Joy Ride: Whidbey Island, or Drinking With Strangers Who Are Now Friends

All winter long I’ve been collecting ideas for day trips and weekend adventures. Gorgeous places to camp and hike, precarious cliff-top B&Bs, odd geological formations–if it sounds fun, it goes in my daydream Northwest Travel file.

On Saturday I checked off one of of those things: a cycling wine tour of Whidbey Island.

View Whidbey Wine tour–Jessie route in a larger map

Whidbey is the perfect day trip from Seattle—it’s only a 30-minute drive to Mukilteo, which means that if you time the ferry right you can be on the island within an hour. The trick, of course, is timing the ferry.

The day I went, the Saturday of Memorial Weekend, there was a line of cars backed up for several miles. One woman I met on the island said she’d caught the 2:00 ferry—but had been in line since noon.

Fortunately, I had a secret weapon: my bicycle. I drove past the cars waiting on the shoulder, parked in the public lot by Diamond Knot Brewery, and just hopped on my bike for a short ride to the ferry. Suckers!

(A note: the public parking lot doesn’t allow overnight parking. I was told later by an islander that if you plan to spend the night on Whidbey, you should park near the train station instead. [Updated 8/21/13—Overnight parking isn’t allowed by the train station, either. Check out my post on bike camping Whidbey for details.])

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Konita on the ferry

By the way, unlike other ferries where cyclists enter through the car lanes, at the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry just head to the dock where the pedestrians are waiting. You can pay there, and you get to bypass all the parked cars. A round trip is $5.60.

Whidbey Island is a total dream for biking. The shoulders are wide, the traffic is minimal and courteous, and the hills are of the enjoyable rolling variety (for the most part). There was a fair amount of “share the road” signage, and there are even bike racks shaped like whale tails near the Clinton ferry terminal. How adorable is that?

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Whale bike racks

Best of all, when I mentioned my problems with goat heads in the Rattlesnake Hills to an islander, I got a blank stare. “What are goat heads?” he asked. Folks, Whidbey Island is a little piece of heaven.

All Island Transit buses are free, and they all come equipped with bike racks. So if you wanted to strike out into the northern part of the island but didn’t want to spend hours biking along the side of the highway, you could easily just throw your bike on the bus. This bus shelter even has a pump to top off your tires.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Bike rack with pump

I met my first hill coming out of the ferry terminal. It starts out, um, aggressively, but quickly settles into a pretty relaxed climb. When I was first planning out this trip, I hadn’t really looked at how far apart things really were, so I was pleasantly surprised to spot a sign telling me that Langley was only 6 miles away. I’d been expecting more like 10-12.

I arrived at my first destination, Spoiled Dog Winery, much sooner than I expected.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Spoiled Dog Winery

The dogs behind the name are a pair of gorgeous Australian shepherds that are fully aware of the effect their beauty has on visitors. Even though I’m not much of a dog person, I still had to excuse myself in mid-conversation whenever one of them came to demand pets from me. The softness of their ears was spellbinding.

The wines were lovely, as well. Most wineries on Whidbey get their grapes from Eastern Washington, though some do grow grapes for their white wines and Pinot Noirs on the island. Spoiled Dog specializes in Pinot grapes, and has a really nice lineup including a Rosé and even a verjus, which they make with grapes that don’t get ripe enough to be made into wine.

When I was there, they were doing a barrel tasting of one of their reserve Pinot Noirs, which they’d bottle on the spot for you if you wanted to buy it.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Spoiled Dog Winery 2

I like traveling alone. I don’t do it often these days, but it has its advantages—the main one being that it gets me out of my shell and forces me to make friends. I think of myself as an introvert, so I often surprise myself by how sociable I can be when I’m on my own.

Within a few minutes I was trading stories with a pair of older couples who were visiting the island. They raved about the loganberry liqueur at nearby Whidbey Island Distillery, so after purchasing a yummy bottle of Malbec (Spoiled Dog offers a 10% discount to people who arrive not in motorized vehicles—score!), I headed that way.

Whidbey Island Distillery is a very homey affair—the distillery itself is in a converted guesthouse, and the tasting room has the feel of a cozy family room.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Whidbey Island Distillery 2

Steve and Beverly, the owners, are incredibly friendly and generous. One of their gaggle of grandkids gave a breathless introduction to the distilling process before running back outside to play, then Steve finished up while Beverly poured samples. The loganberry liqueur was yummy—apparently it goes fantastically with ice cream—and Steve’s working on a 50/50 rye/malted barley whiskey that he’s hoping to release in September. I’ll definitely be coming back in the fall to taste that.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Maxwelton Road

My next stop was Bayview, which oddly seems to lack any view of a bay. They do have a bike shop, as well as a fantastic farmer’s market on Saturdays, complete with local produce and some interesting food stands selling things like lumpia and Thai satays. I grabbed a pair of divine samosas from Lesedi’s African Food and Produce.

Blooms Winery has a nice little tasting room right next to the market. There’s a tasting bar, as well as stools set around wine-barrel tables if you want to sit and snack on one of the appetizers they offer.

Along with a robust lineup of standard wines, they also offered the chance to taste three vintages of their Cabernet back-to-back (2006-2008). Each vintage has a really distinct flavor, which is all the more intriguing given that all three came from grapes grown in the same vineyard. I ended up taking home a bottle of their 2008 Cabernet, which had a faint smoky flavor on account of the local wildfires that raged that year.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - First bottle of wine in rack

Here I have a PSA to share: When wine tasting by bike, start from your farthest point and work your way back. I learned that the hard way when I left Bayview to head to Holmes Harbor Cellars—a trip of roughly 6 miles, mostly uphill. With two tasting rooms full of wine in my belly and bottles in my basket, I was carrying a lot of weight!

After climbing for what seemed like forever, I spotted a sign for Holmes Harbor to the right. With relief, I turned and began an exhilarating descent. Halfway down, I started to wonder. Where was the winery? Had I been too rash? Was I setting myself up for another needless climb after all that elevation I’d already gained?

Spoiler alert: Yes. The answer was yes.

I got to the bottom of the hill only to find Holmes Harbor Golf Course. I checked my phone to find that the winery was actually back up at the top of the hill, and onward another half-mile or so. Cursing, I turned around and began to climb that hill again.

Holmes Harbor Cellars is definitely worth the visit—so long as you don’t cause yourself unnecessary climbing grief. Their site is beautiful, the wines are delicious, and the outdoor seating is incredibly inviting (especially after the trek). Winemaker Greg Martinez is a cyclist, as well.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Holmes Harbor Winery

The bartender helped me convince myself to add a bottle of their delicious Syrah to my pannier, on the grounds that it would help balance my load. What a wise man.

By then it was about 4:00, so I decided to skip the winery/wine shop in Freeland, Vino Amore, and just head straight to Langley. Much of that ride was along Highway 525, which is actually a much better bike route than I was expecting. The shoulders are wide, and since it’s just a 2-lane highway traffic stays at a decent speed.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Ott & Murphey

Folks, Langley is adorable. It’s got tons of cute little shops, views of Puget Sound, a park with a Whale Bell that rings when the whales are offshore, and Ott & Murphy Wines.

Ott & Murphy only does tastings until 6pm, after which they become a dinner place. After changing a flat and phoning my mom, I swooped in just under the radar. I sat next to Bob at the bar, who quickly began introducing me to everyone who walked in the door. (It turns out that Ott & Murphy is quite the local hangout.)

As the afternoon waned, I wandered over to Mo’s Pub and Eatery for a burger. (And an IPA. I was pretty done with wine at that point.) A band was gearing up to play, and the Saturday night locals crowd was gathering. I sat at the bar next to an older gentleman who looked over and laughed. “I’ve seen you riding all over the island today,” he said. “At least three times. Once, you were pushing your bike up the hill by my house.”

The Holmes Harbor Golf Course hill! Of course, this being Whidbey Island, I would sit down next to a guy who lived on the hill I’d accidentally turned down.

After a couple hours at Mo’s, I finally tore myself away from the new friends I’d been making. I had plenty of blinkies but I hadn’t brought a headlight with me, and I didn’t want to get caught after dark.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Langley Harbor

The sun had just set over the harbor, and a light rain was beginning to sprinkle. Although I was tired, I was flying high on the adventure I’d had. The ride back to the ferry was pleasantly sobering, and the long descent to the ferry terminal was a blast.

Cycle Whidbey Island  - Sunset from the ferry

What an amazing day.

11 thoughts on “Joy Ride: Whidbey Island, or Drinking With Strangers Who Are Now Friends

  1. Fun reading Jessie, and love the pictures. Looks like the weather was really great. Wondered if you’ve heard of this guy from Seattle who is biking around the world. He’s almost finished with maybe another 8 weeks to go. His daughter is a news reporter here in Spokane, that’s how I got to follow him. Interesting and often funny stuff.

  2. I know you didn’t spend the night, but it easily could be a S24 in so many ways. Hope you’ll consider adding a part about what a great overnight it would be and consider posting to ACA bike Wonderful post!

  3. Jesse, Wow! That sounds awesome! I am shocked over the bike-friendly features on Whidbey. I had no idea. A public bike pump at that bike shelter? A discount at that winery for non-motorized customers? Neat! I always thought if I ever opened my own brewery I would definitely offer a discount for folks who arrived on bike or foot. Thanks for sharing this post. I don’t know that I’ll ever do it, as coming from Bainbridge would mean an awful lot of driving. Cheers!

    • What a great idea! Coming from Bainbridge would be a haul—though we’ve talked about making it part of a greater loop of bike camping: Bainbridge to Port Townsend, then over to Whidbey and back down. Maybe later this summer. 🙂

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