by tall windows that look across a deck to the duck pond.
Besides the varied lodging, other distinguishing features of Guest House are its health facilities. A hot tub, swimming pool and exercise room are certainly rare amenities for a B&B.; Doubles start at about $60. For reservations call (206) 678-3115.
Before you rush off to find home, it is only fair to warn you that there are those of us who have already staked some claims. Therefore, you should make your reservations several weeks in advance and be prepared with a second choice, especially if you are calling for a weekend accommodation. Then it's up to you to go home again.