SEATTLE — Like many Seattleites, I've done the standard Whidbey Island weekend getaway, staying at cozy cottages and at the luxurious Inn at Langley.
This time I went to Whidbey for something completely different — the island's alternative, New Age side.
I wound my way through thick forest to The Yoga Lodge, a shoes-off, vegetarian and very tranquil B&B and retreat center. For nighttime entertainment, I counted the stars in the country-dark sky. In the morning, I woke up with downward dog yoga poses (and a real and very cute little dog) in a yoga class just steps from my bedroom.
For more exercise with a spiritual bent, I wandered the trails at Earth Sanctuary, a 72-acre enclave of forestland dotted with stone circles (think mini-Stonehenges), Buddhist prayer flags, and a Native American medicine wheel.
Despite my innate cynicism, I found myself contented and, I confess, even chanting in a vaguely Buddhist/Hindu sort of way, amid all the Whidbey good will and natural beauty. To round out my alternative getaway, I hiked amid old-growth cedar and firs (no, I didn't hug the trees) and learned about Whidbey's whales at the new Langley Whale Center.
Whidbey has a long tradition of off-the-beaten track lifestyles. The island's little town of Freeland was founded in 1900 by a socialist group that wanted the town's land to be free for the people. In the 1960s, hippies moved in (and dropped out), followed by more recent back-to-the-landers.
These days, Whidbey is an unusual cultural mix. Thousands of military men and women are based at the naval air station at Oak Harbor. Affluent retirees and high-tech second-homers are clustered along the island's splendidly scenic waterfront. Urban refugees — writers, artists, and devotees of alternative lifestyles, healing and spirituality — shelter in the woods, many of them in South Whidbey.
Want to get a taste of Whidbey's countercultural side? Here's what I sampled:
The Yoga Lodge
I found my "om" for the night at the two-story Yoga Lodge, tucked away at the end of a dirt road in an emerald-green clearing in the thick forest.
It's a combination retreat center (various yoga teachers bring their students for multiday retreats), B&B, and drop-in yoga-class studio, run for the last 10 years by Wendy Dion, a longtime yoga teacher.
Dion left the East Coast for this 10 acres of Whidbey woods, the lodge and her nearby house, and has never looked back.
"There's something very enchanting about this place," said Dion. "I feel held here, with the trees ringing the building … And people find the energy here helpful and move forward in a way they didn't expect."
In my night at the Yoga Lodge, I barely moved at all. I lolled on the couch, enjoying the whole upstairs of The Yoga Lodge to myself — a comfortable bedroom, bathroom, and a big communal living room/kitchen (with my breakfast tray of yogurt, fruit, a hard-boiled egg and bread waiting in the fridge). On my late-March visit I had the whole place to myself since no one was staying in the two dormitory-style rooms on the ground floor.
After reveling in the rural silence, I searched through the lodge's stack of CDs. I soon tired of Enya, a New Age Celtic crooner. Ditto with some ethereal flute music. A Beethoven symphony, the only one in the CD pile, made me much happier.
The next morning I managed to be the last one to arrive at Dion's hatha yoga class, even though it was just downstairs. A half-dozen locals, regulars at the class, were on their yoga mats and ready to go in the airy, gleaming-wood studio. Sunlight slanted through big windows; a deer ambled across the grass. As Dion expertly led us through yoga poses in her 1.5-hour class, her dog Maggie, a lovely little spaniel, slumbered and sometimes stretched on her blanket, a natural downward dog.
Who will love it: Yoga fans and those looking for a retreat-style stay in the woods. It's a comfortable, peaceful place to get away from it all.
Who won't: Need Wi-Fi? Bacon with your breakfast? Conventional hotel services? You won't get any of that.
The details: I paid $95 a night for my lodging and breakfast in the queen-bedded Ganesha room (yes, named for a Hindu god). That was a winter-season, one-person rate; it costs $125 for two people. From May through October, prices increase to $125 single and $155 double. Rates for simpler, dormitory-style rooms (with shared bathroom) begin at $65 in winter, $75 in summer. 3475 Christie Road, Greenbank; yogalodge.com or 360-929-5985.
Other places with a difference: Fashion your own retreat, or join workshops/retreats that focus on social and environmental change, at the Whidbey Institute, a peaceful 100-acre enclave with forest trails plus a lovely nondenominational sanctuary building and outdoor labyrinth; whidbeyinstitute.org.
Aldermarsh hosts residential retreats for "spirit-based work" amid its 11 acres of forest and wetland, offering tranquil cabins, a Native American-style sweat lodge and more; marshhouse.com.
Not to name-drop (or rather place-drop) too much, but the last place I saw a stupa — a Buddhist shrine — was high up in India's Himalayas.
So what's a stupa, a free-standing, sculptural structure around which the Buddhist faithful walk, meditate and pray, doing in the Whidbey woods?
The 13-foot-tall stupa is one of the latest additions to Earth Sanctuary, a 72-acre eco-spiritual enclave of forest, ponds and meandering trails. Painted stark white and edged by strings of colorful prayer flags, the stupa gleams amid the deep green Northwest forest. Landowner Chuck Pettis opened Earth Sanctuary in 2002 as a place to meld the natural world and human spirituality. And Pettis has a very long-term business plan for his land: He plans to restore Earth Sanctuary to a mature old-growth forest over the next 500 years. For now, the second-growth firs and alders — like much of Whidbey this land was logged long ago — are impressive enough, ringing tranquil ponds that echo with birdsong and the splashing of ducks.
But it's not just natural beauty. Pettis, a Tibetan Buddhist who is a co-executive director of Seattle's Sakya monastery, specializes in designing sacred spaces, and he's scattered small structures along the Earth Sanctuary paths where visitors can pray, mediate and, like me, gawk in surprise at finding things like a stupa in the Northwest woods.
On a blustery spring afternoon, I had the trails to myself and paused first at Earth Sanctuary's labyrinth, created out of low bushes and small stones. As I walked the small maze, on the edge of a pond, a heron eyed me warily. Labyrinth done, I continued along the gentle trails. Prayer flags were strung between trees. Up a steep little hill was a medicine wheel, a traditional Native American sacred space with stones patterned in a circle and spokes. Down in a grove stood a dozen vertical slabs of stone, like a little Stonehenge. The stupa gleamed on a hillside.
I paused by a row of Buddhist prayer wheels, small metal canisters that can be spun and carry forth prayers. I turned one, muttering a favorite Episcopalian prayer and figuring that god(s) wouldn't mind the ecumenical mix.
Who will love it: Buddhists and the Buddhist-inclined. Birdwatchers (lots of species cluster by the ponds). Anyone who wants a lovely walk in the woods with a difference.
Who won't: Skeptics. Those who don't want to pay the $7 donation that's asked.
The details: Earth Sanctuary is at 2059 Newman Road, near Freeland and just off Whidbey's main Highway 525. Open every day during daylight hours; earthsanctuary.org.