Mussel-ing Into Whidbey Island

Penn Cove Shellfish operations

Just west of Camano Island, across Skagit Bay lies the tiny, historic town of Coupeville, nestled along the famed Penn Cove. A scenic trip no matter which way you go, Coupeville can be reached by two routes: There’s the Clinton-Mukilteo Ferry, or you can drive up and around via Anacortes and over Deception Pass. Either way, you’ll be treated to some spectacular scenery.

Feeling extra-adventurous? Take one route there and the other way home. Either way, it will take about two hours to/from Seattle, excluding ferry wait time. Fortunately, if you’re making the trek with little ones (or annoying passengers), there is plenty to enjoy once you get there.

Natural and Historic

Fort Casey State Historical Park features WWI and WWII-era mounted guns, bunkers, batteries, as well as the 1903-vinate lighthouse.  Enjoy camping at nearby Fort Ebey State Park where you can find more historic gun batteries and plenty of outdoor activities. Divers can enjoy the sea life at the underwater park at Keystone Jetty, just south of the ferry terminal.

Roughing it’s not your thing? Historic inns and bed & breakfasts abound in Coupeville, including the Captain Whidbey Inn, built in 1907. Captain Whidbey Inn’s innkeeper, Lloyd Moore, purchased the property 100 years later and has been lovingly improving and maintaining it ever since.

“It was a fascinating project,” Moore notes with a chuckle. “There aren’t too many truly authentic inns of that nature, and in the Northwest, they’re very rare. You have resorts, but most of them are fabricated versions of what the Captain Whidbey Inn is.”

Back when Judge Still built the log inn, “mosquito fleet” steamers used to carry passengers to the original dock, which is still there at the Inn. Thought there is a newer dock system now, guest still arrive at the Inn in the old-fashioned way, too.

Given the historic, period furnishings, the Inn itself may not offer the most child-friendly accommodations and may be better suited to a romantic weekend away than a family vacation spot. “We welcome them (kids), but it’s not like Fort Casey where they have room to run,” notes Moore.

But what Moore loves most about Penn Cove is the truly authentic sustainability of the place. Penn Cove and Coupeville inns and restaurants are “farm-to-table” without trying. They have everything they need right there on the Island, within miles of the Inn.

“When I sit on my deck at the Inn, at one end there’s Glasser’s Cove, I look the other way and there’s Coupeville and the Penn Cove mussel farm. I look all around the hills, and I realized a couple years ago that basically, we’re much like the Native Americans who were here and sustained themselves in a high lifestyle for the time, with everything that was around Penn Cove. And we still do! I get our beef from Three Sisters, which has a farm that you can see from the deck. I can get my lamb from the lamb farmers on the other side. We have all the salmon that comes from Puget Sound, and the live Dungeness crab, and the mussels which are farmed and grow all over our dock. Penn Cove is a complete system for living,” Moore observes.

Boating in Penn Cove

If you are arriving in Penn Cove via boat, the Coupeville Wharf can accommodate 12 or more power or sail boats moored on floats attached to the Wharf. Four mooring buoys are located nearby as well. The Wharf is the only public moorage in Penn Cove and the dock is exposed, so keeping an eye on the weather is advised.

Moorage is transient-only, so you won’t be able to stick around forever and it’s first-come, first-served. But there is at least 3-hour courtesy moorage too, so you can still have plenty of time for a bite, some shopping, a shower, filling the tank (gas and diesel are available) and restocking supplies and groceries in town. Enjoy free Wi-Fi courtesy of several local commerce and government organizations while you’re in town.

In town, take a walk on the beach and shop the quaint shops, galleries, and restaurants. The Knead & Feed is known for its baked goodies (like cinnamon rolls the size of your head), while Christopher’s on Whidbey features a menu heavy on the local shellfish. Check here for a list of more Coupeville dining options.

Those Famous Mussels

But besides the charming little town of Coupeville and nearby parks, what puts Penn Cove on the map? Mussels. Famed in the finest restaurants and prized by chefs from coast to coast, the indigenous Penn Cove mussels quickly grow fat and happy in the clean, nutrient-rich, and protected waters of the cove.

Penn Cove is located on the more protected east side of Whidbey Island. The waters stay clean and nutrient-rich because of the local streams that feed into the cove, and the absence of large-scale farming which would produce fertilizer- and waste-rich runoff.

“Penn Cove is kind of nestled back,” notes Millie Goebel, Penn Cove Shellfish’s director of market development. “We don’t get a lot of commercial boating traffic. There’s definitely boating activity here, but I wouldn’t say we are as exposed (to chemicals that may runoff into the water from a boatyard or commercial boating operation). We’re not surrounded by a lot of agriculture really close-by. There’s tons agriculture around, but it’s not a place where a lot of stuff would run off into the water, like a feedlot.”

To a chef, freshness is key and you can’t get much fresher mussels in the Seattle area than the mussels of Penn Cove. Chef Wesley Hood of Seattle’s El Gaucho restaurant loves Penn Cove mussels for their freshness and their meatiness, echoing Goebel’s sentiments about the cleanliness of the cove’s water.

Check out Chef Wesley’s recipe for Penn Cove mussels here.

Known for being especially meaty with a firm texture a sweeter flavor, the Penn Cove mussels also have a thinner shell than their Mediterranean cousins. Translation: more meat per pound. (One pound of Penn Cove mussels yields about 25 to 30 mussels in contrast to around 18 to 20 per pound of Mediterranean mussels.)

Where to buy your Penn Cove mussels? Check here for online and retail outlets including Costco, Whole Foods, and more and be sure to call and confirm when they are in stock.  The local mussels and other shellfish are also featured prominently on many local Coupeville menus.

Whether you are looking for a day trip with the family, a romantic overnighter with your significant other, or a camping trip that’s not too far away, Coupeville and Penn Cove have something for pretty much everyone to enjoy. A place of quiet, stunning views, fresh and delicious cuisine, outdoor pursuits or just laying around, Coupeville and Penn Cove are perfectly far away and still close to home.