LANGLEY – Just six miles west of Everett and less than 20 miles north of the hubbub of Seattle is a swath of tranquility in the middle of Puget Sound perfect for an inexpensive recreation vacation.
“It’s amazing we are so close to Seattle and Everett,” said kayak guide Nick Horton, “but you take that 20-minute ferry ride and you are immediately in a pastoral setting.”
If you time the ferry right, the south end of Whidbey Island is just a 90-minute trip from Tacoma, but it might as well be a world away.
The southern end of the island has only one fast food restaurant – a Dairy Queen in Clinton – a relaxed vibe and an abundance of places to play for kayakers, dog lovers and cyclists.
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“That’s why we moved here – the island life,” said Ed Young, owner of the Whidbey Island Kayaking Co.
His home near Langley used to be a vacation home when he lived near Los Angeles, but “my wife used to cry when it was time to go home to California. We love the laid-back lifestyle here.”
While many visitors descend on the northern end of the island each summer to fish and take in the stunning vistas of Deception Pass, Young says the two ends of the island couldn’t be more different.
“We’re more liberal, they’re more conservative,” said Young, who has lived on the island for nine years. “We’re more rural, they have a Wal-Mart.”
And the local dining secret: the Shell Shack.
No, it’s not a seafood diner, it’s the Shell station in Freeland with a grill behind the counter. During a recent visit, the service station was packed and almost nobody was buying gas. They were sitting at tables inside eating cheeseburgers.
“Best burgers on the island,” Young said.
But the best reason to visit the island is the recreation.
During a two-hour paddle up Saratoga Passage, Horton pointed out plenty of wildlife.
Dungeness crabs, seals, eagles and herring for starters – but the kayaking group was hoping for a gray whale.
“This area is known colloquially as the whale highway,” Horton said. “… We’ll see gray whales in the spring and early summer, and occasionally we’ll see orcas.”
Young offers rentals and tours leaving out of Langley or Possession Point Water Front Park each day. The weather typically dictates the location, but Young is open to suggestions.
Young rents to all levels of paddlers – though he requires paddlers without proof of training to be observed – and says he hasn’t had a customer capsize a kayak in the eight years he’s been in business.
A two-hour kayak tour is $49 (including the kayak) for adults, with discounts offered for children 12 and younger. Rentals start at $65 for the first day, then $35 for additional days or $25 for the first hour and $12 for each additional hour.
More information: whidbeyislandkayaking.com.
“I never know who’s coming in the shop,” said David Gardiner, owner of Half Link Bicycle Shop in Langley. “One moment it’s a serious triathlete. The next it’s a family looking for kids’ bikes.
“That’s what’s so great about this area. There’s something for everybody.”
Gardiner said it’s hard to go wrong riding the long, hilly roads of South Whidbey. Just avoid Highway 525, South Whidbey’s main north-south artery.
“Most roads have shoulders and the traffic isn’t bad,” Gardiner said.
He has free Island County-issue bike maps at his store and enjoys recommending routes.
His favorite is a rolling and scenic ride along the waterfront via Saratoga Road.
Visiting the island by bike makes for a cheaper ferry ride ($4.95 roundtrip) than if you visit by car ($17.20).
If you don’t have a bike, you can ferry over from Mukilteo and take the free bus service (islandtransit.org) to Langley to rent a bike. Rentals start at $10 per hour or $25 per day.
More information: halflinkbikes.com.
The island has two popular areas for mountain biking.
The first, Kettles Park and Fort Ebey, is closer to the northern end of the island, but still worth considering, Gardiner said.
However, he said, Putney Woods is closer to Langley and just as good.
“I can go out there on my single-speed mountain bike and do just about everything,” Davidson said. “It’s fairly flat.”
The trails are also open to other nonmotorized users. The area gets its name from horseback rider Gary Putney, who helped maintain the trails before his death in 2006.
Mountain bike rentals are $10 per hour or $25 per day at Half Link. The bike shop also has mountain biking maps that can be downloaded from its Web site.
More information: halflinkbikes.com.
Double Bluff Park on Useless Bay is small, but it’s packed with things to do.
It’s the place to go on the island for skim boarding, kite boarding, clamming, kayaking, hiking and letting your dog run free.
“It’s pretty insane, one of the best dog parks around the Sound,” Horton said of the off-leash dog park. “It’s good to go at low tide. The dogs just go nuts.
“… The island draws tons of dog lovers. I’m always meeting people who come over for the day just to take their dog out.”
While you can hike the trails at Putney Woods, the 4-mile roundtrip beach walk at Double Bluff seems to be the most popular hike on the island’s south end. There is no parking fee at this day-use park.
More information: islandcounty.net/planning/parks.
Finding a camp site anywhere on Whidbey Island can be tricky, but options on the south end of the island are particularly limited.
“As far as camping goes,” Horton said, South Whidbey State Park “is the one good option on the south end of the island.”
In May, a campground ranger at the park said all of the campgrounds on the island are typically reserved over the weekends.
While you might be able to sneak in on a weeknight without a reservation, the ranger doesn’t recommend trying.
Campsites start at $19 per night. Camping is also available at the Island County Fairgrounds for $10 for a tent or $15 for RV hook up. There is no dump station, but there is a free shower on site, manager Sandey Brandon said. Reservations aren’t necessary.
The campground is open April through July, and September.
More information: parks.wa.gov.
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
Mountain and road bikes are available for rent at David Gardiner’s Half Link Bike Shop on South Whidbey Island, Tuesday, June 2, 2009. (Drew Perine/The News Tribune)