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Here’s A Toast To Seattle’s Magical Whidbey Island


This summer we decided to take the kids for a trip to the Pacific Northwest. It was a nice break from the Texas heat, and a great change of scenery and for me — a return to a trek I used to make regularly when I was a child. As a little kid I lived in Detroit, but my dad’s parents lived off the coast of Seattle on Whidbey Island.

Full of trees taller than downtown skyscrapers, rocky driftwood beaches, and some of the tastiest seafood you’ll ever eat, Whidbey is a magical place, at least in the summer when it’s sunny and warm. I was anxious to share some of that experience with my seven- and four-year-old kiddos when I took them there this summer.

When we drove into Seattle, it had been more than 20 years since I had been there. It had been before the Amazon era, the “Gold Rush” that Death Cab for Cutie sings of on their latest album. When I was last in Seattle, it was in the plaid-clad era of grunge, Nirvana ruled the Emerald City, and the Sonics still played there. This was not the Seattle of my childhood.

Much like my home city of Austin, evidence of the tech boom is everywhere in Seattle today. Old stretches of the city of are gone, replaced by new skyscrapers full of expensive condos, blue-green glass fronted office buildings, or trendy blink-and-they’re gone restaurants. At a public playground near the Space Needle I literally heard a parent call for their child named Tesla. I’m not kidding. I guess I should be surprised it wasn’t named “Prime” or “Free Shipping.” Luckily, when we drove out Whidbey, it was easier to slip back a few decades to the days of Detroit Tiger hats, G.I Joes, and chasing the setting sun.

When I was 12, I would board a Northwest Airlines plane in Detroit, and take a direct flight to Sea-Tac Airport where my grandparents would pick me up. Back in the days before 9-11, it was easier to fly by yourself as a kid. Safer. These days, I’d never let my kids do that. Back then though, I would hop a flight from the Motor City each summer and spend a few weeks on the island at my grandparents house on the Puget Sound.

My grandfather was an old Marine pilot. He flew with the Blue Angels way back when, and many of the original guys retired to the same beach outside Langley, Washington. They were near a naval base, on the water (there was at least one sea plane on hand at all times), and just a ferry ride away from the big city. As a kid, it was a great place to just wander.

Their neighbors had a kid about the same age as me, and he had a dog who was the closest thing to a real life Lassie I’ve ever seen. Jessie was a Golden Retriever, and she was like our nanny. She knew what we were and were not allowed to do. No running on the sea wall. No wadding out into the ocean above your knees. No walking on the road above the neighborhood. If we ever did any of those things or many of the other things we weren’t allowed to do, she would bark at us to warn us, like, “Hey, kid, you know you can’t play on the sea wall, now get down before I have to go tell a grown up.” That was one hell of a dog.

When we made our way to the Mukilteo Ferry and headed on the short trip across to Whidbey Island, we got out of the car and explored the ferry. It was the first time my kids had ever been on a ferry boat before and they were both intrigued and a little scared about the situation. I assured them that the car was going to still be there when we got back, and we headed up to the top deck to watch the ship cross the Puget Sound. Someone, clearly a frequent traveler, had left a half-finished puzzle on the ferry in one of the seats by the bathrooms and the cafeteria, a picture of nature with butterflies, and bugs, that immediately hooked my son.

My daughter, always thinking with her stomach, wanted to stop by the cafeteria and sink into a bag of Cheetos. I wanted to make a b-line for the bow of the boat to watch us push off and into the Sound. On a good day in the Puget Sound you can see seals, sea lions, and maybe even a whale or two. I was hoping we would get lucky and be able to show the kids some Pacific Northwest wildlife they don’t get to see back in the Texas Hill Country.

We did see a seal that day, back at the ferry stop, but no whales or sea lions. The kids did get to explore the same driftwood beaches I climbed around as a kid, see the trees the stretch to the sky, and smell that salty seaweed scent that means the tide is out, and the beach is yours your explore. We ate lunch in Langley, a cute little town, full of rich millennials “on the island” for a quick weekend get away. My how times have changed. Still, the cute little art and antique shops were there, we bought a cute collar for my dog, and my kids skipped rocks in the water as I told them stories about days gone by.

I drove my wife and kids by my grandparent’s old house, to my favorite beach, and along the road I played as a kid. It feels a lot different as an adult. Smaller. I guess it’s the age difference. When you’re 10, everything looks big.

Back at the dock is a Seattle area institution: Ivar’s. As a kid this is where we always used to stop for clam chowder as we waited for the ferry. Sometimes in the summer the lines for the ferry could take a long time, hours even, and nothing made it go by fast like great seafood, which thankfully, this part of the country has in great abundance. So, when we made it back, we stopped for a much needed respite.

Now an adult, I was able to add a much needed adult beverage to my order, the Hoppy as a Clam IPA from Sound to Summit Brewing in Snohomish, Washington. It’s brewed especially for Ivar’s, and is a West Coast style IPA. It’s very hop-forward, with lots of citrus and pine notes, and a slightly sweet malty backbone. It went down really well with the tasty fried oysters and excellent clam chowder we had. We sat overlooking the water, and watched the ferries trek in and out while we ate. The kids loved it, and it was a great way to enjoy all the seafood, scenery and memories of Seattle.

We spent a few days in and around Seattle. We saw the Space Needle, the Chihuly Gardens, the house from “Sleepless in Seattle,” and Pike Place Market. There’s a lot to enjoy, even in today’s Amazonified version of Seattle. It’s changed a lot since I was a kid, but Seattle is still a magical place with gorgeous scenery, nice people, tasty food, and damn good beer!

Cheers to you Emerald City!