Originally posted July 2004

Credits: For my extended family, who gave me cause to be there. It was a great reunion!

I recently spent a week on Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state. It was lovely, and I had a great time. It was also fascinating from an anthropological perspective, in that there's obviously a different subculture there from the one I usually live in (San Jose, CA).

Here are a few interesting things I noticed while there. Just for fun I've also tossed in a few random observations regarding two other locales I've visited in the last three years: St. Louis, MO, and New Haven, CT.

The terrain

It takes about three hours to get to Whidbey Island from the Seattle-Tacoma airport. We took the Mukilteo ferry on the way in, which was a nice, cool, peaceful 20 minute ride, and the Deception Pass bridge on the way out.

Deception Pass is a park, one of several on the little island, and despite it being geographically farther to take that route, it works out to be roughly the same amount of time. While the park is breathtakingly beautiful, I personally enjoyed the ferry ride more, as that way there was less highway driving.

Physically, Whidbey Island itself is simply gorgeous. The countryside is richly green, with huge, lovely trees in the parks, and ferns growing up all around, in the many reserves, green areas, and camping grounds. I even saw a free flying bald eagle, which was a thrill. The hiking is wonderful, and the weather was unseasonably beautiful. It left the folks there gasping in the unaccustomed heat, but I loved it.

While we were there we saw a lot of 'pick your own' farms, selling various kinds of really delicious fresh fruit. It's hard to get lost, too, as State Road 20 goes down the spine of the entire, rather slender island. Admittedly, the road signs are miniscule and hard to read, and often not listed on the maps, but the whole island's only 45 miles long, so you really can't get too far off track before hitting water.

Physical structures

The towns on the island were pretty small. I think we blew through Oak Harbor, the largest town on the island, in less than ten minutes. Also, there were very few new-looking buildings. Most looked at minimum to be about 20 or so years old, and most of the business signs looked hand painted. A large number of the buildings sported some rather rough looking repairs, too, as if they were done by a casual hand with just the materials available.

Shopping was unfortunately limited, and just about everything that wasn't a major chain (of which there were only a few) shut down on Sunday. There weren't any big bookstores at all, although the little one we went to did say they could order anything we wanted in about a week. Curiously, when we did a web search for book stores on Whidbey, the first page on the search engine was almost entirely christian book stores. Not what we were looking for… ;)

I didn't notice any computer stores or coffee shops either, but I did see espresso was available just about everywhere — even drive-through espresso! Lots of storage spaces too, which I guess would be expected in what's basically a Navy and retirement town.

The Navy base

Speaking of the Navy… yes, their buildings looked quite old also. However, I thought they had a rather clever arrangement in the women's restroom (I didn't see the men's room) of the CPOs club. In effect, you could stand at one particular point in the room, and see yourself front and side, in two mirrors. Smart! How come no one else does this? It seems so basic, once you think of it.

Bob says he thinks the reason it's not done here is twofold: vandalism is unfortunately prevalent in the restrooms of smaller businesses, and using that much space to put up large mirrors costs the restaurant, in wasted space. Thinking about it, I'd have to agree. Most of the mirrors I've seen in smaller businesses both here in San Jose and in St. Louis were actually polished steel, not glass. It's a real shame; I always prefer restrooms where I don't feel crowded.

There was actually one thing on the Navy base which didn't look 20 years old: a very nicely done brick circle right at the gate, which was full of flowers. It was about four feet tall and about a ten foot diameter, I think, which caused cars to have to slow down and drive around the little circle before getting to the actual gate.

I thought that also was clever — the Navy had created a well-organized, probably reinforced entryway to prevent gate crashers, and done it nicely with flowers and greenery instead of with an ugly, sterile concrete barrier.

Also at the gate were several very cheery, very polite guards. Bob's amused comment was: "Of course they're polite. They're armed." Kudos to the Navy for all those smart things, I say. ;)

The Internet café

While there were no true coffee shops, there was a really lovely little Internet café called Galaxynetcafe.com. The dialup in the hotel was terrible, so it was a real relief to find such a nice wireless and DSL setup. The shopping center it was in was one of the few new looking ones, having a very well done log cabin effect. The Internet café itself was in a large, well-lit, airy room with lots of space. There was also a beautiful second floor available for free for meetings, with a reservation.

I must say, the café was really pleasant. By our second day there they recognized us, and were waving hello and asking us if we wanted our 'usual.' There was a plethora of Torani flavors, which I really enjoy, and good coffee, which made Bob happy — and when Bob says it's good coffee he means it! You could get big sandwiches and side dishes as well, along with several varieties of soup made daily. The scones were simply delicious, and also made daily and delivered by the Scone Lady — let's hear it for small town personalization! ;)

Alas, that setup (while delightful) would probably be prohibitively expensive in San Jose.

Interestingly, I saw no compact parking spaces at all on the island. However, considering the number of pickups there, that's no surprise. Also, smoking seems to be a bit of an issue. I saw 'no smoking' signs everywhere — on the car keys, on the hotel room door, on business doors, etc. However, outside just about every business building you could also find big coffee cans with sand in them, filled with cigarette butts.

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