So You Want to Live on ... an Island

When you've traveled to islands all over the world, the one where you settle down has to be special.

Joanne and Dewey Schurman
Whidbey Island, Washington

Dewey Schurman, a freelance writer and editor, saw plenty of options when he worked for the travel magazine Islands. But he and his wife, Joanne, found their match in Whidbey Island, Washington. They built their home on Whidbey four years ago, after moving from the Santa Barbara area in California. "It's hard to find a spot on the coast like this, where big forests go right down to the water," says Dewey.

He sees 45-mile-long Whidbey as "almost like two islands. The northern end has the bulk of the population, and it's connected by a bridge to the mainland. Where we live, it's a lot more rural. We can only see one other house, and we take the ferry." The locals, he adds, "joke that it takes a day to recover from the traffic on a trip to the other side." Of course, having a city such as Seattle just an hour away has its advantages, Starbucks coffee and Seahawks football among them.

The Schurmans, whose children are grown, cleared part of an 8-acre parcel to build what Dewey describes as "a good Northwest house." The cedar-clad, single-story home displays Asian and Pacific Northwest influences, and has lots of windows that capitalize on the southern exposure and westerly views of water and mountains. "One of the things I love here is the play of light, even in winter," says Joanne. "It's especially beautiful when the sun breaks through the clouds and you can see the snow on the Olympic Mountains."

The sea provides more than just lovely scenery. Joanne frequently paddles its waters in the afternoon. "It's a place where you can leave a kayak on the beach, and it will still be there when you come back," she says. She and Dewey often spot eagles and loons during walks along the shore.

Selecting an island home might seem like a straightforward decision, but the Schurmans recommend a systematic approach to anyone contemplating a leap from the mainland. "An island is a smaller world all to itself," says Dewey. "You should spend a lot of time on any island you're considering before you make the move. That means going there in all seasons, especially in a place like the Pacific Northwest. Things like light and wind conditions change from season to season, and microclimates can vary from one location to another, even on small islands."

Also consider transportation. The Schurmans' ferry connections are conveniently frequent―but, Dewey points out, "there are islands up here where you can wait six or eight hours for the next boat."

Dewey and Joanne enjoy their solitude but appreciate Whidbey's neighborly spirit. "Before we built here, we made a point of meeting every one of our neighbors within walking distance," Dewey recalls. "Because people on islands tend to be a little bit different, it's important to get to know your prospective neighbors. We liked them all." Fellow islanders helped the Schurmans clear their land and cut firewood, and welcomed them with baskets of oysters and mussels.

Dewey and Joanne have planted vegetable gardens, plus a sizable fruit orchard. The semi-dwarf apple, apricot, peach, and plum trees help define what Dewey likes to think of as "a saltwater farm."

"That's a Maine term, and I always envied that life. But I didn't want four months of snow," he explains. "Here, of course, you have to like rain, but the storms blow over fast. Often we'll have rain at night, then a cloudy morning followed by a sunny afternoon. It's not a true rain forest. But the brush grows like the jungles of Borneo."

Despite the weather, things always run on "island time." "You tend to think of that as a tropical concept," says Dewey, "but it's just as true up here. Everything is a little slower. It's just a different way of life."

Island Options

Washington state's San Juan Islands are strewn among the waters where the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca meet, north of Puget Sound. Some 40 of the forested, often mist-shrouded islands are inhabited, but ferries out of Anacortes serve only four: Lopez, Orcas, San Juan, and Shaw.

Among New England islands, many of the most famous lie just off the coast of Maine. Some of the most practical for year-round living are within Casco Bay, where the lights of Portland glow just to the west. There are supposedly 365 of these Calendar Islands. The big ones―Peaks, Chebeague, Cliff, and Little and Great Diamond―connect to Portland by ferry, although Peaks has the best service. If you work late in the city, or stick around for dinner or a show, you may need to book a hotel room. Boats stop running early, especially in the off-season.

New Jerseyans love going "down the shore." The lucky ones live there all year. Long Beach Island, a sandy barrier that divides Barnegat Bay from the Atlantic, has some of the Garden State's best beaches. Communities on both the bay and ocean sides (they're seldom more than a half-mile apart) stay quiet in the off-season and get lively in summer, but without the honky-tonk of Seaside Heights or the glitz of Atlantic City. A plus: A causeway connects to the mainland, putting New York City and Philadelphia within two hours' reach.

The Florida Keys trail like a string of pearls along the Overseas Highway, the southern terminus of U.S. 1. Key Largo features more development than when Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson mixed it up in the 1948 movie Key Largo. Farther south, Islamorada is a sportfishing mecca, while Marathon and Big Pine keys offer the most extensive housing stock. At the end of the line, Key West brandishes a variety of charms.

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