For years, whenever I heard anyone talk about the San Juan Islands, I thought they spoke of a destination in Mexico. Or Spain. Or some close-to-the-equator, sun-blistered spot accessible only by a long plane ride. Imagine my surprise when my husband, an avid boater, suggested we “drive up to the San Juans.”
The San Juan Islands, most people probably know, are an archipelago of some 170 islands (that’s counting even the ones that qualify only as rocks) way up north, between mainland Washington state and Canada, surrounded by calm, chilly straits. The islands best known to visitors include Fidalgo, Whidbey, San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw, and of those, two are accessible directly by car—Whidbey, via the gorgeous Deception Pass, and Fidalgo. The others require a ferry ride (load your car on the boat) or flight. Both times we’ve visited, we have taken the ferry out of Anacortes on Fidalgo Island, which is about an hour and a half north of Seattle.;
From the minute we parked our car in the ferry hold and made our way up the steps, we were on vacation. Out on Rosario Strait, slipping between the other islands on our way to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, we had no doubt we were someplace special.
For one thing, it’s a beautiful landscape of water, land and sky, with something dynamic going on at all levels. The calm waters between the tree-lush islands are rife with pods of orcas, often visible to ferry passengers. On clear days, Mount Baker and the Cascades loom in the distance, and other times, the clouds stack up in layers—you’ve never seen so many shades of gray and white. Sometimes the ferry skirts so close to island shores that you can see black-tailed deer bounding through the tangled brush.
It also quickly becomes obvious that this isn’t an overdeveloped tourist area teeming with celebrity restaurants or big-corporation anything. Once you leave Anacortes, the islands’ biggest hub is Friday Harbor, where we did not spot one large-chain establishment. Throughout our time on the islands, narrow roads lined with grass led us from one destination to another, always affording a view of a beach, a strait, a verdant meadow, a stand of trees, shrubbery and deer—lots and lots of deer. Our fellow tourists were cyclists, hikers, boaters, kayakers, beachcombers and whale-watchers, and the locals seemed thrilled to see us in early June.
SAN JUAN ISLAND
San Juan Island lures visitors with its rocky beaches, grassy meadows and peaceful harbors; it also is home to Friday Harbor, a historic seaport and busy town. Exit the ferry in Friday Harbor and you’ll find plenty to do within walking distance. Wander among the boats in the harbor and imagine life aboard one—island hopping, drinks on the deck. Stop into Friday Harbor Seafood to see what fishing boats are bringing in, and keep a lookout for Popeye the harbor seal. She’s blind in one eye and such a well-loved fixture that her statue graces the park above the harbor. By the ferry dock, scoot upstairs to Harbor Bookstore, where the owner, Keith Baker, talks San Juan Islands history and provides plenty of tourism tips for your stay.
Up the hill from the harbor, shops and restaurants line the couple of streets that make up the town. Grab a coffee at The Bean Cafe or a towering cone of Lopez Island ice cream at San Juan Florist (yes, that’s right, at the florist). Explore the art galleries, and check out The Whale Museum, where the secondfloor exhibit hall wows visitors with life-size whale models and skeletons. The museum is a great place to bone up on your orca knowledge and learn what to look for when you head out to Lime Kiln Point State Park with your binocs and hope to spot one of the black-and-white beauties.
Plan to spend at least a couple of days on San Juan Island. Drive out to Lime Kiln Point—the ride along West Side Road is worth the trip on its own, with dramatic coastal views—and catch a glimpse of orca and minke whales in Haro Strait. Take the trail loop from the marine mammal viewing spot to the lighthouse and on to the lime kilns. Another great spot for whale-watching: Cattle Point, which lies at the south tip of the island and includes interpretive trails that wind through the bluffs above the beach. Watch the water for orcas, minkes (often a whale-watching tour sits on the cliff by the lighthouse, a prime vantage point), porpoises and seals. On land, you likely will see deer and, sometimes, little blond foxes that slink through the grass.
History lends its name to several landmarks on San Juan Island, including American Camp and English Camp, which pay homage to the Pig War of 1859, wherein a pig was shot (it’s a long story involving potatoes and farmers and the Oregon treaty) and commenced the battle between the United States and British North America (now Canada) over who could claim the San Juan Islands as its territory.
Inland on the island, stop off at Krystal Acres alpaca farm, where some 70 fuzzy alpacas graze the green-green grasses and supply wool like that used for the sweaters, gloves, scarves and other gift items for sale in the on-site country store. (This is where we acquired Paco the Alpaca, an adorable six-inch brown alpaca replica that went everywhere with us on our trip this past June.) Also inland, organic Pelindaba Lavender farm becomes a fragrant hotspot every summer when the plants bloom. Visit the Gatehouse Farm Store for handcrafted lavender items such as soap, lotion, shampoo, honey, mustard and cookies. Also while you’re on San Juan Island, drop by the San Juan Vineyards tasting room. It’s hard to miss on Roche Harbor Road with its pretty schoolhouse—and across the street, you might see Mona, the island’s notorious camel. She and her llama friend belly up to the fence and wait for passers-by to stop and say hello. Look out— Mona likes to kiss.
WHERE TO EAT — In Friday Harbor, Coho Restaurant has just nine tables in a historic Craftsman house about three blocks from the ferry terminal. With ingredients sourced from local farms, Coho’s menu includes Lopez Island lamb leg, smoked pork belly, Alaskan cod and other Pacific Northwest delights. At The Bluff, the restaurant attached to Friday Harbor House, the view is astonishing and the menu is heavy on island-sourced ingredients, such as the bull kelp in the pork rillette. Try the steamed mussels with housemade sausage or the Columbia River steelhead. Up the road, Duck Soup Inn sits four miles outside of Friday Harbor, in the woods and overlooking a couple of pretty ponds. Local prawns, Alaskan Weathervane scallops, roasted duck breast and filet mignon grace the menu, and soup and organic salad are included.
WHERE TO STAY — Roche Harbor, an all-in-one-spot resort at the northwest corner of San Juan Island, has all manner of accommodations—hotel, condo, house—three restaurants, a village with a grocery store, a full-service spa, bocce and tennis courts, and a heated swimming pool. Another multifaceted option: Lakedale Resort at Three Lakes, where you can camp, “glamp,” sleep in a log cabin, or stay at the grown-ups-only lodge or in the lake house. Lakedale’s glamping options include canvas cabins with beds and bedding—and some with electricity—but you’ll be traipsing under the stars to the bathrooms. Upgrade to the lakefront canvas cottage and you’ll have electricity (even a chandelier) and your own in-canvas bathroom. The resort, lush and woodsy, is anchored by three spring-water lakes, and it has a general store where you can rent canoes, buy groceries—like when you realize you need matches to start the fire in the backyard pit at the cabin—and pick up an espresso. One of the best things about Lakedale: the trails and roads, where you can take a walk and feel like you’re miles from civilization. Finally, if you’re looking for more of an inn experience, check into Friday Harbor House. On the bluff overlooking the marina, this 23-room inn spoils guests with gas fireplaces, jetted tubs (big ones), flat-screen televisions and a delicious breakfast served downstairs at The Bluff restaurant. A stay here exposes you to quintessential San Juan Islands life, with the ferry horns moaning and the bustling marina down below. Go out onto the patio, and watch the boats and seaplanes come and go.
GET OUT ON THE WATER
Sea kayaking and whale-watching should be priority activitities during any vacation in the San Juan Islands. Sea kayaking can be done solo or as part of a tour; single kayaks rent for about $70 for the day, and tours run approximately $80 for a half-day excursion. Whalewatching charters cost about $80 per person, and boats leave from just about any San Juan Islands commercial harbor.
EARLY TO RISE, LATE TO BED
The sun comes up early and goes down late during spring and summer in the Pacific Northwest. That might not sound like that big a deal, but when it’s getting light around 5 a.m. and light is still gleaming from the horizon at 10 p.m., sleep can be elusive. Good thing you’re on vacation!
GOOD WEATHER, LOW CROWDS
They’re called “the shoulder seasons,” those two times a year when the weather’s nice and the tourist population is low, yet the ferries are running almost full schedule, and local restaurants and retailers are open for business. Come to the San Juan Islands in late May or early June, and you’ll likely be treated to perfect 70ish-degree sunny or cloudsplotched days and low tourist activity. Short ferry lines, available restaurant tables, vacancies at inns—it all adds up to a more convenient vacation experience. By mid-June, activity begins to heat up, and by July, ferry waits can last hours.
The largest of the San Juans, Orcas Island is a horseshoe-shape block of land with its main hub—Eastsound—at the center. Orcas is green and serene, so quiet when we were there in early June that the roads seemed almost deserted except for numerous deer and the occasional cyclist.
In Eastsound, walk among the shops and galleries in the village, and check out several pottery studios in the area. Crow Valley Pottery & Gallery has a storefront in the village, but the real draw is its circa-1866 log cabin on Orcas Road across from the golf course. Another pottery spot, Orcas Island Pottery, sits west of Eastsound near West Beach. With its 150-year-old cabin, treehouse studio, beautiful grounds and view, it’s a must-stop for anyone in the market for one-of-a-kind pottery.
to Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. You can drive to the lookout point, but if you walk the seven-mile trail from Mountain Lake campground, half the fun is in getting there. You’ll hike through the deep woods of Moran State Park, rife with vibrant moss and ferns and logs and waterfalls. Once you reach the top, climb the steps to the top of the lookout tower for a panoramic view of the islands, the Cascades, Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and more. There’s a weird little gift shop just off the parking area—pick up a candy bar or an Orcas Island sweatshirt, and glean priceless information about dining and sightseeing from whoever is working the counter that day.
Hikers can find trails on other parts of the island, including Obstruction Pass State Park and Turtleback Mountain Preserve, where the views unfold as you walk and a trip up to Ship Peak affords sweeping vistas of Orcas’ pastoral land. The 1,519-foot Turtleback Mountain, once off-limits to the public, rises on the lesser-traveled western side of Orcas and lures people drawn to its quiet mysticism. Rumor has it there’s no better place for a solo yoga practice than Ship Peak.
WHERE TO EAT — In Eastsound, a couple of restaurants stand out, including Allium, where the daily gnocchi is drizzled with truffle oil and the Pacific halibut with red Thai sauce awakens your tongue. The New Leaf Cafe in Outlook Inn has fresh local fish and uses ingredients from local farms and purveyors—go for a platter of island oysters if you’re a fan of the shellfish. Outside Eastsound, on the way to Olga, Cafe Olga delights breakfasters and lunchers with the likes of bacon Swiss scones and a “scallabut” sandwich. No matter what time of day, don’t leave without having a slice of Shaker lemon pie.
WHERE TO STAY — Orcas Island Bayside Cottages, located on Buoy Bay, face the small islands of Lummi, Cypress and Sinclair and provide a stellar view of Mount Baker. The nine cottages are spaced at least 200 feet apart, and each is different. Stay in the titular Bayside Cottage, which is parked right above the pebbly private beach, and lounge by the wood-burning stove on a chilly night. In the morning, sip your coffee on the deck and wake up watching otters tumble in the bay. If you’ve got a crowd, the neighboring Beach House would be a better choice, with sleeping arrangements for seven people. A waterfront farmhouse, it’s got a stunning glassed-in sun porch, antique furniture and plenty of room to spread out within its 2,000 square feet. Several of the cottages, including Cypress and the Mt. Baker Suite, have European-style alcove box beds. No matter which cottage you choose, you have access to the private beach, heavily populated with rocks and boulders and great for tide-pooling.
LOPEZ AND SHAW ISLANDS
These smaller islands along the Washington State Ferries route draw cyclists and sea kayakers. Shaw is largely undeveloped, but visitors disembark here to camp at Shaw Island County Park or visit the Shaw Island Historical Museum. Lopez Island, while just 29.5 square miles, has a walkable village where you can catch the farmers market Saturday mornings, browse the shops, taste wine and indulge in fudge or ice cream. Cruise out to Shark Reef Sanctuary to see seals and sea lions or explore tide pools at Agate Beach County Park. Stay the night in the village at Edenwild Inn or venture out of town to the MacKaye Harbor Inn, where mountain bike rentals are included in your stay, and truffles are served at sunset.