Saturday, July 7, 2018

Whidbey Island

After a brief exploration of the American heartland in Columbus, Indiana, we ventured to the Pacific Northwest where mountains, forest, and ocean convene, making it some of the most attractive country on earth, so we return whenever we can.  This trip was spent entirely on Whidbey Island, the largest island in the state, a short ferry ride across the Puget Sound from just north of Seattle, a fairly self-sufficient and largely historic community that is nearly 60 miles lengthwise and between 1 and 12 miles wide, so is easy to navigate by car.  Home to about 70,000 residents, an estimated 30,000 live in rural farm communities on the southern end of the island, dividing the island between north and south, with views of the Olympics and Cascade mountains, also sunrises and sunsets, depending on locations.  The picturesque Deception Pass bridge connects the far north end of the island to the mainland, traversing a small island in-between, allowing free access to the island.  Built in the Depression era 1930’s as a public works project, it replaced a local ferry, and was a major factor in the decision to build a strategically significant naval air base that inhabits the island’s north, with navy jets including the Blue Angels blazing a trail across the skies throughout the day, offering a piercing sound, though never breaking the sound barrier, something jets frequently did in the 50’s and 60’s, creating earthquake-like conditions, shattering glasses or cups, or fragile ornaments or knick knacks that would fall from tables, shelves, or mantelpieces as houses would literally shake from their foundations.  Personally, I remember sitting in church as a kid on Sunday mornings and amusingly listening to the sonic booms interrupting the minister’s sermon.  Apparently they don’t do that anymore.    

As with much of American history, the island was once inhabited by Pacific Northwest Indians, including the Lower Skagit, Swinomish, Suquamish, and Snohomish tribes, comprising the largest Native American settlement on Puget Sound.  The first European sighting of Whidbey Island was during a 1790 Spanish expedition, though they miscalculated, thinking it was only a small bay on an extended peninsula, not an island.  It wasn’t until the British expedition of George Vancouver in 1792, who was himself initially deceived as well, mapping and charting the various islands in what is now Puget Sound, when Joseph Whidbey leading a small team of sailors in small boats discovered the passageway, only then realizing the full extent of the error made by the Spaniards, which accounts for the name Deception Pass.  Of course, as in all other continents, the first non-natives to inhabit the island were Catholic missionaries in 1840 who set about converting the infidels.  White settlers didn’t arrive on Whidbey Island for another decade, the first being Colonel Isaac N. Ebey, farming potatoes, wheat, and other crops while still living in Port Townsend on the mainland, fulfilling his duties as the postmaster, rowing a boat daily across the inlet to work at the post office there, becoming what is now one of the regular ferry routes.  Ebey was killed and beheaded in 1857 by a Haida Indian, apparently in retaliation for the killing of a Haida chief.  Today the Indian presence has all but been eradicated from the island, becoming a playground for the rich, many arriving by boat or private aircraft, evolving into an almost exclusively white island in a remote setting, where artists have been part of the cultural landscape since the beginning, with a small presence of Hispanics noticeably doing much of the lower paid dirty work. 

For the first week we rented a house near the middle of the island on Long Point just outside the small town of Coupeville situated at the end of a populated block with no outlet, where the dead end turns into a peninsula bordering on Penn Cove (notorious for fabulous mussels), one of the most beautiful and private beaches on Whidbey Island, a repository for what the tide brings in, including a collection of logs of driftwood, some built into sculptures, which are heavily populated by shore birds, including herons and eagles.  While the house itself is utterly unpretentious, the location and interior design were terrific, beautifully built to reveal the backyard landscape, with spectacular 180 degree window views, with a glass door leading to a backyard deck and patio overlooking the water, with an unobstructed view of nearby Camano Island (nearly unpopulated) and snowcapped Mt. Baker (10, 782 feet) on the mainland, the northernmost Cascade mountain and third highest peak in Washington, heavily glaciated, where the volume of snow and ice makes it one of the snowiest places on earth (1140 inches in 1999).  The first thing you notice is the drastic effects of the tide, with people along with shore birds on the beach collecting mussels or clams during the afternoon as the tide goes out, seemingly calm and peaceful, yet the tide comes in with a vengeance, with heavy winds and choppy water, revealing a near surreal landscape of ferocity, like a lava flow, where it literally resembles a stream-of-conscious taking on its own lifeform.  The sheer energy of the water is something that can’t be described, but it’s a powerful force that seems to reach a midnight crescendo.  The rush of cool air noticeably drops the temperatures, providing natural icebox air-conditioning, a stark change from the afternoon sun and heat that greeted us when we arrived, improbably the hottest day of our journey, in contrast to the last week of our journey which was entirely in the clouds.  Easy to see why we rented this place, as it just breathes peace and relaxation.  This experience provided some of the greatest sunrises we’ve ever witnessed, but only briefly, as they start around 4:30 am, filling the sky with a glorious palette of colors on clear days, where one cloudy morning was an infusion of green, as if in a fog, like something filmmaker Guy Maddin might have created, but occurring so early that we tend to go back to sleep.  So much of this was not recorded, only remembered as a subconscious, near surreal experience that comes flooding into the bedroom each morning through a wall of windows, affecting you even as you sleep.  As for sunsets, one need only walk about 20 feet, as many travelled to this exact point to watch sunsets.  So both are visible at the same location, something of a rare occurrence.    

The nearby town of Coupeville is one of those quaint little towns with an historic Main Street overlooking the same Penn Cove, filled with restaurants, antiques, foot traffic and handcrafted items in small shops, where the pace of life is slow, no one’s ever in a hurry, and people actually stop and talk to one another.  This entire region is a historic district, with a history dating back to the discovery of the island, where Thomas Coupe, a sea captain and founder of Coupeville, was the only man ever to sail a full-rigged ship through the strait discovered by Whidbey.  All the coffee shops are run by local high school girls, where mixing up orders seemed to be the norm, with some customers never getting what they ordered, but the girls were so charming you didn’t want to put a damper on their day, so some people were extremely accommodating while others were utterly incensed.  This is easily the most beautiful town on the island, where just a few blocks away from the water is a conventional modern town with supermarkets, drug stores, parking lots, and a medical center.  But the area near the water is simply delightful.  The island has various art collectives, with the artists working in the gallery on a rotating basis, with most eager to chat with interested patrons.  In some cases, other artists arrived, making it feel like family.  One of the collectives had 36 artists, each chosen locally, all working in different artforms like watercolors, oil paintings, photographs, sculptures, pottery, or other unconventional styles.  While there were natural themes unique to the area, most were surprisingly conventional, using similar colors and designs, with only a few standouts.  In one gallery, perhaps the photography might stand out, utterly unlike the rest, while another might accentuate a flair for the eccentric in the use of stylization.  While it’s clear they pride themselves on their island artist colony mentality, like some utopian life choice, the actual works themselves were surprisingly tame.  Nonetheless, getting a chance to spend some time with the town elders is an altogether different experience, as they couldn’t have been more cordial, yet most seemed happy to have someone to talk to, as if they’re otherwise isolated and lonely.  We quickly discovered neighborhoods exclusively for the rich, featuring elaborate homes tucked behind the trees, most with an unobstructed view of the ocean, in what amounts to millionaire’s row.  What we learned is that it’s a seller’s market on the island, with many expensive homes for sale that are asking for big bucks, with no particular need to drop their prices, as someone will buy it at these elevated prices.  Like suburbanites moving back into the cities, buying million dollar houses, residents of Seattle are doing the same, moving off to the island for extravagant summer homes, offering them a choice where they want to be.  This is what separates the rich from everybody else, as money offers them choices, where they seem to have two or three houses, some in exotic locations, while the rest of us live in cramped apartments in heavily populated areas and can only visit places like this for a week or so. 

One of the treats of these small towns is the restaurants, some overlooking the sea, featuring mussels and clams that were gathered from the nearby waters, giving them an elevated level of freshness.  The only real breakfast place is the Knead and Feed, which is connected to the local bakery, but requires a walk down the stairs with views overlooking the water.  One of the cute aspects is ordering items from the bakery, where they routinely walk them down the stairs.  In the same vein is the Font Street Grill, with both overlooking Penn Cove.  Easily the best restaurant in town, and arguably on the island, is Oystercatcher, one street over, which is run as a fine dining establishment, though much more relaxed.  Hard not to be pleased with their offerings.  If you wish to get out of town, Oak Harbor is the largest town on the island, located on the north island about 15 miles away, but is as nondescript as you get, filled with shopping malls, traffic signals, and the overall ugliness of a metropolitan area.  There is no reason to visit this town at all except to visit one of the weirder dining establishments, Frasers Gourmet Hideaway, serving the most divine oysters we’ve ever eaten, sweet and succulent, unbelievably fresh and potent, supposedly from Vancouver about 140 miles away, but featured a waitress with polka dots under her eyes, with matching nail polish, seemingly representing the airhead population, as the mindset of much of the youth is awkwardly spacy, with people using mall vernacular, like they’re from the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, mimicked and excoriated to the fullest by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention way back in the 60’s.  Strangely enough, this strain of youth still exists on Whidbey Island where there’s next to nothing for them to do, so they hang around like packs in the metropolitan areas, probably drinking and doing drugs as often as they can to nullify the boredom of their reality, pretty much like most of small town America, though given a west coast twist.  If you travel further north to the tip of the island, the Deception Pass bridge connects you back to the mainland.  The surrounding wooded area is Deception Pass State Park, the most-visited park in Washington with over 2 million visitors each year.  When we were there on a small boating excursion, a small group of orca whales were passing through the straights, presumably targeting the sea lions that inhabit the shores of the nearby inlets and islands, which is not at all a usual occurrence, so we were treated to a special moment.  The practice for boats is to give orcas a 200 yard safety area, so they don’t crowd and suffocate their activities, but this never allows you to get very close, so all you really see are spouts of water rising from blowholes off in the distance, with the top of their fin visible for a split second before they retreat beneath the surface. 

We did go on another whale watching tour originating in Anacortes, which is just 10 miles north of Deception Pass, heading north, navigating through the collection if islands for nearly two hours, actually taking us into Canadian waters, following two different packs of orcas that are perhaps 20 to 30 feet in length, hardly the gigantic size of bull orcas in captivity typically used in Seaworld type shows, which are being phased out after the controversy raised by films like Blackfish (2013), as these animals are used to traveling 100 miles a day in the wild.  Here you’re contending not only with other professional whale watching companies, but also groups of kayakers and local sailors out for a spin, many of whom showing little regard for the spacing rules, heading right for the whales, seemingly oblivious to the consequences, where the whales are inclined to dive underwater for long periods of time to avoid contact with these nuisances.  Orcas are actually part of the porpoise family, only much larger, maintaining many of the same swimming habits of jumping out of the water as well as social traits, as the young live with their parents for years, who are responsible for feeding and protecting them, with larger male orcas often seen off to the side in a lookout role, offering protection from rival groups, though joining them during feeding.  Orcas stay together as a family unit for life, including sub-pods centered around elder grandparents or great grandparents, where the females always retain their maternal roles.  Orcas are scrutinized in this neck of the woods, identified by individual markings, such as the white patch just behind their large dorsal fin, and studied profusely, tracking their numbers to get some idea about their survival levels.  Some eat other fish and mammals, while one group only eats salmon, and are on the endangered list due to the declining salmon population.  It’s astonishing how quickly they move through the water, literally gliding effortlessly, with no signs of tiring out.  Sea lions are traumatized by their presence, escaping to heavy build-ups of kelp along the shore lines, as orcas hate kelp, easily getting entangled, so they tend to avoid it.  As you pass along these tiny islands, sea lions line the shores, but hide and remain motionless when orcas pass by, as they are the prime delicacy on the menu.  When on the attack, they often slap the desired prey with their tales, hoisting them into the air, paralyzing and disorienting them before then attacking as a group.  The common waters of their habitation are called the Salish Sea, which includes the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia, and Puget Sound, and all their connecting channels and adjoining waters, and the waters around and between the San Juan Islands in Washington State and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia.

After a week in Coupeville, we spent the next week further south in Langley, which faces Camano Island and the Washington Cascades, also noted for beautiful sunrises.  While this is another small town, just minutes from the Washington ferry, it lacks the unique charm of Coupeville, though the surrounding community is decidedly more upscale, where hidden corridors next to the water again reveal immaculate houses built on bluffs, many still hidden by the surrounding forest, where deer feed openly, even with their newborn fawns, unafraid of humans, as they perk their ears, but refuse to run away.  Langley also has a history of wild rabbits that apparently escaped from a county fair decades ago, many of which are white albino, where they literally spread “like rabbits,” populating the downtown areas, scattering across the streets with dexterity, avoiding the cars, where their biggest woe apparently is dogs released from leashes that immediately go into attack mode.  I witnessed one kid do this intentionally, finding it hilarious, urging his dog to go for the kill.  Fortunately, there’s plenty of nearby bushes and wild grasses that allow an escape.  Still, deer and rabbits openly grazing throughout town on a daily basis - - that’s pretty rare.  The town government found them to be a nuisance, plotting to eradicate them, suggesting siccing condors on them, where young children could watch them getting eaten alive, one by one.  Even Bambi or Old Yeller were just single animals.  Imagine hundreds getting attacked alive in a rabbit version of Hitchcock’s apocalyptic The Birds (1963).  Somehow this idea never caught on, so they ended up deciding it was better to just live and get along with them.  If only it were that simple for humans to do the same with each other.  One of the best places to stay is the Sarasota Inn, which also offers luscious breakfasts, among the best we’ve ever had, showing imagination and flair, where each day offered something new.  While there are art galleries in this town as well, which is larger and more spread out, featuring walks along the waterfront, and restaurants offering waterfront views, with delightful breakfasts at the remodeled Braeburn Restaurant, a rather cheerful and upbeat place to spend your mornings, with competent staff.  The best restaurant in this town is actually 17 miles away, back into the farm country, where it’s actually situated on a farm, set upon a hill overlooking a cove called Gordon’s On Blueberry Hill in Freeland, where wild reeds and open grass separate the water from the restaurant, a literal paradise for cats, where one rather healthy creature seemed to be stalking everything in sight, which we could watch out the window as we were eating dinner.  This chef has a Cajun influence, where it’s all about flavors, though his salmon was among the best prepared we’ve ever had.  While it’s out of the way and not easy to find, this was one of the best experiences of the entire trip.  The weirdest?  That would be dinner at Charmer’s Bistro in a non-descript strip mall in Freeland, which was entirely empty when we arrived, although several were sitting and drinking at the bar watching TV.  Apparently we drove past a farm with festive partying and dancing and live music, promoting an art opening or something, but apparently all the town’s customers were there, as no one was at Charmer’s Bistro, which seemed to cater only to alcoholics, as drinking was all that seemed to matter here, where every single customer was thoroughly soused.  This is unlike anyplace else we’ve ever been, except maybe a few bars in our lives, but the chef/owner Linda Coffman, probably 90 pounds dripping wet, can really cook, where her entrées are exquisite, though she can easily get sidetracked and forget all about you, getting lost in extended conversations with customers, where the staff did much the same.  When a guy asked if we’d like to see a dessert tray, we said sure, thinking it would only be a matter of minutes.  More than 30 minutes later, we thought he had left the premises altogether and gone home, but he arrives with a carefully arranged tray with all of the deserts, which he has just spent that time making, so each and every one was newly concocted on the spot.  Mind you, we were just about the only customers actually eating, though a biker couple arrived later with a couple of kids.  We asked Linda what she recommended, and without missing a beat, it was cheesecake and Brandy Alexanders.  After a drink and sharing a bottle of wine, and having to drive back, we hardly needed any more liquor.  Clearly a look of disappointment spread all over her face, as she apparently lives to serve Brandy Alexanders. 

After a few days we moved to Boatyard Inn, which is down by the wharf, literally sharing sparse parking spaces with boat owners, in one of the tiniest harbors imaginable, a long pier with just a few boats, where the owner apparently lived just above us, inhabiting two floors, while we were on the ground floor.  While promising a deck overlooking the water, it barely had enough room to fit one’s feet.  Never seen anything so scrunched in.  I can’t believe anyone actually sits out there.  Up above, the owner’s balcony is about 10 times the size, but it was designed apparently so he didn’t have to see the guests below.  Offering the exact same view as our previous accommodations, this time we never saw the mountains, as it was overcast and cloudy for the rest of the week until we left.  One of the better walks is the road just above the wharf just past the Sarasota Inn just past an empty building at 510 Cascade Avenue that used to be a 4200 square foot upscale architectural designed restaurant that has been closed for a while, now on the market for 1.5 million dollars, featuring floor to ceiling glass windows that overlook the water, with inlaid glass windows on the doors, and simply beautiful views overlooking Puget Sound and the Cascades, which includes a commercial kitchen and a parking lot (seen here:  510 Cascade Ave, Langley, WA 98260 | MLS #1351954 | Zillow).  You’d think someone would grab this, if only to live there, as it’s an amazing spot, but zoned as commercial in a neighborhood that is entirely residential  Just past that is a street on a bluff overlooking the water, with exquisitely beautiful homes set amongst a forest of trees, including some of the nicest on the entire island.  There’s a school nearby that kids could walk to on Cascade Avenue, but otherwise this is a secluded area with little traffic just outside the main area of Langley on the road to the ferry which is just 6 miles away, where across the street are farmhouses that include artist residences, where the houses are about 30 to 50 yards off the street, creating a spatial environment suitable for quiet and contemplation.       

On the final two days we moved to the Inn at Langley, which I’ve had my eye on for years, situated on the main street overlooking the water, where the accommodations were first rate, as is everything about this place, catering to the noveaux riches, including some arriving in their own boats, featuring gastronomical designer dinners that are supposedly off the charts.  The chef worked at Tru in Chicago for years (an upscale legend that closed last fall), living in Wrigleyville near the Cubs park, recalling the noise and drunken revelry from all the Cub fans, now living and working in a quiet, idyllic location, where his food preparation is second to none, serving something like a ten course meal, each a small plate of incredible invention and originality, while also being delicious.  Despite the small portions, it adds up, providing plenty of food.  This is not for everyone, but for once in our lives, we can experience something like this.  It’s a true extravaganza, living up to all the accolades, where the servers, all women, are equally delightful, making this an unforgettable experience.  It’s a grand slam to leave on this note, as honestly, this is something only few ever experience.  It couldn’t have happened to a better or more deserving couple (married for almost 28 years), so to anyone listening, salut!

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