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South Whidbey Island

By CARY ORDWAY
of NorthwestTravelAdvisor.com

Spend some time exploring Puget Sound and you'll be both surprised and enchanted by the islands, waterways and hundreds of miles of shoreline that provide visitors a thousand opportunities for scenic photographs that they will treasure for a lifetime. Visit the area on a sunny day and there is no more beautiful place on earth.

The amazing thing is you don't have to journey far from Seattle to experience some of the best island scenery this corner of the state has to offer. If you have the time, the San Juan Islands are an unforgettable experience. But if you don't want to travel more than an hour or so, many of the same attributes are found on Whidbey Island.

Our recent getaway to South Whidbey Island is a great example of achieving the maximum change of scenery in the shortest amount of time. From Seattle, it's just a half-hour drive or so north to Mukilteo, where the ferry landing serves as a portal to Puget Sound's island culture. The ferries run every half hour from Mukilteo to Clinton, at the southern tip of Whidbey Island.

Unless you're arriving in peak traffic - such as the Friday night getaway - most times of the day and week your wait will be fairly short. As we reached Mukilteo there are many signs directing automobile traffic to the ferry landing and, when you get there, it's a simple matter of driving through a toll booth - where you pay just a few dollars for your car and passengers - and then into a line where you'll wait several minutes for the next ferry to arrive. The Washington State Ferries have the boarding process down pat - everything moves efficiently and it is impressive that so many cars are able to get on and off the ferry in just a few minutes.

Once on the ferry, it's maybe a 20-minute voyage across the channel and, before you know it, you've arrived on the island. Signs point you to destinations further north on the island and you realize you have very quickly exchanged the busy bustle of Seattle traffic for the country roads that slither through the forested hills and valleys of Whidbey. Now, instead of row houses and endless population, you see farm houses and open fields planted with gardens or crops, with barns and fancy 4X4's that hint there are more than a few gentlemen farmers in residence here.

Take a look at your watch, and you'll find that the second hand is moving just a little bit more slowly now - or so it seems. You're on "island time" now and the sooner you get used to it, the sooner you will completely decompress - and de-stress - from your everyday job.

Our destination for the night was Langley, a quaint and exceedingly small coastal town about a dozen miles from the ferry terminal. With its historic main street - technically, it's 1st Street -- and eclectic shops, it's no surprise that this little berg is a magnet for artists and people who feel a rejuvenation of the spirit as they gaze from downtown viewpoints across Saratoga Passage to Camano Island on the other side of the water. The town is popular as a daytrip - elapsed time from downtown Seattle was well under 90 minutes - and, with the availability of several fine lodgings, also as an overnight escape.

Before we checked into our accommodations for the night, we took some time to wander around downtown. It was midweek and shopkeepers were anything but busy, no doubt looking forward to the weekend when the town is almost besieged by visitors. On this day, there were just a few cars parked downtown, just a few people browsing the shops and practically no one taking advantage of the waterfront areas where you'll find picnic tables with some of the best views in the Northwest.

If you take the time to stroll the town, you'll find places like the Garden Shed where they specialize in "chocolate" plants - but don't get too excited because these aren't the kind you eat. They're chocolate because they're dark and you can find out more if you do as we did, and explore the Chocolate Farm just up Saratoga Road from downtown.

Nearby is the Star Store, a market and mercantile that has been in business 90 years. Close by is Herb Helsel and his Langley Clock and Gallery, where you'll learn about timepieces of every variety. The best Whidbey Island artists display their work at Museo, also in the small cluster of buildings down on 1st Street. Don't miss Moonraker Books, a top regional bookstore. But the busiest place in town on this day was the Thrift Store, a remarkable collection of high-quality clothing and other used items all at bargain-basement prices.

We took a few minutes to check out the Inn at Langley, an upscale lodging on the beach adjacent to the downtown area. We talked a few minutes with chef Matt Costello and visited the elaborate and charming kitchen area. We noted the panoramic views from the inn's units, high up off the water and made a note this would be a great place to stay on a future visit.

Soon it was time to check in at our lodging we had reserved for the night - the Boatyard Inn, a unique and comfortable place to stay located on the water just a quarter mile or so from downtown. Innkeeper Mynda Myres showed us to our 600-square-foot studio suite, which turned out to be perfect for the two of us. Our suite had an excellent combination of style and utility.

With its high ceilings, the room seemed more spacious than most and featured updated furnishings, top to bottom. Only the bathroom faucets offered any hint that this was anything other than brand new. A gas fireplace kept our room as toasty as needed, while there was a dining area and a couch and chairs with a wall-mounted flat screen TV. While it didn't have a full kitchen, it did have a refrigerator, dishwasher, hot plate, counter-tops and the basic necessities for preparing something light to eat. The king-size bed was positioned in a slightly elevated part of the studio that just made the layout that much more interesting.

The elevated bed meant that, even as we drifted to sleep, we could look out of the picture windows to our calming view of Puget Sound. We also enjoyed sitting on our private deck watching the boats cruise Saratoga Passage. There are old docks nearby, protruding into the passage, but it didn't seem to diminish the view. And the inn is located on a quiet and little-used beach that was fun to explore.

We enjoyed dinner back in the downtown area at an unusually good restaurant, the Prima Bistro. The dishes here are upscale, but not over-the-top either in terms of presentation or prices. Perched on the second floor of one of the historic buildings, the restaurant was busy this midweek night - indicating a lot of favor with local residents - and the service could not have been better. Our entrees were top-notch - the Steak Frites which is Oregon beef hanger steak, blue cheese ajoli, sauteed escarole and French fries, and the Troute Grenobloise, a pan-seared rainbow trout with lemon-caper pan sauce, fiddlehead ferns and fingerling potatoes. Each was under $20.

The next day we drove about 20 minutes to South Whidbey State Park, where we topped off our short getaway with a hike down to the beach and some serious beach exploration. It's a half-mile trail that is relatively steep on the return trip, but well worth it for the picturesque views and what turned out to be complete solitude on a sunny day. While we didn't spot any whales, we did spot a nuclear submarine returning to Bangor - so it was a pretty interesting place to spend the morning before taking the short drive back to the ferry and our return to civilization.

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