Our staff writer, Kendall Sussman, spent the last month on a road trip that incorporated a myriad of forms of travel- planes, trains, boats and automobiles. In this post, she takes us on a tour of a quiet island on the Pacific coast.
My husband and I are on a long meander across the country with Seattle as the pivot point. Resting across the water from the metropolitan vibrancy is a squiggle shaped island, poised like a comma between the strident life of the city and the Salish Sea leading to the Pacific Ocean.
Whidbey Island houses a Naval Air Station. Half a lifetime ago, I attended elementary school there, with my father stationed at the base, and the rest of us exploring an unanticipated commercial interruption between our stints in Philadelphia, PA and Norfolk, VA. Enticed by memories of litters of kittens in the barn loft, clumsy calves and Brownie troupe camping trips, I brought my adult self back to visit the child wraith of my past. The island can be accessed by a commuter ferry on one end and a sky-scraping bridge of vertigo on the other end called Deception Pass Bridge.
We were cradled across by the silent, undulating ferry, a fifteen-minute ride where the fog serves as a soundproofed portal to a place where time is protracted, heavy with now and unconcerned with later.
There was a chill on the ferry, so we immediately pulled into a local cottage coffee stop called Whidbey Coffee and unknowingly began an exploration of chocolate in its various states of being. We ordered one simple hot chocolate and one Coconut Maui Mocha, incongruently named given the piney mountain setting. The act of inhaling chocolate in a gas form, the simultaneous smell, taste and feel of the warm steam, triggered my sense of peace. Truly, chocolate offers a mental reprieve no matter its physical state. The hot chocolate was sharp and deep, expertly absorbing the whipped cream and the Maui glazed your palette with sweetness like savoring a caramel cream as a child. Fortified, we continued.
We drove through a pine corridor, winding along the coast until we reached the town of Langley. Stuttering memories of the statue, a boy and his dog, guarding the entrance to Sea Wall Park led us to pull up and explore.
A boardwalk staircase led down to the craggy, wild beach, thick with salty ocean gusts and isolation. Adirondack chairs peered from the treeline to watch the stage of the sea through a curtain of boughs. The far end was anchored by an enormous structure of driftwood, stripped of fancy and worn smooth by seasons of insistent tides, strong and stalwart and enriched with crannies carved by the stories of the sea. I felt a kinship with its transformed beauty as I watched a memory reel of my twelve-year old self wade in the seaweed, clad in purple leg warmers and sweet ideals.
Above, the shops along the street were reluctantly stretching awake. To fully appreciate the living character sketch of this town, leave your watch behind and follow your fancy. The stores have names like Music for the Eyes and KnittyPurls and the Star Shop and claim reluctant hours (11ish to 5ish). Ethiopian art shares space with tribal jewelry and whimsically bedazzled train cars in one window and opposite is a glass blower’s table overlooking a sculpture garden. One façade houses an outdoor theater troupe that performs Shakespeare during the summer months and admission is “pay what you will”. A transplanted San Franciscan opened a pizza joint, Village Pizza, on the corner serving authentic, succulent foldable slices. Colorful murals are stenciled on the sidewalk and an alley of trellises leads you to another collection of shops, including Sweet Mona’s Chocolates. Handmade in house, the truffles feature creative flavors, distinct against the chocolate. We tried Tahitian Vanilla Cherry, Amaretto, Milk Chai and some of the predictably popular Salted Caramels. Preferences were unattainable, chocolate in the solid state of matter is plainly perfect.
Curious, we set out to find the Chocolate Flower Farm down the road. A three-car parking lot bridges to the farm, populated by chickens, dogs and the geese, Oompah and Loompah. The proprietor, specializing in flowers with deep maroon tones, has two varieties that actually smell of melted chocolate, the yellow chocolate daisy and the Chocolate Cosmos. Uncertain whether the perpetual scent of chocolate would be soothing or torturous, I bought a packet of seeds to find out. Her renovation plans include a full garden expansion, picnic deli and timber frame outdoor kitchen. Once the gardens are restored they will be available as an event venue but in the meantime, she offers seeds and plants, fudge and jam and other gift items in her shop and online. We sampled the raspberry chocolate jam (viscous spreadable phase) and the fudge (slightly aerated, smooth solid state). Both were restorative as expected.
There are several wineries on the south end of the island, but a craft distillery beckoned instead. Ten years ago, law changes allowed legalized stills and Steve and Beverly traded retirement for a thriving whiskey and liqueur business out of a bunker on the outskirts of Langley. Whidbey Island Distillery offers what they describe as an “approachable” rye whiskey, surprisingly mild, as well as berry liqueurs. A casual tasting session narrated by Perry was enough to make me question my uninspired penchant for wine. The Loganberry Liqueur was my personal favorite, made from a cross-pollination of blackberries, raspberries and dewberries. Each year, one special blackberry batch is dedicated to supporting local charities and features wild blackberries gathered in the community. The fruit infuses the reserve blend with a unique, complex depth distinct from the more cultured versions.
Traveling north to Oak Harbor, the casual town surrounding the airfield, took about an hour. The water views flickering through the trees were eventually obscured by the unassuming town. My beloved old home, despite a facelift, still crackled with riotous memories of mishaps with my brothers. A boardwalk near the shore offered one last chance for chocolate, frozen this time, but quickly melted by the sun. Popsies, a combination popcorn, ice cream and retro-style treat shop, was perfect for rounding out my nostalgic journey.
You exit Whidbey via Deception Pass Bridge, a towering thread to Fidalgo Island. The ocean currents and tides force water through the narrow channel creating whirlpools and rapids in the waters below. Pedestrian walkways along the span offer a tingling twentieth floor perspective of the chaos. Bring some chocolate for comfort.