Like a stray bit of hand-rolled spätzle stretching south past Skagit Bay, Whidbey Island is ropey, rustic, and just a bit salty. It's about 90 minutes away for Seattleites. For Portlanders, getting here can be a haul: nearly five hours by highway and Mukilteo ferry; longer if you travel up the Hood Canal to catch the Coupeville ferry.
But for Portland brothers Mike and Matt French, flush with success from their debut hospitality venture—the once-kitschy, now achingly hip Pioneertown Motel near Palm Springs—Whidbey Island felt like a true destination. Specifically, the Captain Whidbey: a circa-1907 shingle-sided lodge with deep community roots and killer views of Penn Cove. They discovered the property on a random late-night internet search in 2017, and as luck would have it, it came up for sale soon after. By spring 2018, they'd bought it, and began traveling between Whidbey and Palm Springs to operate the still-functioning hotel.
Last summer and fall, the French brothers and Portland-based partner Eric Cheong (a veteran of several Ace hotel projects) focused on assessing the aging property and getting to know the neighbors, including relatives of the Captain's handful of previous owners, many of whom still live on-island. These neighbors helped Cheong and the Frenches glean the stories behind the framed images that line the log-and-mortar walls: mustachioed men, elegant schooners, dusty diplomas.
But come 2019, the team went into high gear, closing the property for a major renovation. As of April 21, the Captain is again open for business. Upstairs guest rooms (there are 12 in the main lodge) are now updated with new mattresses, furniture, and cosmetic touches. Downstairs, the formerly separated dining room and bar are now one space, with a horseshoe bar and custom banquettes. There'll be regular live music, comfy nooks for "digital nomads," and—they stress—a continued emphasis on serving as a local gathering spot for retreats and meetings. In the overhauled kitchen, however, chef Eric Truglas is serving entirely new menus: house sourdough, cioppino (with mussels sourced from Penn Cove flats clearly visible from the dock), an oyster program, and a bounty of island produce.
For overnight visitors, the property's additional lodging spaces, four slicked-up cove-facing cabins and a 14 lagoon rooms, have all been completely refurbished. Even the Captain's huge flower gardens—raised beds full of dahlias and nasturtium occupying what otherwise might be a front lawn—are transitioning, albeit more slowly, into a true kitchen garden.
With time, Cheong and the Frenches plan to expand the Inn's amenities: oyster pop-ups on the dock, a sauna, and maybe charter boats to other San Juan destinations or sleep-aboard schooner.
"We want to be the central hub of Whidbey Island," says Cheong. "This is the place where people fell in love, where they went to prom." Plus, he adds: "it's the skinniest part of the island—everyone has to drive by."