► Population: 1,928 • Location: 1.75 hours from Seattle
Carrying a tray of edible flowers like violets and hollyhocks, a straw hat hanging artfully on her back, farmer Tonneli Gruetter makes the agricultural life look aspirational. The first 10 minutes of her walking tour of Whidbey Island’s Salty Acres Farm (saltyacresfarm.com) will ignite daydreams for the most devout urbanite. By the time she wades into Penn Cove to check the oyster bags, feeds slices of cucumber to pet pigs, and casually squeezes whey from farm cheese while chatting with neighbors, we’re sold on this rural paradise.
Salty Acres gets its name from the seasoning they make from buckets of water brought up from the cove, which dry into fluffy pyramids of salt that could be mistaken for snow. Mixed with herbs and edible flowers, it becomes a gourmet garnish. The tiny, historic farm feels like an Anne of Green Gables fantasy transposed to Puget Sound’s biggest island, a bucolic existence you can try on for a few hours in salt-making tours. But this center stretch of Whidbey is a slow-moving bubble sandwiched between a naval station up north and the southern end of an island so close to the city people can commute there daily. The long, thin island curls around Penn Cove and Coupeville, protecting it from the rest of Puget Sound; somehow everything here seems precious.
Not that the Captain Whidbey (captainwhidbey.com) needs to be protected; as it enters its newest era as a cozy destination, the hotel’s wood-beam construction has kept it as hardy as an old deckhand for 112 years. The lodge itself had settled into the damp Whidbey soil outside Coupeville like a happy toad, its ceilings so low that the interior felt more like a ship at sea. When a trio of young hoteliers purchased the inn in 2018, they pictured something a little more…Instagrammable. A year later, spruce-ups from Seattle design stalwarts like Filson (fishnet light fixtures!) and Glasswing enliven the aged cabins, and daylight bounces through the dining room thanks to the removal of a few walls.
For locals who drank and wedded and overnighted at the Captain for decades, the change was a bit jarring, but the owners kept close ties to the community; the Salty Acres family cares for the chef’s garden, and the bar pours selections from Whidbey Island Distillery.
While the farm and inn may represent idyllic small-town life, the village of Coupeville itself offers the picturesque strip of shops one always imagines (or sees in the movie Practical Magic; these blocks were bewitching enough to stand in as the movie’s enchanted town). But when it’s time to start tasting the best of the waterfront settlement, Toby’s Tavern (tobysuds.com) offers salty Penn Cove mussels by the pound. In a bar lit by beer-sign neon, the brine is sharp enough to bring any daydreamer back to reality.