When Julia turned 2, we took her on a little weekend getaway to Whidbey Island. We stayed in an AirBnB in Langley, ate dinner at our favorite restaurant in Coupeville (The Oystercatcher) and went on a lovely whale watching trip where we saw 5 gray whales. James turned 2 this year, so I wanted to try to make whale watching a tradition by booking a family tour again.
The owners of Mystic Sea Charters — the company we used previously— chose to retire and sell their business to Puget Sound Express, so I gave them a call to check on their COVID protocols.
Satisfied that they seemed reasonable (roughly the risk profile of tented outdoor dining), we rounded up the vaccinated grandparents and headed out on what ended up being a gorgeous bluebird day.
I wrote about the experience for Seattle’s Child and it’s available here.
Have you done COVID-era tours? What protocols matter most to you?
While we didn’t go all out and invite everyone we knew to Julia’s 1st birthday party, I found that even inviting our relatively small group of family and very close friends meant that I spent most of the time organizing and hosting rather than spending the time with Julia. A big party is right for some people, and I love hosting for other occasions, but I learned my birthday lesson and this year we took a weekend trip just as a family to celebrate her 2nd birthday.
Julia loves whales and talks about them all the time, so we decided a whale watching trip would be a great way to spend the day. Gray whales spend part of their migration period in the Puget Sound between March and April, which conveniently falls right around Julia’s birthday. I debated between Port Townsend and Langley for awhile – Port Townsend had easier to find family-friendly hotels, but the primary whale watching provider in Langley was less expensive and was offering a Groupon. Once I found a little AirBnB in Langley, it was easy to commit. This was also our first stay in an AirBnB – I love booking apartments or hotel suites on trips, but I don’t love the service fee and strict cancellation policies that AirBnB has, so a short weekend trip seemed like a good way to be pretty certain we weren’t going to need to cancel.
We took the ferry out to Langley on Saturday morning and killed some time having coffee at Useless Bay Coffee Company and throwing rocks/running at the Seawall park. It was lightly raining, so we were a little concerned the cruise would be miserable, but it cleared up just around the time it was time to go meet the boat.
We boarded our Mystic Sea Charters Gray Whale Watching cruise at a little dock area just down the hill from downtown. We had a lot of time between boarding and departure (about 45 minutes), but were able to kill time with a few toys and snacks we’d brought along (and a packet of goldfish purchased from the honor bar). There are also some laminated pictures of whales that Julia liked looking at. Seating was either chairs at tables in a covered deck area (soft sided) or booths in the cabin, but the booth to allow Julia more room to move around.
We were lucky and there was a whale nearby feeding in a shallow area, so we hadn’t been on the water more than 20 minutes when we got to spend lots of time watching her flip onto her side to scoop up the mud shrimp. There was even a very sweet naturalist on board who added interesting commentary. Julia was pretty cold, but she toughed it out in the toddler carrier for awhile before we went back inside for a bit to warm up.
The boat moved on to another viewing spot and she lightly protested being loaded back up, but then enjoyed checking out another whale before passing out in the carrier after we put my mittens on her (she won’t usually wear her own very long). She was able to nap for a little over an hour, which allowed us to stay outside and watch the whales as long as I kept moving a bit. She woke up about 30-40 minutes before the end of the trip and got to visit the captain’s area en route back to the dock. There’s a laptop with an impressive map of the topography that they use to help navigate, but she was mostly interested in the old-fashioned looking wheel for steering.
The 3 hour cruise was a perfect length of time for us. All told, we saw 5 whales and loved every minute. The crew and the on-board naturalist are friendly and knowledgeable and really want everyone to enjoy the trip. If you make the trip with little ones, I would recommend packing extra warm clothes and snacks for the, and bringing a carrier since strollers aren’t allowed and you’ll want them to be extra safe and secure while on board.
After the boat ride, we went to check into the AirBnB that was ready earlier than expected. We set up Julia’s pack and play and let her play a bit on the stairs while we unpacked.
We had some time to kill before dinner, so we stopped at Rhododendron Park near Coupeville. It’s a county park that looks like it could use some funding – one of the two swings was broken, the climbing gym was broken, and there was one other playground structure that wasn’t in great shape. Julia just wanted to run in the fields and grab a stick on the tiny trail, though, so it was at least a good spot to stretch her legs.
We also had some time to pop into the delightful Honey Bear toy store to pick up a couple of new books before heading out to dinner at my all time favorite restaurant in the whole world: Coupeville’s The Oystercatcher. We have loved this place since we came for our anniversary trip when we moved to Seattle (our first PNW whale watching experience) and happened upon it while staying nearby. The food is so amazingly fresh and local, and they don’t blink an eye at Peter’s multiple food allergies. We had made a reservation right as they opened at 5 because while the island location makes the atmosphere a little more casual, it’s definitely a splurge/nicer restaurant and we hoped she would behave accordingly.
Julia surprised us with some impeccable birthday behavior, so we were able to indulge in pimento cheese, a bottle of wine, amuse bouches that were tailored to dietary restrictions, a beet salad with pistachios, a carrot and ginger soup that Julia devoured, a green pea sorbet palate cleanser, the market fish prep (sablefish – yum!) and a phenomenal duck breast with spaetzle, chard and mushrooms (Julia ate most of my mushrooms, but they looked good). She was still on her best behavior after almost two hours (although we were grateful for the new books), so I also shared grapefruit and black pepper ice cream with her, topped off with their amazing chocolate mignardises.
The sun was just setting as we left, so we took advantage of it and ran up and down the pier a few times to celebrate bursting with happiness (and chocolate).
Our AirBnB was really comfortable for all of us (the bedroom was open to the stairs, so we could hear Julia in her pack and play downstairs without a monitor, but still have separate space from her to chat after she went to bed) and in a great location. We walked about 10 minutes at toddler speed to breakfast at Useless Bay at 7:30 the next morning and got to see a bunch of bunnies hopping about. It felt really magical to see the sun rising over the mountains with all the little furry creatures around.
Breakfast was delicious (I highly recommend their pork sausage – it was so flavorful and tasted house made), so we went off with full bellies to explore Castle Park. We’ve visited a similar playground on the peninsula and Julia loved the park so much. It’s really built like a fort with tons of space to climb and run around. It was too wet to go down the slides, but there were still lots of things to do. It was a perfect stop to run her little heart out before we headed back to the ferry home. She went to sleep just as we got to the short line for the ferry, so you know she’d had a good time.
We had an amazing weekend with our little one and she’s still talking about her “whale birthday.” I can’t wait to plan next year’s adventure!
What was your most memorable birthday celebration with your family?