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Nearby Whidbey Island, a Gem on Puget Sound

TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Miller is a reporter in The Times' Washington, D.C., bureau. </i>

“The surrounding country, for several miles in most points of view, presented a delightful prospect, consisting chiefly of spacious meadows, elegantly adorned with clumps of trees,” wrote Capt. George Vancouver, extolling the virtues of central Whidbey Island in 1792.

“In these beautiful pastures, bordering on an expansive sheet of water, the deer were seen playing about in great numbers. Nature had here provided a well-stocked park.”

Two centuries later, we discovered that this fertile island refuge that snakes northward from the mouth of Puget Sound, 26 miles north of Seattle, remains an idyllic destination, particularly for the city-weary.

Rich in wildlife, sparsely developed and surrounded by scenic vistas, Whidbey and the San Juan Islands to the north are considered the gems of these waters--with good reason. For us, Whidbey was a welcome way station as we traveled from Seattle to Vancouver during a late summer vacation last year.

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Our host was another captain, John Colby Stone, the convivial innkeeper at the Captain Whidbey Inn, a rustic 86-year-old log cabin outside the town of Coupeville on the protected waters of Penn Cove, which is home to the sweet-tasting mussels that bear the same name. The inn itself, made of madrona logs, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We had learned of its renown from a guidebook on country inns.

But Stone commands more than landlocked accommodations. His teak “Cutty Sark” is a handsome 52-foot gaff ketch that was built in Hong Kong and is capable of transoceanic passage. Viewing its seven bark-tan sails and six round portals, my wife Katherine called it “a perfect Peter Pan ship.”

We had arrived in Penn Cove to unwind at the Captain Whidbey Inn and to join Stone for an invigorating jaunt on his craft. With us in tow on a crisp, sunny day, the Captain navigated around Penn Cove’s peaceful haven, celebrating the good fortune that he now makes part of his living chartering his beloved vessel.

As a long-necked cormorant raced past, he recalled that his mother, who schooled him in the art of inn-keeping, used to say, “The work is never done. How can you go sailing?”

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Now 42 with a decidedly gray beard and mustache, Stone would respond: “If the work is never done, what difference does it make?” Today he tells her: “Mom, it is my work.”

For the visitor, Whidbey Island’s narrow, winding 45-mile length feels like anything but work. Expansive parks, bordered by water and views of the Olympic Peninsula to the west and inhabited by great blue herons, bald eagles, red-tailed foxes, rhododendrons and rare wild iris, beckon hikers and bikers.

The cove-side town of Coupeville offers marine vistas, pubs, artsy stores, 19th-Century Victorian homes and a small museum that charts the region’s history, dating back 10,000 years to the time Native Americans first inhabited the island.

And the Captain Whidbey Inn itself--from which Stone and his exquisite boat are available for day sails, moonlight cruises and longer trips to the San Juans--is an invitation to slow down and pick up a book, sip wine by a roaring fire or let time slip past doing nothing more than admiring the scenery.

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Simply awakening to the call of gulls and the smell of bacon, donning a fluffy terry-cloth robe and peering out at the eye-opening blueness of the cove were among the many small pleasures that our stay afforded us.

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Visitors can reach Whidbey, the longest island within inland waters of the continental United States, by air, ferry or car. We drove our rental car north from Seattle on Interstate 5, then swung west and south on Washington 20, over Deception Pass, and onto the island. At the pass, we crossed a two-lane bridge with spectacular views of the bluffs and pounding waves below. It was here that Joseph Whidbey, master of Vancouver’s flagship, discovered in 1792 that what had appeared to be a narrow inlet was actually a passage to the water beyond.

Today, Deception Pass State Park, on Whidbey just south of the connecting bridge, encompasses old growth timber, dense vegetation, freshwater lakes and miles of shoreline.

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As we made our way south on the island toward Coupeville, we passed wheat fields and fruit stands abundant with ripe produce (“U-pick raspberries”). Overhead roared a plane destined for Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. The island, which has a population of about 55,000, boasts the world’s highest yield of wheat per acre as well as its largest loganberry farm.

Our first stop was the inn, located at the head of Penn Cove in the central part of the island. We were immediately struck by the scent of pine. “It takes me back to my childhood,” sighed Katherine.

The building, which is surrounded by stately evergreens, is a vestige of the days when log cabins were prevalent in the Northwest. The polished madrona wood is a dark honey color with a warm, glowing sheen. Madrona is an extremely hard wood that does not grow as straight as pine; therefore the logs are cut in lengths no longer than eight feet and are butted rather than notched.

They are now chinked with mortar as well, a concession to both the weather--the inn was originally a summer resort--and discretion.

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The inn’s downstairs living and dining rooms create a distinctly informal, homey first impression. Both have fireplaces made with large beach stones and comfortable antique furnishings. The upstairs rooms are generally small. Ours had a feather bed with overstuffed down comforters, a chair and wooden dresser and a shaving-bowl sink in the corner. The top-hinged windows were propped open with wooden pegs and looked onto the cove and peninsula.

Other rooms face the herb and vegetable-filled garden--the source of many ingredients for the kitchen. Books and magazines abound. Bathrooms are shared.

Lawn chairs and a multilevel deck overlook the cove. Guests can take sandwiches outside for lunch or a drink to toast the day turning to dusk. The inn also makes picnic boxes on request (you might try the cured and alder-smoked turkey with apple chipotle relish, anise-scented sweet cicely and other garden greens on a house-baked baguette).

Breakfast, which is served in a flower-filled dining room that fronts the bay, includes granola and fresh baked breads such as banana-hazelnut and cranberry-orange-walnut. The daily entrees are such creations as baked oatmeal with fresh berries and nuts topped with vanilla cream and toasted almonds. Orange juice and coffee are available to wash it all down.

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One day we decided to venture three miles down the road to Coupeville for lunch. Our destination was the Knead & Feed, nestled on the banks of the waterfront. Coupeville (pop. 1,200) is the island’s oldest town; many of its 19th-Century homes can be seen on a walking tour.

The Knead & Feed building, with its white-stone walls and wood beams, was built as a store in 1871. Since 1974, it has been owned by the Kroon family, who pride themselves on their fresh-baked breads, pastries and pies and soups made from scratch daily. We enjoyed rich, tasty soups of corn chowder and lentil with tomatoes, and salads. Dessert was marionberry pie, filled with locally grown fruit that looks and tastes much like large sweet blackberries.

Shops along Northwest Front Street sell carvings, woodworking and antiques. Many were decorated with baskets of impatiens. A restaurant reflected the Northwest’s love affair with coffee, touting a daily special of espresso with steamed milk: “Tall raspberry coconut latte. $1.65. Iced or hot.” We stopped at Jan McGregor’s studio, where she has been minding the shop for 17 years. McGregor is a potter who studied with a Japanese master in Kyoto for two years. Her distinctive pieces, inlaid with cobalt, have been exhibited in museums.

McGregor said that she had obtained 10 pounds of natural cobalt from China, but that the source is now depleted. Fortunately, McGregor said her stock “will last me a lifetime--or more.”

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The next time we saw Coupeville was from innkeeper John Stone’s ship. A merchant marine officer and longtime sailor, Stone schedules regular weekend sails from May to September but is available for chartering other times as well. We engaged him for a two-hour outing.

Stone’s family has owned the Captain Whidbey Inn for 32 years. His parents bought it from relatives; he moved into the cabin when he was 14. When his parents considered selling it in 1980, he acted as their financial adviser and ended up agreeing to buy it himself. So much for graduate school, recalled the ex-sociology major.

As a youth, he said, he had to move out of his room whenever a guest requested it. So, to discourage interlopers, he built model airplanes and hung them from the ceiling in mock dogfights. Of course, the model airplane room quickly became the inn’s most popular.

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We sailed past the floating mussel farms that have won Penn Cove its culinary acclaim. They are not farms in the conventional sense. Rather, they consist of anchored wooden rafts with hundreds of orange and yellow ropes suspended from them into the cool, pristine waters.

The larvae settle on the collecting ropes, resembling salt and pepper. A single line produces 45 to 60 pounds of mussels in a year. Workers from Penn Cove Mussels, Inc., were harvesting the mollusk crop as we sailed past.

“It’s farming and you’re not taking anything away,” Rawle Jefferds, Penn Cove’s sales representative, explained the next day. “That’s the glory of it. All you’re doing is providing a home for the mussels and they’re going to be there.”

A veritable mussel cove of dreams: If you hang it, they will come.

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Stone is an unabashed admirer of the tasty bivalves. Each March he holds a four-day mussel festival at the inn. Subscribers to his newsletter send in recipes that he and his chef test before selecting an annual winner. The prize: a $100 gift certificate to the inn.

Festival dinners feature Penn Cove mussels in every course. This might include mussels on the half shell, mussels Rockefeller or mussels in a puff pastry with a cream sauce. Dessert, a challenge, might be mussel mincemeat pie or, incongruously, mussels in a sweet citron sauce.

Stone’s favorite way to prepare the home-grown legend is on the inn’s dinner menu every night. Captain Whidbey ginger steamed mussels--courtesy of the inn’s first winning recipe--are prepared with sesame oil, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and chili peppers.

That evening, Katherine, our mussel maven, pronounced them among the best she’s ever tasted: sweet, succulent, terrific. They highlighted a dinner heavy on fresh seafood and greens. We also sampled Stone’s extensive list of wines and Northwest beers.

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The next morning, at the Island County Historical Society and Museum in Coupeville, we learned that 19th-Century settlers considered Whidbey Island a paradise. They were impressed by its abundant shellfish, rich alluvial soil, mild climate and diversity of flora and fauna.

Capt. Thomas Coupe, a man of serious visage and long sideburns, filed one of the first land claims on Whidbey Island. When he first visited Penn Cove in 1852, he wrote to his wife: “I have found the Garden of Eden.”

After a short, but memorable, visit, we could relate.

GUIDEBOOK

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The Word on Whidbey

Getting there: The quickest way to Whidbey is to fly to Seattle and make the two-hour drive from there. United Airlines, Alaska, MarkAir, Delta have daily nonstop flights from LAX to Seattle for $208 round trip with 14-day advance purchase. Harbor Airlines (P.O. Box 160, Oak Harbor, Wash. 98277; telephone 800-359-3220) has daily flights from Seattle to Oak Harbor, the island’s largest town. The fare is $113 round trip. By car from Seattle, a short ride on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry from Mukilteo (north of Seattle) is the most direct route. The summer fare is $4.80 per car/driver each way. Passengers are $2.30. The ferry, which stops in Clinton, departs every half hour.

Where to stay: The Captain Whidbey Inn (2072 W. Captain Whidbey Inn Road, Coupeville, Wash. 98239; tel. 800-366-4097) has 32 rooms, including cottages with sitting rooms, fireplaces and private baths. Rates range from $85 a night for an inn room with shared bath to $150 for a cottage. Three larger cottages with kitchen facilities also are available for $175-$195, based on double occupancy. Rates include full breakfast. In addition to the March Mussel Festival, the inn holds a Dickens Dinner in mid-December.

For other accommodations, Whidbey Island Bed & Breakfast Assn. (P.O. Box 259, Langley, Wash. 98260; tel. 206-679-2276) lists 14 inns on the island.

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Where to eat: Knead & Feed (on the waterfront, Coupeville; tel. 206-678-5431) features fresh soups, salads, sandwiches and pies. It also boasts a great view of Penn Cove. Lunch for two, $15-$20.

The Captain Whidbey Inn has a dinner menu featuring local seafood, vegetables and herbs grown in the inn’s garden. Penn Cove mussels are available as both appetizers and entrees. Dinner for two without drinks, $70-$80.

What to do: Capt. John Colby Stone at the Captain Whidbey Inn sails his ketch at noon and 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays between May and September, and he charters it other times. Scheduled day cruises are $35 per passenger. Charters (two-hour minimum, six-passenger maximum) are $55 an hour or $295 a day. A 24-hour rate for a San Juan Islands trip is $350 per day. Longer voyages, including a week-long excursion, are available.

Ft. Ebey State Park (north of Coupeville off Libbey Road) offers a view of the Olympic Peninsula, mountains and hiking trails along the gravel beach and gun batteries. Lake Pondrilla is a freshwater lake renowned for bass fishing and swimming. There are 50 campsites and restrooms.

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All Island Bicycles (302 N. Main St., Coupeville; tel. 206-678-3351) has 18-speed mountain bikes, tandems and child’s trailers. The 18-speed models rent for $8 an hour or $19 for up to eight hours.

Island County Historical Society Museum (Alexander and Front streets, Coupeville; tel. 206- 678-3310). Admission is $2. A brochure is available for a walking tour of historic homes.

For more information: Contact the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce (P.O. Box 152, Coupeville, Wash. 98239; tel. 206-678-5434).


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