Mussel beach will pump you up

New Yorkers have the Hamptons; San Franciscans, Lake Tahoe. Seattle's version of the weekend oasis - sans high prices and traffic - is winsome Whidbey Island, 30 miles north of Seattle in northern Puget Sound.

It's a place where bald eagles soar, crabbing and water sports abound, and one of the world's most famous mollusks - the Penn Cove mussel - hangs out. Here the concrete- and computer-weary and their families refresh and reconnect, naturally.

It's the perfect place for families to stay and play for a long weekend - savoring the finest beaches of the Pacific Northwest one minute and exploring towering redwoods the next.

The 40-mile-long, finger-shaped island is home to 64,000 residents, many of whom still farm the land their ancestors settled in the 19th century. Whidbey's rural character is as much a draw as its agreeable weather. (Summer temperatures are in the mid-70s more days than not.) We started our getaway on a 20-minute ferry ride from Mukilteo to Clinton on the island's southern tip, then took a short drive to the town of Langley. There are no chain stores or stoplights to interfere with the restorative powers of this seaside hideaway, home to populations of bald eagles, herons, and sea lions.

We checked into the Saratoga Inn, which features a wraparound porch overlooking Saratoga Passage, a gentle waterway between Whidbey and neighboring Camano Island. The inn's 650-square-foot Carriage House, a spacious suite with a private entrance, fireplace, sun deck, kitchen, and cast-iron tub was roomy enough for the kids to spread out their fins, Pokemon cards, and books, and for Mom and Dad to relax separately from the youngsters, yet together. Our six- and seven-year-olds loved being able to amble to the beach after breakfast each morning, and to watch the sun set each evening from our balcony.

We quickly discovered that sailing and all forms of water play are a way of life on Whidbey. For two decades, Capt. John Colby Stone has been taking families on cruises past historic Coupeville and into Penn Cove, where the most recent native orca in captivity (Lolita, who is now at Sea World in Florida) was captured. Lolita's mother and sisters still frolic in this secluded inlet. Aboard the classic ketch, our son and daughter helped trim the sails, took turns at the helm, and we all enjoyed the tales spun by Captain Stone about whales, otters, seals, and other wildlife in the area.

Spending a few moments turning shells on the mussel-shell-lined beach on our return, our kids squealed with delight while scooping up the tiny shore crabs beneath and letting them crawl around in their hands.

After sailing we felt brave enough to rent two-person kayaks in nearby Oak Harbor. Even for the youngsters, the arm-tiring adventure was worth the workout. The mussel-farming planks aren't much to look at - unless the sea lions are sunning atop them - but knowing the famed mollusks are hanging below the surface was exciting.

Having worked up quite an appetite, we made a pit stop at Penn Cove Restaurant for steamed Penn Cove mussels, famous for their sweet, delicious flavor. The 1950s-style diner features reasonably priced mollusks prepared with all the expertise of a big city eatery - with none of the pretentiousness.

Suitably sated, we headed to Fort Casey State Park, a grassy, World War I shoreline.

There are miles of tunnels to explore (bring a flashlight), gun balconies hanging on the bluffs over the beach, and the Admiralty Head Lighthouse to climb. We enjoyed exploring the historic haunts while explaining the turbulent history that created the need for it. History lessons are rarely received with such rapt attention at home!

Further north we discovered Deception Pass State Park on the island's northernmost tip, a pristine beach with stellar views of the surrounding mountains. There's no swimming here because of dangerous swirling whirlpools and tidal rivers.

Instead, it's the perfect place to hike, play, and picnic.

Trails are the draw - and the views they reward the hiker with are magnificent. From short beach walks with views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific Ocean to mountain trails with vistas of wild whirlpools, there's something for every age and ability level.

The many trails are well-marked; maps are available at the ranger station. Some are steep and others are gentler.

Our kids couldn't get enough of our final day's adventure: a short but action-packed, creature-filled walk through the old-growth cedar forest in South Whidbey State Park. We followed the roadside trails into a world filled with huge, hairy, 250-year-old cedars surrounded by mossy logs, ferns, snags (dead trees that haven't fallen over yet), and wild native rhododendrons.

Every fallen branch, overturned leaf, and tiny bush yielded a new discovery for our kids: a slimy slug here (our son loved carrying it around and frightening his little sister), a lovely caterpillar there (our daughter's favorite insect).

After we boarded the ferry back to Mukilteo, the kids ambled to the railing for a last lingering look at the place where we'd spent, they said, an all-too-short weekend.

*For more information , call the Island County Visitor Information Bureau , (888) 747-7777,

or the Langley Chamber of

Commerce, (360) 221-6765. On the Internet:

Places to stay: Captain Whidbey Inn (800-366-4097); Saratoga Inn (800-698-2910.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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