How to Plan a Solo Trip to Whidbey Island, Washington

Rivulets streamed down the inside of my head-to-toe rain gear. I stood on a promontory, gleeful as a child, watching harbor seals dart about in the cold water below. Farther offshore, a lone elephant seal fished for its lunch, and, in a rocky inlet, an otter bobbed along on its back, a crab clutched between its front paws. It was the start of the rainy season, and I was seeking solitude on Whidbey Island.

Located about 35 miles north of Seattle, the island is often overshadowed by the San Juan Islands, the archipelago farther north in Puget Sound that is better known, and less developed. But it shouldn’t be. Whidbey is easier to get to — just take the 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland town of Mukilteo — and has fewer crowds. 

I wanted to experience the entire length of the island without doubling back, so instead of the ferry, which goes to the southern tip, I drove two hours from Seattle and crossed the Deception Pass Bridge, a historic span that connects Whidbey from the north. It was a dramatic entrance, with the fog thick and the rain coming down in sheets. Rather than going directly to my hotel, I made a detour to Deception Pass State Park and stopped at a parking lot that overlooked a shallow bay, relieved to see no other cars. 

From left: The seafood shack at the inn; guests floating in Penn Cove.

Belathée Photography/Courtesy of Captain Whidbey

This was my first plane trip since the pandemic. I was also newly separated from my partner and had left our young twins at home in New York’s Hudson Valley. Now that I’d flown across the country, I wanted to commune with the woods and the water, alone.

I followed the trail markers, crossed a pebbled beach, and climbed a steep cliff hugged by Douglas firs. The trees were no defense against the rain, but I was already soaked and had ceased to care. I clambered across rocky outcroppings until I came to a clearing. And it was there that I spotted the first seal. I don’t know how long I stayed, only that, with the sea mammals unaware of my presence, I felt blissfully small. When my fingers grew numb, I wended my way back to the car and drove south, my windows fogged from the damp. 

From left: Salmon with salad at the Captain Whidbey; a cabin with a fireplace.

Belathée Photography/Courtesy of Captain Whidbey; Lexi Ribar/Courtesy of Captain Whidbey

Whidbey Island is only about 40 miles long, but with mostly winding two-lane roads, it feels much larger. I drove about a half-hour, past the main town of Oak Harbor, and arrived at the Captain Whidbey, a 1907 inn on Penn Cove that was recently modernized. I stayed in the Glasswing cabin, which has wood paneling, a fireplace, and a balcony overlooking the cove. I wrapped my still-damp body in a wool blanket and took in the view. A great blue heron stood stock-still on the hotel’s long dock. I was amazed by its ability to stay motionless.

The heron remained there even after I changed into dry clothes and walked to the main lodge for an early dinner at the bar. I’d brought a book to signal to the bartender I wasn’t seeking company; she graciously left me alone after bringing a perfect rye Manhattan and several small plates. Back in my cabin, I took a hot bath and fell into a long sleep. 

An art-filled cabin at the Captain Whidbey.

Lexi Ribar/Courtesy of Captain Whidbey

In the morning, I took my coffee on the balcony. The heron was there again. (Had it been there all night?) The day unfolded slowly and blessedly free of plans. I spent the morning at the 151-acre Greenbank Farm, which has a café and miles of dog-friendly trails. Just as I reached the top of the first rise, the clouds moved aside to reveal the snowy tops of the Cascade Mountains on the mainland. Then I headed into the woods and walked for hours, emerging only when I realized how hungry I had become. 

Luckily, it was only a 15-minute drive to the sleepy village of Coupeville. I ate a heaping bowl of Penn Cove mussels with fries and drank a beer at Toby’s Tavern. I meandered through town, popping into the Kingfisher Bookstore (the island has a flourishing literary community) and across the street to Briggs Shore Ceramics, which occupies a narrow house. I found myself wondering about the heron, which I’d come to think of as a steward of the cove. I returned to the Captain Whidbey to find it still on the dock. 

The Inn at Langley.

Courtesy of The Inn at Langley

The following day, I bade farewell to the bird and continued south along a road flanked by small farms. The rain had returned, but I hardly noticed it under the towering canopy at Trustland Trails Park, where I spent the morning looking for mushrooms. I walked until I was ravenous, then drove into Langley, a small city with a couple of wineries and an arts center. At the Saltwater Fish House & Oyster Bar, I ordered raw oysters, a green salad, and a hearty chowder, along with a flinty white wine. 

Full and tired, I walked a few minutes to the Inn at Langley, where I’d spend my final night. My room was flooded with light and had unobstructed views of Puget Sound. I made an afternoon of soaking in the tub and cooling off in the briny air of my balcony. The sky had cleared by then, so I walked to the beach, stopping to look at starfish and driftwood. A trio of older women emerged from the sound in cold-water wet suits. I admired their physical strength and grit; they seemed as much creatures of the island as the heron did. 

I woke to sunshine on my final morning. After lingering over the inn’s sumptuous breakfast, I drove to the Deer Lagoon Preserve, a bird sanctuary flanked by steep cliffs. The sun was so bright I could hardly see the goldeneyes, grebes, and sandpipers through my binoculars. I wanted to stay, but I had a ferry to catch. My time on the island had pulled me out of my narrowed world, and brought me back to myself. Strange, how being far away can bring about a feeling of homecoming. Like that heron, I needed to return to my community, my family, my perch.  

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Breaking Away.

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