The Captain Whidbey Inn, a beloved Central Whidbey landmark, has been around for 111 years. Last week, as we sat on the inn’s outdoor cocktail deck in the sunshine, three guys from Portland whose combined ages don’t add up to the Captain’s were happy to tell me they are now the venerable inn’s new owners. “Escrow closed 43 minutes ago,” one said with a smile.
We don’t have a 24-hour news channel here on the Rock, but word like this does get around quickly. Did you hear that three young guys – Eric Cheong, 40, Matt French, 34, and Mike French, 29 – just bought the Captain Whidbey? Who are they? Why’d they buy it? What are they going to do to our local icon we love so much? (There’s always some anxiety among us locals when something we feel is culturally “ours” gets a new owner, especially if they are “not from around here.”)
But Eric, Matt and Mike are eager to answer the questions. What they have to say is smart and reassuring.
“It’s all about memories at the Captain Whidbey,” Matt said. “You came for a birthday or a wedding, but a lot of times that was in the distant past. One of our goals is to make this place relevant today, where you remember the past but also where you make new memories.”
The French brothers are members of a pioneering Portland family with strong ties to the maritime industry and real estate development. In 2014, Matt and Mike bought the rustic Pioneertown Motel, built in 1946 alongside a movie set in California’s high desert that was the location of several dozen western films and television shows. The brothers have turned it into a thriving getaway spot for stressed-out city folks and also a gathering place for locals.
Cheong, originally from Savannah, Ga., is an architect with his own design firm in Portland. He previously worked as the creative director of buildings for the trendy Ace Hotel chain, which has transformed historic structures into boutique hotels in several cities, including a former halfway house in Seattle’s Belltown.
Given their success at Pioneertown, the partners went shopping last year for a similar “rustic” opportunity.
“We were curious about the islands in Puget Sound and we looked for a place that’s rustic, immersed in nature but yet easily accessible from Seattle,” Matt said. “There are a lot of old lodges that are four or five hours away but we wanted a place that people (in the city) could get to easily and come back to.
“We were drawn to Whidbey Island because the setting is amazing, with (Ebey’s Landing National Historical) Reserve, Deception Pass, the whole rural feeling, the sense of peace. Part of it is just about taking the ferry, which changes how you feel when you get here.”
The three partners formed a new private corporation to buy the Captain Whidbey from Loyd Moore, its owner since 2007. Moore purchased it from John Stone and his family, who had owned it since 1964. The original inn, built as a “resort” for camping and fishing by Judge Lester Still in 1907, has a lobby, restaurant and bar downstairs and 12 guest rooms upstairs which Matt calls “small and cozy” with shared baths down the hall. In the 1970s, 13 “Lagoon View” rooms and four cabins were added, all with private baths.
The new owners say they will take their time before making any major changes.
“We’re going to live here for the summer and hear what the community and our customers have to say,” Mike said. “When we saw the Captain Whidbey, we could tell it definitely had been a community hub for a long time, and that’s a great legacy to build off.”
They have already hired experienced new innkeepers, Jeff and Erin Towery. (Jeff is originally from Sequim.) Next, they expect to work on improving the landscaping and “refreshing” the guest rooms with natural cork floors, new custom furniture, fresh paint and new beds “up to boutique hotel standards,” Eric said. Then, this winter they plan to “re-concept” the lobby, kitchen, restaurant and bar, but those plans are still in the works.
As millennials themselves, the new owners are aware of what their generation is seeking in “experiences” away from work and the city. “What we do here relates to what’s going on in Seattle with urbanism, job stress and fast-paced living,” Matt said.
And Mike added, “It’s almost a luxury these days for people and families to find a place to get away but not go far, relax and enjoy the ‘freedom’ of spotty cell phone coverage (which parts of Whidbey are famous for).”
In other words, the new owners want to expand the demographics of the inn’s guests, which in recent years has often been mostly older “adventure” travelers and retired Baby Boomers. “We’re not looking to make this place an exclusive resort,” Eric said. “We want it to be fun and casual.”
The new owners say the “refreshed” Captain Whidbey may try things such as a monthly guest chef series, performances by local musicians and gatherings that mix locals with overnight guests. And it will offer space for community organizations to hold events.
“Our initial reaction is that the Captain Whidbey has become somewhat unknown,” Eric said. “We want to get the word out to visitors and reconnect with the local community.”
Some of that will involve improving the inn’s website and doing more advertising and marketing. It may also involve partnering with community organizations.
The new owners also plan to spend lot of time dreaming up other ways to enhance the “experience” of the historic property. “We have six acres to work with,” Matt said.
“There is waterfront on both sides, and the place is historic and cozy. There is so much potential.”
And that potential definitely includes making better use of the inn’s dock and waterfront on Penn Cove. Kayaks and canoes might be available for guests as well as buoys to tie up private boats.
“That’s our biggest obsession right now,” Matt said. “The other night we were standing out on the dock with a full moon shining on the cove and it was amazing. The connection with the water is what really makes the Captain Whidbey Inn.”