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Originally published December 22, 2010 at 7:00 PM | Page modified December 23, 2010 at 1:28 PM

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Winter winds, waves add drama to the island charms of South Whidbey

Mike McQuaide offers a milepost guide to the winter charms of South Whidbey Island.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

South Whidbey Island

Where

To get to the south tip of Whidbey Island, take Interstate 5 to Exit 189, south of Everett, and head west on Highway 526 for five miles. Turn right on Highway 525 and follow for two miles to the Mukilteo ferry terminal. After the 20-minute ferry crossing, begin the driving tour in Clinton. For ferry information, see www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.

Take the plunge

Start the new year off cold by jumping into the 40-some degree waters of Holmes Harbor at Freeland Park in the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Noon, Jan. 1. Cost: $15, which includes a T-shirt and post-plunge refreshments. Event registration opens at 10 a.m. More information: South Whidbey Parks and Recreation, 360-221-5484.

More information

Whidbey & Camano Islands Tourism: 888-747-7777 or www.whidbeycamanoislands.com.

Langley Chamber of Commerce: 360-221-6765 or www.visitlangley.com.

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SOUTH WHIDBEY ISLAND — The rain has begun to fall and when it does, it falls sideways. Flying directly overhead, three bald eagles appear stuck in place, their bodies pointing straight into the 30-mph winds but going nowhere. They're like kites being flown by remote control.

Out on the water — cruelly named Useless Bay, two miles south of utopianishly named Freeland — a lone duck bobs and weaves in the choppy surf. Farther out, the steady blasting winds have turned the bay's waters angry and the sea appears to rush by, riverlike, all in a white-capped tizzy.

"I come here when it's stormy out," Ron Lewis, of Langley, tells me while walking the driftwood-strewn beach at Double Bluff Park. "I like bad weather."

With two miles of shoreline access, Double Bluff is an excellent place to watch what happens when the barometer heads south. Or anytime really, for with its sandy beach and ever-changing tide pools — not to mention the veritable jungle of driftwood that these days overlays much of the beachside park — Double Bluff offers hours of fun exploration. Great views, too, when the weather's not so angry — south to the Olympics, the Seattle skyline and even Mount Rainier. Humans aren't the only fans of Double Bluff, for the park has got to be one of the most-popular off-leash areas in Western Washington.

While certainly unique, Double Bluff is just one of many gems on beautiful Whidbey Island, that getaway that's not so far away, which offers up myriad beaches, forests, fields and farmland — as well as charming artsy villages — to restore one's mind, one's heart, one's soul. Get there whenever you can. Winter's a great time to have it mostly to yourself.

Here's a driving tour of the south end of the island — that assumes you took the Washington State Ferry from Mukilteo to get there — starting at Clinton and ending at Greenbank, just south of Keystone. (Last month, we featured a driving tour of Whidbey Island's northern half.) The drive roughly follows Highway 525, approaching from the south.

Highway 525,

Mile 11

Langley — Turn right onto Langley Road and follow for three miles into Langley (www.visitlangley.com), a lovely village set on a bluff overlooking Saratoga Passage and Camano Island.

"Langley is magical," says Sherrye Wyatt of Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism. "It reminds me of Cabot Cove from 'Murder She Wrote.' It's pretty right now with all the Christmas lights, too."

Adorned with outdoor sculptures, colorful public art installations and (for now) red-bulbed Christmas trees, this town of about 1,000 is less than a mile square and fairly invites you to slow down, take a stroll and soak all of it in.

Grab a coffee and scone at Useless Bay Coffee Company (121 Second St.; 360-221-4515 or www.uselessbaycoffee.com), wander in and out of shops such as Moonraker Books (209 First St.; 360-221-6962), Joe's Island Music (112 Anthes Ave.; 360-221-2505) or the mind-bogglingly diverse Star Store (201 First St.; 360-221-5222 or www.starstorewhidbey.com). This last offers a little bit of everything, from fine wine to clothing to groceries to novelty gags.

Or just stroll along Seawall Park, tucked down below the row of shops and eateries on First Avenue, offering seaside picnic tables and a short walking path. Enjoy tiny Boy and Dog Park, which features a life-size bronze sculpture of ... wait for it ... a boy and his dog, sculpted by South Whidbey artist Georgia Gerber, who also created the famed bronze pig, Rachel, unofficial mascot of Seattle's Pike Place Market.

Langley also boasts many terrific eateries, including Prima Bistro (201 ½ First St.; 360-221-4060 or www.primabistro.com) and the Braeburn Restaurant (197 Second St.; 360-221-3211 or www.thebraeburnrestaurant.com), whose Corned Beef Mash — garlic mashed potatoes mixed with herbs, spices, corned beef and melted Irish cheese, topped off with three eggs — was earlier this year named Washington's Best Breakfast by Food Network Magazine.

Excellent places to stay, too, such as the Saratoga Inn (201 Cascade Ave.; 360-221-5801 or www.saratogainnwhidbeyisland.com) and the Boatyard Inn (200 Wharf St.; 360-221-5120 or www.boatyardinn.com).

Mile 17

Double Bluff Park — Just before Milepost 17, turn left onto Double Bluff Road and follow for two miles to the road-end beachside parking lot. As mentioned above, the park is an excellent place to while away the hours. Its impressive 400-foot bluffs, for which the park is named, are the source (through erosion) for much of Useless Bay's sandy beach. And why "Useless"? Early explorers found the inviting bay's waters too shallow for their tall ships, thus it was deemed useless.

Freeland — Back on Highway 525, turn right onto Scott Road (about a half-mile past Double Bluff Road), which becomes Main Street in Freeland, a small village founded in the early 1900s as a socialist community. Gordon's on Blueberry Hill (5438 Woodard Ave., 360-331-7515) makes for an elegant upscale lunch stop (or dinner destination) and Freeland Park, at the foot of Holmes Bay, offers more in the beach-strolling-water-gazing category.

Mile 19

South Whidbey State Park — Turn left onto Bush Point Road and follow for six miles (the road becomes Smuggler's Cove Road along the way) to this tranquil, oft-overlooked camping park on Whidbey Island's west side. Though the campground is closed until March, the park is still more than worthy of a visit.

Among the draws: nearly a mile of sandy shoreline on Admiralty Inlet with stunning views across to Marrowstone Island and the Olympic Mountains beyond. Cross Smuggler's Cove Road and find a couple trails — the 0.8-mile Wilbert Trail and the 1.8-mile Ridge Trail — that meander through old-growth forest featuring mega-firs and mega-cedars.

Mile 25

Greenbank — This tiny unincorporated community offers a couple cool stops: Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens (3531 Meerkerk Lane; 360-678-1912 or www.meerkerkgardens.org) and Greenbank Farm (765 Wonn Rd.; 360-678-7700 or www.greenbankfarm.com).

Though it's in spring when Meerkerk Gardens really shines — its thousands of blooming rhododendrons and spring bulbs draw gardenphiles from all over — the offseason has its own charms. Stroll through the botanical park's Secret Garden, where you'll find unusual tree species such as Giant Dogwood, Orangebark Stewartia and Diamond Bark Maple. Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Cost: $8, free for those 15 and younger.

In the 1970s, 522-acre Greenbank Farm was the world's largest loganberry farm but two decades later it was this close to being sold to developers. So, in true Whidbey Island spirit, community members gathered together and convinced Island County (along with help from the Port of Coupeville and The Nature Conservancy) to purchase the farm. These days, it's a sort-of one-stop living-history farm, community center and market, wine shop, gallery and more — all housed in Greenbank's distinctive red barns and farm buildings.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net. His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.

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