Plenty of places to explore in Oak Harbor, around north Whidbey

OAK HARBOR — Fall and winter can be fabulous seasons to visit Deception Pass State Park.

Fewer crowds, windswept beaches, great views of snow-capped mountains and deer foraging out in the open.

You can even do some winter camping, if that’s your thing.

The park, the state’s most popular, is open for day visits from 8 a.m. to dusk, which right about now is around 4 p.m. Use your park pass before it expires at the end of the year.

Many people see the park only from the 79-year-old Deception Pass Bridge, where they are mesmerized by the swirling water 180 feet below.

Built by 50 men in 354 days for less than $500,000, the steel cantilever bridge has two spans, which together stretch more than a quarter of a mile in length. In 1982, the bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The following year it was painted for more than it cost to build.

Below the bridge, it’s fun to explore the 4,134-acre park, with its saltwater shorelines and freshwater lakes. Hike or mountain bike among the old trees, check out the flocks of birds, skip rocks on the beach and wait for the early sunset.

Make a point to visit the Civilian Conservation Corps Interpretive Center on Bowman Bay on the north side of the park. The center’s exhibits tell the story of the CCCs work in the park and across the state during the Great Depression. This time of year you’ll have to call park staff to open the doors. To make arrangements, phone 360-675-3767.

Also on the north side, visit the Maiden of Deception Pass story pole on Rosario Beach. The carving depicts the story of Ko-Kwal-alwoot, a culturally important legend of the Samish Indian Nation.

When you’re done, head into Oak Harbor, the largest city on Whidbey Island. The best place to see the famed oak trees is in Smith Park on the east end of the old downtown district.

Oak Harbor has a Dutch heritage that remains strong today. You see it in the names of longtime business owners and in the city’s festivals and windmill landmarks.

It also is a Navy town, owing to its close proximity to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

A new highlight in downtown Oak Harbor is the PBY Naval Air Museum, now located in a former furniture store at 270 SE Pioneer Way. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Run by volunteers, many of them retired Navy personnel, the museum is devoted to the PBY Catalina seaplane, which was based in Oak Harbor during World War II.

The museum also features exhibits on early Oak Harbor, including Deception Pass, as well as World War II, Korea, Vietnam and more recent military conflicts. It includes uniforms, engines, plane parts, flight simulators and, soon, visitors will be able to visit the night vision goggle exhibit.

“We surprised ourselves with how much we have accomplished with the museum,” said volunteer Dave Strohmeyer. “It’s become a destination attraction in Oak Harbor.”

Also at the museum, visitors can pick up a National Park Service map and brochure that leads people through the Navy’s old seaplane base east of downtown and then south to Forbes Point and Maylor Point for views of the wetlands and wildlife.

Pioneer Way through old downtown Oak Harbor is home to all sorts of specialty shops that are worth the visit.

Along with gift and antique stores, clothing boutiques, art galleries, craft shops, restaurants and sweet shops, visitors will find the Wind and Tide Bookshop, one of the few longtime independent book stores left in the region.

Owner Karen Mueller sells a large collection of titles on local history, including the Images of America book “Oak Harbor” by Mueller’s lifelong friend Peggy Christine Darst.

A few doors down from the book store is Whidbey Wild Bird. Stop to chat about local birds with owners Bob and Claudia Olson, who sell seeds, feeders, books and toys.

While Oak Harbor is home to a number of fine restaurants, the must-go place is Seabolt’s Smokehouse and Restaurant at 31640 Highway 20.

Seabolt’s sells all sorts of smoked salmon products. Longtime employee David Jackson works primarily with local and Alaska fish.

On the restaurant menu, Seabolt’s serves halibut, cod and salmon with chips, as well as Penn Cove mussels, Dungeness crab, oysters, clam strips, calamari, prawns, shrimp, chowder, seafood stew and Kobe beef raised on the island.

If nothing else, pick up a $6 packet of salmon candy, smoked salmon with brown sugar sprinkled on top. It’s the best around.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @galefiege.

Tourist in Your Own Town

In each of our cities in Snohomish and Island counties, we have tourist attractions often overlooked by the people who live in this region. Have you taken the time to be a Tourist in Your Own Town? This the 11th in a continuing series of monthly explorations of our hometowns. For more Tourist in Your Own Town stories, go to www.heraldnet.com/tourist.

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