Crossing the Deception Pass bridge, or hopping onto a ferry, to Whidbey Island in the USA’s Pacific Northwest is a bit like stepping back in time – and I mean that in the nicest possible way. There’s a friendly, laidback, less hurried ambience, with a gentle rhythm to life guided by nature and the seasons. There’s a strong emphasis on creativity and the arts, a charming simplicity about the place, and few of the chain stores that are ubiquitous elsewhere. (The island does have Starbucks, but it’s close to Seattle where Starbucks originated, so we’ll excuse that.)
It was in this rather idyllic setting that the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) held its 2018 Conference earlier this month. I’ve been a member of the association for nigh on a decade and am grateful for the networking, professional development and numerous other opportunities it provides, not to mention the encouragement and inspiration to continue as a freelance writer – which can be a lonely and financially daunting profession at times, despite its many rewards.
I’ve attended two IFWTWA conferences before this one – one in Montgomery, Alabama, and the other in San Diego, California – both of which were excellent. I’ll be eternally grateful to the association for selecting me as the recipient of its Australasia Scholarship to attend this year’s conference on Whidbey Island, in Washington state.
Each of the host destinations I’ve visited have been very different – about as far removed from each other historically, culturally and geographically as you could get. In many ways, that’s the story of the United States and one of the reasons why I love travelling there – it’s such a vast country, with such a diversity of experiences, that you could never hope to see it all in a lifetime.
Sherrye Wyatt, of Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism, has been an associate member of IFWTWA for some time (I met her in San Diego two years ago) and she, along with her fellow islanders, could barely contain her excitement at so many travel writers and bloggers landing on her doorstep. She has an infectious smile anyway, but she was grinning from ear to ear as she welcomed delegates to a reception at the Oak Harbor Yacht Club. I’m sure it belied all the hard work and headaches that no doubt went into pulling off this mammoth event.
The reception set the scene for the next few days, from the magnificent sunset over the harbor to the warmth of the locals and the array of food and drinks on offer. The climate and commitment to quality on the island results in some fantastic produce that is keenly sought by top chefs in Seattle and beyond. We got a taste of that at the opening reception with a buffet of appetizers that included Glendale Shepherd and Mt Townsend artisan cheeses, Seabolts Dungeness crab cakes, 3 Sisters grass-fed beef sliders, and locally made pies with Whidbey Island icecream. The island is famous for its Penn Cove mussels and oysters, and I have to confess to making quite a few visits to the pop-up oyster bar where “knife for hire” Corey Burleigh was shucking oysters on the spot.
As Trio Nouveau performed live jazz, IFWTWA members enjoyed Blooms wines, Finnriver cider and a delicious cocktail made with blackberry liqueur and rye whiskey from Whidbey Island Distillery. Island County, which takes in Whidbey and neighbouring Camano Island, is home to seven wineries, two breweries and two distilleries. I spent some time at the reception talking to Whidbey Island Distillery owner Bev Heising who told me how she and her husband, a rocket scientist, fell into whiskey production almost by accident.
Yacht Club Commodore Larry Munns and U.S. Navy Commanding Officer Captain Geoff Moore welcomed IFWTWA members and told us a little bit about life on the island, which is home to an important naval air station. History buffs and aviation enthusiasts can have a field day here as there’s an impressive collection of World War II era vintage planes at the PBY-Naval Air Museum, and you only have to look up to see some of the world’s top military aircraft in action (although there wasn’t a peep out of them during the conference).
Camp Casey was the venue for the conference’s professional development day, where the PBY-Naval Air Museum’s Wil Shellenberger was one of the speakers on a Tourism Panel addressing the themes of Arts, Heritage and Adventure. Shellenberger referred to the island’s layered history, from the time native Americans arrived in the 1300s to the first European settlements in the 18th century, people from Washington state arriving in the mid 19th century, and the Navy base since before World War 2.
A ‘beautiful place to work hard’
“It was a hard life (on the island) but what a beautiful place to work hard. Many a naval aviator couldn’t believe his luck when he ended up on the island,” said Shellenberger. “Most of our visitors are heritage travellers. Whidbey has a very strong sense of preservation. The whole Ebey reserve (Ebey’s Landing National Historic Preserve) is an attempt to preserve a way of life.”
Krista Loercher, from Whidbey Island Kayaking Company, made me giddy as she rattled off a long list of things to do on Whidbey and Camano Islands, from thousands of miles of hiking trails, to mushroom tours, tree climbing, zip lining, sailing on an historic schooner, bioluminescence tours, bike tours, and wildlife viewing. “We have big whales here and a ton of seals, sea lions, and porpoises. I think the superstars though are the birds,” said Loercher. “The bird life is just so rich. We are a big migratory point for birds. Everybody comes for the whales but we have a lot of other superstars here.”
Lisa Bernhardt, from the Pacific Northwest Art School, spoke about the flourishing arts scene on the island and the opportunities it presents for visitors, from galleries to workshops and art trails. “We hope Whidbey casts its spell on all of you,” she said. It certainly did.
After the Tourism Panel, there was a short break during which Seattle-based Victrola Coffee Roasters offered tastings of two coffees, the single estate Huehuetenango from Finca Durazno in Guatemala, and a blend from the Hingakawa women’s coffee co-operative in Rwanda. Fortified by the coffee hit, it was on to the conference’s keynote address, presented by Erin James, editor of SIP Northwest and Cidercraft magazines. The latter is the first and only print magazine in the U.S. focused entirely on cider.
Cider sales are booming
James is the author of Tasting Cider: The Cidercraft Guide to the Distinctive Flavors of North American Hard Cider, a book she wrote in just 9 weeks. What a dynamo! A copy of the book was given to each conference delegate and it’s a fascinating read. Washington state is the largest producer of apples in the United States, accounting for about 60% of the country’s supply. The state has more than 70 cider producers, and sales of cider are booming in the U.S., a trend we’re also seeing in Australia. “Cider is in a really exciting place right now,” said James. “Craft is truly king here, and it’s been exciting to grow up with that.”
Speaking on the theme “The Romance and Realities of Beverage Journalism”, James rattled off some impressive statistics about Washington. It’s the second largest premium wine producer in the U.S. and has more distilleries than any other state except California. Her single most important piece of advice to aspiring writers: Know your publication. Nothing rankles more, she said, than receiving a letter addressed to a previous editor who hadn’t worked there for 7 years. Put value and integrity into what you do and what you’re writing, and branch out for other opportunities. “Everyone wants to do feature stories but consider pitching for columns and particular departments.”
Some of Whidbey Island’s wonderful food and beverage producers spoke about their work, their motivation and Whidbey’s farm-to-table experiences. Schoolteacher Crystie Kissler and her husband, a 5th generation Washington farmer, had a lifetime dream of “establishing a farm with a mission to reconnect people with nature”. When neighbours gave them a bottle of cider to try, “it was a complete revelation”. And thus, Finnriver Farm & Cidery was born. “We had no idea that we would be at the forefront of a national cider renaissance.”
Listening to the Culinary Panel speak about the island’s bountiful produce and the way that its farmers and chefs strive for perfection had everyone enthralled, if not a little envious. “I have never had produce better than the produce grown on Whidbey Island. It’s important that we support it and we pay more for it,” said Vincent Nattress, whose restaurant, Orchard Kitchen, some of us had the good fortune to dine at the following night.
A lovely camaraderie
What was also clear was the camaraderie that exists on the island. When Georgie Smith, of Willowood Farm, had everyone tearing up about the barn fire that almost brought her business to its knees, there was a bright spot in hearing how Nattress took 8 pounds of Rockwell beans from his pantry and gave them back to Smith “because it was more important that she have it …. the genetics of the beans was important.”
Members broke into two groups for the conference workshops, one group hearing from the San Juan Islands tourism folk about “How Your Stories Can Promote A Destination Wish List”, and the other hearing all about luxury travel from Edward Quan, who has a website called Style Drama. Quan, who used to be a buyer in the European luxury fashion business, said there was a really interesting correlation between luxury fashion and luxury travel. He cited a Louis Vuitton handbag advertisement that focused not on a house nor other objects but rather on an exotic destination, exemplifying the company’s “spirit of travel” slogan that it had promoted for decades.
Quan noted that whereas traditionally backpackers pioneered destinations and luxury travellers followed, these days luxury hotels were driving new destinations, such as in Nicaragua, Bali and Vietnam. Historically, luxury travel meant first-class travel, Quan said. Today’s luxury travellers were seeking transformational experiences, authentic local interaction, exclusive access, simplicity, sustainability, personalised itineraries, and Instagram moments.
“True luxury is the ability to go off the beaten track in relative comfort … to enjoy authentic experiences; to experience things only the locals know and to come away feeling enriched.” Quan noted that people were constantly reshaping their bucket lists. “There’s a sense of urgency these days, to get things done and to see things,” he said. “I guess it’s the state of the world we live in today.”
Quan’s tips for which destinations rate most highly with luxury travellers: Georgia, the Chinese city of Chengdu, Malta (“very desirable to a lot of Europeans”), Japan (“the top luxury destination for families”), and Antarctica (“anything cold is hot right now”). And there you have it – lots of ideas for travel and writing, and for combining these great loves.
The second day of the conference was an opportunity to get out and about exploring Whidbey Island, kicking off with a boat tour of the renowned Penn Cove mussel farm, followed by lunch at one of three local wineries (a splendid repast at Comforts of Whidbey for the group I was assigned), a couple of hours spent independently exploring the historic township of Langley, and finally a farm-to-table dinner at one of two establishments, Roaming Radish or Orchard Kitchen. After hearing Orchard Kitchen’s owner/chef Nattress talk the day before about his love for the island, it was such a pleasure to dine at his table and sample the fruits of his labour.
IFWTWA members had the opportunity to do pre- and post-conference tours, and I was lucky enough to have a couple of days on neighbouring Camano Island. If Whidbey Island is a quiet haven, Camano is even more so – a real treasure in the jewel box that is Washington. I can’t thank IFWTWA enough for the opportunity to put the International into IFWTWA, the inspiration to continue travelling and writing, the networking opportunities, and most importantly, for taking me to a corner of the United States that I as an Aussie traveller probably wouldn’t have thought of going to but am very glad I did.
For more information about the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association, visit the IFWTWA website.