Where are all the people on Whidbey Island? Sure, the island is mostly rural and it is long, but somehow it finds room for over 78,000 people. Look north. About a third of them live in and around the biggest city, Oak Harbor. Look at the map. Even within Oak Harbor, many of them live within a small area, spiking the density up to over 8,300 per square mile. (The red areas.) Much of the island has a density thirty times smaller, under 270 people per square mile. (The yellow areas.) That’s fewer than 2.4 people per acre. Considering that many households have at least two people there’s a lot of room to roam out there.
Between the extremes are a variety of possibilities.
Oak Harbor provides big box stores, a big marina, and a major employer (the US Navy). Compared to the rest of the US, Oak Harbor is still a small-ish city, so it retains some small town charm, stores, and lifestyles. It isn’t just about the Navy. Some folks like to live where shopping is convenient, lots of people are around, and things like hospitals, first-run movies, and a local college are available.
Drive south to Coupeville and find yourself in a small town nestled beside a cove and harbor that is so picturesque that it has been in several movies. (Practical Magic is one of the easiest ones to find.) Coupeville is an interesting mix. Being a movie set sounds like the ultimate in quaintness, but it is also the county seat and the site of a major hospital. (Want a tour? Here’s a video made by Wynn Allen and me, Two Guys Walk Around Coupeville.)
Farther south is a place that is large, quiet, and too easy to pass through: Greenbank. A farm has been turned into a event destination with art galleries and great food and wine. Up the hill a bit is the downtown with a post office, grocery (not a supermarket), and a good restaurant. Need more? Head back north, or keep driving south to …
Freeland, which has an intriguing history when the name Free Land may have been more appropriate. Now, it is one of the main commercial centers for south Whidbey. The shipyards are an impressive industrial presence that makes good use of protected Holmes Harbor. Most locals spent their time in the collection of businesses that provide everything you need, and if they don’t have it, maybe you don’t need it (but they’ll order it anyway.)
A crossroads that folks recognize, even if there’s no official recognition is Bayview. Again, it has a cluster of stores, a little smaller than Freeland because it lacks banks and such. It has the distinction of being an economic zone inspired by a non-profit that realized that sometimes the best way to help people is to make room for the businesses that provide what people want and need.
Turn off the highway (which has been a two lane since leaving Oak Harbor) and head about 3.5 miles to Langley, a tourist town known around the world for its hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, and shopping. It is also the last marina on the island and convenient for sailors as they pass along the protected east side of the island. With a grocery and mercantile in town, as well as an independent theater (in many ways, including only charging $7 for a show and $1 for popcorn), Langley provides a place for tourists, but also for locals who want everything (or at least a lot) within walking distance. (Want another tour? Wynn Allen and I made a video about Langley first. Two Guys Walk Around Langley)
Head back out onto the highway and drive down towards the ferry, but before you get there, visit the shops that are downtown Clinton. The closer you get to the ferry, the closer you get to the businesses that service the sizable bedroom community of commuters to the mainland. A supermarket, a few banks, the post office, and possibly the smallest library on the island. (Disclosure: I find the place appealing enough that I live in Clinton’s outskirts.)
The outskirts. For many islanders, that’s the attraction. The population centers make it easier to live here, but they head home to places that are even quieter than Whidbey’s quiet towns. From hundred year old log cabins nestled in the trees to cozy beach cottages to grand mansions on sprawling acreage, there’s plenty of lifestyle choices. Throughout the island is truly rural country with farms and ranches, and history. Artists live in the towns, but they also head to their studios and retreats to concentrate on their work. High-speed internet means workers can work remotely for clients around the world while watching the whales and eagles glide by. A drive from one end to the other misses where many people live, which is part of the point. Accessible enough and remote enough.
Whidbey Island is diverse enough that it is hard to generalize. Reducing a tour of it to under a thousand words means residents of Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Greenbank, Freeland, Bayview, Langley, and Clinton will know how much my descriptions missed. The folks around Ken’s Corner may wonder why they were left out. The same is true for many other neighborhoods. Maybe the best way to learn more is to visit for a day, a week, a month, or more. There’s plenty to pick from.