It’s amazing that such a place like Whidbey Island exists mere minutes away from a sprawling Seattle metropolis, and the twenty minute Mukilteo to Clinton Ferry is all that’s needed to refresh the canvas to begin a new adventure. The long and narrow stretch of land takes command in the Puget Sound, spanning 55 miles — from the Clinton Ferry Terminal (on the south) to dramatic Deception Pass (on the very north end.) So, after enjoying rural country roads, the arrival to the historic 1907 Captain Whidbey feels like a journey through time, to a quieter, more peaceful existence. The island hotel rests on a high bank overlooking Penn Cove, famous for producing world-class seafood and reminiscent of coastal nooks in Ireland. One glance at the welcoming bright red door nestled amongst the red-barked madrona trees will inspire you to leave all your electronic devices, and other worldly demands, in the car parked amongst the fir trees.
This article reviews the experience at Captain Whidbey, including helpful information to choose the best room at this hip island hotel.
Penn Cove, world-famous for mussels, is an abundant inlet on the east side of Whidbey Island, roughly halfway up the narrow island — facing Mt. Baker and the Cascade Mountain range. Quaint Coupeville, Washington also rests along this peaceful body of water and is just up the road from the iconic inn. The original lodge was built in 1907 by father/son team Chris and Edward Fisher, and the love put into the simple post and beam construction is felt throughout the madrona log building. The property provided a variety of services until focusing on guests as a hotel from the 1940’s to present day. Within the last few years the island hotel was sold to a group that owns such businesses as the Ace Hotel and Rudy’s Barbershop and they clearly infused the charming landing with just the right modern Pacific Northwest vibe.
Captain Whidbey doesn’t try to be anything but a welcoming, soulful island hotel
The magic of Captain Whidbey holds space for both quirky, charming history and comfortable amenities that surprise and delight in each nook and cranny of the creaky lodge structure. The beds are updated and comfortable, while linens ensure sleeping blissfully under the stars as cool salty night air lightly blows through a window left ajar. A chalk board easel greets guests in the arrival lobby with events, services, featured drinks of the day and other thoughtful information. The eclectic lobby sports a nautical theme complete with a round, gold clad porthole on the forest green door leading to a wrap-around porch perfect for morning coffee — which is provided by the friendly staff near the front desk.
Park the car, leave the technology behind and wander the land, grazing on natural charm amongst proud firs and colorful madrona trees. Explore the historic dock that once greeted ferry passengers from Everett and Seattle and walk (carefully) along the rocky bank amongst the early morning mist. Wind through the whimsical fenced garden complete with a family of birdhouses and dahlia delights in the twilight of summer. Circle the lagoon and cross over a foot bridge arched over a tiny brook that connects the peaceful lake with the ebb and flows of the Penn Cove tides. Communing with nature feels like ‘enough’ — where time stops and the wonder of a quieter pace allows the mind to roam free.
Getting to Whidbey Island and Captain Whidbey
A getaway to Captain Whidbey starts with a traveling adventure to reach the rural seaport. The island hotel is only 60 miles from Seattle, but the options are a little more complicated than simply jumping on the interstate. For more specific information on the three main vehicle options, including stops along the way, check out the GoogleMap below.
- The most common option is utilizing the Mukilteo Ferry, which operates between the mainland terminal (near Everett, WA) and tiny Clinton, on the southern end of Whidbey Island. The route is the busiest in the Washington State Ferry system, so there seems to be a sailing every 30 to 40 minutes most of the day. A vehicle under 22′ is $9.90 for car & driver while passenger fees ($5.55 per person) apply for additional travelers. Note passenger fees aren’t charged on the return from Clinton. Once on the island, stop at Langley for a seaside meal and wander along country roads to the island hotel. All in, this itinerary is 60 miles and 1:40 hours, including ferry time (assuming no delays associated with ferries.)
- A very scenic adventure that doesn’t involve dependency on a ferry takes a journey north on Interstate 5, cutting over to dramatic Deception Pass. I wrote about an excellent day trip to this iconic State Park in an article about a Day trip from Seattle to Anacortes. The tradeoff, if not stopping to walk across the swaying bridge, is only about twenty additional travel minutes. Stop in LaConner, WA for a bite to eat along the way, explore Deception Pass State Park ($10 parking fee or Washington State Parks Discovery Pass) before continuing on to the final destination. All in, this itinerary is 100 miles and 2 hours, not including the stops suggested.
- Another option, to travel via Port Townsend, is more about the journey verses a timeline to reach the Penn Cove lodge. It definitely requires more planning, as the Port Townsend to Coupeville Ferry is best with reservations ahead of time. On a good day the aqua-adventure provided by the two ferries (Seattle to Bainbridge Ferry & Port Townsend to Coupeville Ferry) offers inspiring city views and a sublime introduction to the Olympic Mountains. Ferry charges for both legs add up to $29.15 for car & driver and $12.85 per additional passenger (there is no passenger fee from Bainbridge Island back to Seattle.) This also opens up an opportunity to stay for a night or two in the Victorian hamlet Port Townsend before venturing onward to the island hotel. All in, this version of the journey is 70 miles and 3 hours.
- Kenmore Air offers charters on float planes between convenient Lake Union in Seattle directly to the Penn Cove dock just steps from the doors of Captain Whidbey. The flight takes about 45 minutes each way and is the cherry on top of the sundae — truly a spiritual experience to fly amongst the islands of the Salish Sea.
Weather and planning in the Pacific Northwest
If living anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, you know that the weather can always be wet west of the Cascade Mountains any time of year. This is an even more important consideration when exploring the islands of the Salish Sea — an area known for ample amounts of precipitation. Take layers, especially because early mornings any time of year can be cool, opening up to warmer afternoons and evenings. Once the sun sets the usual is back to hoodie conditions. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t present with obvious heat and beach-like conditions, but the sun still has power, especially in the summer around the vast amounts of water. Be mindful of the rays and be sure to wear sunscreen and take plenty of water if planning longer hikes.
It might also be a good idea to have a cooler bag along to store snacks and drinks for picnic areas, in addition to water, cups and extra hand sanitizer. Although at the time of this writing Island County (where Captain Whidbey is located) is open to limited in-restaurant seating, most options feel like glorified take-out. Even though you can practically see Seattle, a slower pace of life, less customers and COVID-19 mean that nothing is guaranteed to be open. With very few exceptions, food and drink options on Whidbey Island close by 8pm. Resist the urge to place trust in Google information. It’s a must to call ahead anywhere to get an accurate read on operating hours and services.
Whidbey Island is abundant with nature and peace of mind but not with the typical options available in busier parts of the Pacific Northwest. Uber is not alive here and cabs are sparse and expensive.
As for fees, the Washington State Parks on Whidbey Island require a Discovery Pass ($30 where you buy fishing and hunting licenses) or $10 day fee. The county parks don’t seem to suggest payment though I always try to keep a few small bills, preferably in $5 increments, in my car just in case.
I recently took a trip with a Tesla S series which was enlightening to gain a better understanding around planning a visit to Whidbey Island with an electric vehicle. There is more information below on this topic but be sure to plan carefully if intending to travel via electric juice.
The best rooms at Captain Whidbey
Charming Captain Whidbey is available to book on search engines like Expedia, but in the COVID age I prefer to keep the relationship less complicated by booking direct with lodging. Plus, at the time of my last visit I received two tokens, good for two drinks at the cozy lobby bar, for posting my upcoming stay on social media. The site offers a good overview of the grounds with a map that outlines the three main room options. While the photos on the site are beautiful, the categories can seem a bit murky, so here is some more information that might help make a decision.
- Historic Lodge Rooms. There is something about sleeping within the walls of the original historic building that invigorates me. The cozy feeling walking down the creaky stairs to an intimate living room lobby reminds me of the Bob Newhart show — a sense of belonging to the big picture. Granted, the ceilings are low and sound travels, but the comfortable bed and inviting linens set up for a successful night, content in the glow of the moon bouncing off the sea. The lodge rooms are not en-suite, but the nearby bathroom and shower areas are finely apportioned with rich scents, thick towels and a feeling of being a guest at a family compound. The lodge hosts 10 regular rooms and two suites and I recommend spending a little extra for the Penn Cove view.
- The Cabins. Imagine sipping wine from a private deck perched above a steep bank — viewing the pinks of sunset over Penn Cove through a rich collection of native trees. This area of the property feels more secluded, and with a fireplace, king size bed and private veranda, has everything to make a memorable island hotel stay. Although the feeling is removed from the hustle and bustle, these spaces are mere steps from the tavern and main lodge, combining the best of both worlds.
- The Lagoon Rooms. The word “lagoon” takes me back to my days watching Gilligan’s Island, and in a small way, the peaceful saltwater washed space reminds me of the inventive nature of the eclectic crew of characters. Maroon yourself with a good book on one of the Adirondack chairs strategically positioned for optimal views of water and textured forest or lounge in a hammock under friendly fir and pine trees. The setting is equally as beautiful as the lodge view, with a peaceful, healing vibe. The 13 rooms are more modern, with a Scandinavian feel and offer the creature comforts of en-suite bathrooms and stylish accents.
Service at Captain Whidbey
If the assembled logs, procured on-site to create the spirited building, could speak, they’d suggest that much in the external world has changed over the years. Yet, through all the calamities and world events, she continues on, largely untouched by time. The current COVID crisis requires a more empathic and patient traveler — open to changing rules and ambiguous service options. The staff at Captain Whidbey do their best to adapt quickly to the economic realities that struggle amongst rules to ensure guest safety.
The local tavern that lives in most of the space on the main level of the island hotel protrudes out onto a two-tiered deck with festive bulb lights that cast a soft glow over the space in the evening. A few plush couches are well positioned to foster lazy afternoon conversation while taking in the salty air with seagulls flying above. At the time of this writing, excellent quality food is still prepared by the kitchen but orders are placed at the bar area and the food must be consumed outside on the decks. Call this a “hybrid” experience of take out served on hip silver trays and clay pots of chowder. The macaroni and cheese is the wonder comfort food while sitting on the deck chatting with friends. The crab roll is exquisite in the balance between meat, sauce and perfect soft texture of sourdough bread. Enjoy all the menu options with a full bar. There is not table service per se, but the staff work hard to provide a unique experience amongst their COVID constraints.
The breakfast offerings align with continental breakfast fare, think morning delights like greek yogurt and a homemade granola bar — and completing a form by 8pm the night before is required. In the morning check with the front desk for a delightful care package which can be eaten inside the lodge. Coffee and tea are provided by the friendly front desk staff. Otherwise, nearby Coupeville, WA, just a few miles up the scenic road that winds through quick Penn Cove glances, is the best bet for feeding ‘hanger’ pains or procuring picnic items.
An easel welcomes guests to the island hotel lobby with all kinds of information that changes daily about the services offered, like s’mores by the fire. Inquire with the front desk about the variety of options to create the perfect respite experience on the property. The fall and winter are much quieter here and might limit the service level, so engage with an open mind.
COVID throws the wrench into a lot of the water sport activities, but they do exist here in varying degrees. Check with the front desk staff on renting canoes and kayaks as well as boating activities, whale watching and fishing expeditions.
Like many rural areas, Whidbey Island is not quite on the precipice of technology when it comes to providing support to electric vehicles — charging stations are fairly scarce or require staying at the property hosting the service. Captain Whidbey makes an attempt to connect a spark, with two electrical outlets on the shake side of an out-building adjacent to the Lagoon wing of rooms. Between the two outlets there are parking spaces and plugs for four cars on a first come, first served basis. Also, the charge comes from a 110v current that typically provides enough energy to add 4 miles to the battery every hour. Still, this is a great resource for road-trippers to plug in overnight and gain an additional 50 miles of driving distance. I’ll also note that while I love the staff at Captain Whidbey, on my latest electric vehicle experiment, several of them were not aware of this option — so be persistent if needing electric juice.
Things to do on Whidbey Island
It’s tempting to keep snuggled under the delightful mixture of wool blankets and silky linens as a light breeze breathes sea life into a wood-paneled bedroom. Or, only wander a few steps to stay put on a comfy Adirondack chair with a book while soaking up the powerful energy of the water and surrounding collage of red peeling madrona bark against bright green fir needles. However, if exploration calls, Whidbey Island has magic in every direction — nature and historic charm. The following are located in the vicinity of Captain Whidbey but check the Google Map above for a complete list of my suggestions.
- Ebby’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Imagine winding coastal roads that meet up with driftwood forts and flowing sea mist. This seaside wonder is part of the larger park, which also houses historic Fort Ebby. It’s easy to reach the beach, but be careful with rocks and logs. Even car-sightseeing is easy here while perching the car along the side of the road that stands only a few feet from the crashing surf.
- Fort Ebby. This fort was a key strategic location during the earlier part of the 1900’s and now offers a glimpse into bygone military facilities. I like the easy mile-long trail that follows the edge of a steep cliff between the Fort Ebby beach access and the actual fort.
- Fort Casey. This fort has a similar feel to Fort Ebby, but feels more open and vast, with sweeping views of the water and Olympic Mountains. Close to the Coupeville Ferry Terminal, enjoy a picnic on one of the tables in the grassy meadows around a restored cannon.
- Historic Coupeville. This short spit of commercial building oozes history and charm and some of the best restaurants on the island live here. Head out to the end of the pier for sunset hues of pinks and purples shining against majestic Mt. Baker.
Day trip options to nature from Captain Whidbey
There are many ways to explore Whidbey Island — including day-trips from Seattle and loops through the San Juan Islands or Olympic Peninsula. I also enjoy setting up a home base in an inspiring location like Captain Whidbey and taking day trips from the island hotel outbound — always knowing the charm of this historic lodge is waiting for an evening return to blissful sleep. If you appreciate this approach then take the following day-trip options under advisement.
- Deception Pass State Park. Famous bridge spans a dramatic gap in rocks where the powerful flow of tides whips frenetic currents. The State Park offers all varieties of adventure, from driving up and walking across the harrowing bridge to longer hikes on the north end of the park around Rosario Beach and Lighthouse Head. I write more about this on another post, Day trip from Seattle to Anacortes, WA.
- Langley, WA and South Whidbey Island. The community around Langley hosts great farmer’s markets, landing strips attached to coffee houses, and nature-steeped South Whidbey State Park. The striking cliffs against Olympic Mountains on display at Double Bluff County Park are not to miss. Check the Google Map above for my recommended stops.
- Port Townsend. Captain Whidbey is just a quick jump to the Coupeville to Port Townsend Ferry, which is a 20-minute delight of crossing the busy Strait of Juan de Fuca. Be ready for views of the majestic Olympic Mountains as the Victorian seaport town approaches in the mist. It’s easy to park and walk onto the marine vessel ($3.80 each way) and if wanting to drive be sure to make reservations since the ferry is smaller and less frequent than some of the other routes in the system. Wander amongst beautiful restored Victorian buildings and munch on the local food scene. If time allows check out Fort Worden and the lighthouse on the grounds.
- La Conner, WA. This historic little town adjacent to the Swinomish Tribal lands swells up with visitors coming to view the vibrant patchwork of tulips in the spring. However, this cute enclave serves up good food and character any time of the year. This day-trip option is about enjoying the countryside.
Leave no trace and take nothing but great memories
No matter the length of time or amount of actives, the historic lodge that embodies Captain Whidbey is show stopping, worthy of taking time to steep in the abundance of nature. Key elements of water, air, wind, earth and forest combine to produce a soul nourishing experience. I hope this review helps to inspire a visit to one of my favorite parts of the world.