Whales, trails & art: Accessible travel on Whidbey Island

Shoulder season can be an ideal time to visit the Salish Sea’s ferry-optional island

Fair winds and calm seas are never a guarantee in the Pacific Northwest, especially north of Seattle, among the San Juan Islands of the Salish Sea in Washington State. As our family of four found, options for family friendly, accessible travel on Whidbey Island abound—and the weather can surprise you in good ways too. Shoulder seasons such as spring and fall bring opportunities for clear and sunny conditions, activities that fit a range of mobility and accessibility needs, and virtually no chance of big crowds.

Ultimately, Whidbey Island is a space of calm, reconnection, and regeneration. From parks to inclusive communities, Whidbey is a natural match for the visitor seeking calm, connection, and regeneration.

We want to thank Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism for sponsoring our visit. However, this article reflects our own personal opinions and experiences.

Whidbey Island travel options can work for a range of mobility impairments and conditions

Like many travelers, our family of four—Anthony, Jodie, 11-year-old Connor, and 8-year-old Aster—make our travel plans with mobility impairments in mind. Jodie is an above-the-knee amputee who uses a prosthetic leg and a trekking pole, so we seek out activities and attractions that work for her augmented walking.

During our few days on Whidbey Island, we encountered whales, paved trails lined with sculptures, inclusive creative spaces, and delicious dining—accessible for visitors with a range of mobility considerations or impairments, and great for kids too.

What is (and where is) Whidbey Island

Whidbey Island can feel like it exists in its own universe, yet this land-accessible island is at the heart of the connection between the mainland and the Salish Sea’s islands. The southern end of Whidbey lies due west of Everett and Mukilteo, just north of Seattle. A short ferry ride from Coupeville, in the central part of Whidbey, provides a lifeblood connection between the San Juan Islands, the Olympic Peninsula, and the Seattle/Tacoma area.

Whidbey is also a ferry-optional island. A green, dramatic, beautiful bridge over the Salish Sea’s vibrant waters connects the north end of Whidbey Island to Fidalgo Island, which is connected to the mainland via bridge.

More importantly, telling the kids we were driving to an island brought a lot of giggles.

Oak Harbor: an excellent base for your Whidbey Island travels

Whidbey Island’s three main towns—Oak Harbor, Coupeville, and Langley—are located on the island’s respective northern, central, and southern sections. Looking at Oak Harbor on a map, the surrounding scoop of Skagit Bay looks like a cresting wave, but the inset town typically has calm beaches, strewn with driftwood like toy building logs in a child’s room. Accessible travel on Whidbey Island extends to this vibrant town.

From the Naval Air Station—complete with two display planes, an EA-6B Prowler and an A-6 Intruder—to an array of local and chain restaurants, stores, and other businesses, Oak Harbor made a scenic hub for our family’s recreation, dining, and more.

Windjammer Park, Oak Harbor

A long, grassy park gives visitors and locals ample space to play games, relax on the grass, or make use of one of the large public recreation shelters. The park also offers ample parking and mobility-friendly access to a wide, level, concrete path that runs parallel to the beach, connecting Windjammer Park with town and with smaller yet beloved Flintstone Park to the east. Visitors and locals were out enjoying the air—not to mention the rare view of Mt. Baker, a prominent peak in the North Cascades to the east—on a warm, clear spring evening.

On the accessible path, Jodie and Anthony sat on a bench and took in the view of faraway Mt. Baker, the hooked peninsula on the opposite side of Oak Harbor, the Skagit Bay before us, and above all, our free-romping children.

The moment we reached the path, the children saw the sand, the rocks, and, most importantly, the driftwood. Pausing a moment to take off their shoes and socks, they hit the beach with bare feet and immediately began building little structures from small lengths of driftwood. The broad, calm beach gave us parents peace of mind as we chatted about our travel plans over the next few days, and enjoyed watching our kids play independently, with lots of movement, creativity, and freedom.

Dining in and around Oak Harbor

Rústica

Oak Harbor is home to dozens of restaurants, from local faves to chains we recognized. As we wandered along the waterfront from Windjammer Park though, we knew exactly where we were headed.

The steel panels and woodwork of Rústica impart a sense of comfort, cooking expertise, and a dash of fun (they also have kid-sized selections of pastas and pizzas). The Italian-style restaurant served a hearty yet balanced lasagna, with sumptuous beef braised in red wine, lightened on the palate by the tang and creaminess of mascarpone. Area seafood shines in many dishes, such as the garlicky clam linguine, where the herbs and aromatics lifted the clams, highlighting instead of covering their fresh, briny flavor.

We finished with cannolis, whose crispy shells encased a light texture and hints of orange.

“I’m very content with my life,” said Connor. “Once I have ten more of these cannolis.”

Seabolt’s Smokehouse

A laid back, low-key, popular, and family friendly local seafood restaurant, Seabolt’s Smokehouse serves surf-and-turf, fish and chips, and a hearty seafood stew with garlic bread on the side.

The Farm Stand

Ice cream, farm-fresh produce, pickles, and preserves await. The Farm Stand is right off Highway 20 just north of Oak Harbor. Follow the smell of vanilla from the waffle cones being freshly cooked in a row of irons behind the ice cream counter.

Whale watching with Deception Pass Tours

The first rule of whale watching? You never know what you’re going to get.

From Cornet Harbor on the north side of Whidbey Island, two bald eagles circled high overhead as our Deception Pass Tours open deck boat rounded the northeastern corner of the island. The only white in the sky was not clouds, but the snow on 10,000-foot Mt. Baker.

As we watched for whales in between Whidbey and Camano Islands, the mainland was always in sight. The north end of Camano can be a popular whale hangout, especially for gray whales, who consider the area a bountiful feeding ground. While a gray’s ten-foot blow can be visible from 5 miles away, we spied not one sign.

Giving up?

Amidst the blue water and the calm, clear air, we chatted about how the weather had finally turned lucky. Whale sightings were less so though. There had been promising reports of gray whales around Port Susan, but all we saw were the snow-capped Cascades to the east.

The captain turned the boat around. We had run out of time and needed to head back.

That’s the thing about whale watching. You don’t know if you’ll have sightings, but at least you can be confident of a lovely boat ride.

Then our guide began to shout and point. Off the port, or left, side of the boat, the back of a gray whale skimmed the surface. Spouts of misty water fountained into the air. More of the whale appeared as it made a shallow dive, then dipped back into the water. The third time, the whale stayed down.

“They’re usually down around three or four minutes,” said our guide. “Then they come back up.”

Four minutes later, the whale resurfaced and repeated its spouting and shallow dives. The fluke, or tail, flashed bright in the sun as the whale dove under again. We all cheered, and as the boat turned back toward Whidbey Island, all of us held that image in our minds—a moment of joy, shared as a family.

Coupeville combines creativity and coveside charm in a historic small town

While you can catch the ferry to Port Townsend from Coupeville, the main town in the central section of Whidbey Island, Coupeville deserves a good, long stop and wander.

Coupeville’s hills and slopes can make navigating the area more challenging. However, the east-west grid streets can be flatter. On our first visit we parked a little uphill from town, in the large parking lot next to the local public library. This is also the site of many local events, such as a community spring plant sale. As we walked the few blocks downhill to Front Street, the main downtown thoroughfare, people wandered past, optimistically carrying trays and boxes of plants for spring sprouting.

Make art, and friends, at Meet Market, Coupeville

When Andrew Ziehl and Cade Roach moved west from Massachusetts to Seattle, they knew they were on the right track. As they planned to start a family, the couple wanted to find a quieter space, closer to nature, but with a tight-knit, inclusive community.

When they found Coupeville, they knew they had found home.

The two also realized that an evolving area like Whidbey Island needed something else: A brightly lit, welcoming, creativity-inspiring, free maker space.

Today, the Meet Market is not only a public space where people make use of free art supplies, as well as attend art workshops and purchase their own supplies to support their creative endeavors. It’s an inclusive haven for people, especially youth and teens, who are trying to figure out their identities, understand their true selves, and find strong roots in a supportive community.

Our family settled both at paint-speckled tables inside and on the back patio (where some tables were strewn with puzzles and other activities). Around us, art supplies groaned from racks of shelves along the walls. Small sets of desktop drawers held materials such as buttons, chess pieces, dominoes, and shells.

As we snipped paper, brushed out watercolors, and dabbed glue sticks, people came in and out. While Meet Market recently celebrated its first birthday, some of the islanders are still learning about the space. Two senior citizens were planning a garden art project and had just learned about Meet Market. Their eyes shone as they looked around.

“We hadn’t seen this space yet,” they said. “Now that we have, we love it.”

Dining in and around Coupeville

Front Street Grill

Located right on the waterfront behind Front Street (and check out the rear balcony overlooking the cove), Front Street Grill doesn’t just have fine dishes, prepared with care and local ingredients, not to mention delicious kid friendly options, such as a shatteringly crispy fish and chips.

Along with a curated menu of salads, soups, sandwiches, and burgers (including the delectable lamb burger), you’ll find a selection of dishes featuring Penn Cove Mussels, not to mention a chicken waffle sandwich, with maple-bourbon marinated chicken between two thick waffles.

Sunshine Drip

Pastries, eggs, coffee, and more from Sunshine Drip bring breakfast and brunch satisfaction. A loaf of potato bread also makes an excellent takeaway companion for a picnic later, and the sizable scones don’t skimp on the blueberries.

Hike the art at the accessible Price Sculpture Forest trail, Coupeville

A couple of miles east of Coupeville, just south of the approach to Long Point, the cedars and firs transformed into an accessible art museum.

The Price Sculpture Forest quickly became one of our family’s favorite spots on Whidbey Island. While the 4-foot-wide, flat surface is made of tightly packed dirt and gravel, Jodie found getting around the 0.6-mile Nature Nurtured trail both easy and enjoyable, especially with the aid of her trusty trekking pole.

The cedar forest enhanced the trail’s self-reflective feel. Then, every few feet, there was art. The broad range of sculptures and materials varied from the metal of Soaring Eagle to the elevated whimsy of Vertebrae. Some sculptures made us stop, ponder, and discuss. Others simply made us grin, laugh, tear up, or shrug.

Accessible travel on Whidbey Island extends to hiking too. Introspection and serendipitous joy can be part of any hike or wander in the woods. But coming together the way they do at the Price Sculpture Forest, we left with quiet smiles and hearts ready not only for our next adventure, but for the ferry onward.

Mobility friendly travel awaits on Whidbey Island

Accessible travel on Whidbey Island? Yes. Whidbey Island is a place where the community brings together beautiful shared spaces, with a desire to welcome appreciative guests seeking rejuvenation and connection. 

For us, a sign on the island summed it up best: “May you have fair winds and calm seas.”

It’s about the best someone on an island in the Salish Sea can hope for anyone, from a good sailing to a heart that leaves the island knowing calm, peace, and the appreciation of a good place.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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