“It’s impossible not to mellow out here, even if you face a two-ferry wait,” explains Dan, a regular weekend traveller to the San Juan Islands. “You instantly have nowhere to go, a beautiful vista while you wait and a wonderful few days in store.”
Autumn remains a great time to visit the islands, as the rainshadow is in full effect and the temperature usually ranges from crisp to warm. Farmers markets fill village squares come Saturday, the pure sunlight appears to dance off the backs of resident Orca whales, and the room demand and ferry traffic diminishes significantly, though busy weekends still prevail.
Lopez Island itself feels isolated for many reasons. Though certainly one of the “˜Big Three’ and the first stop on the Anacortes ferry, it lacks the luxury of Orcas’ Mansion Restaurant at Rosario Resort and the “˜urban’ feel of Friday Harbor on San Juan. It is also the most agrarian of the easily accessed islands; you’ll pass more sheep than cars. In fact, Cape St. Mary Ranch and Crowfoot Farm sell grass-fed beef and flats of seasonal berries respectively straight from their farms.
Make time to drive up-island to Agate Beach County Park, a perfect playground for bounding over rocky outcroppings and seeking out anemones, sea stars and crabs. Tide pooling combines sleuthing and a keen eye, a perfect task for anyone who’s willing. Overturn a log or rock to watch small red rock crabs quickly wedge themselves between rock and driftwood before digging downward toward safety.
Depart with the rising tide and return to Lopez Village, the island’s sole town and home to its Farmers Market, an eclectic assortment of artisans ranging from hand knit sweaters to a thirteen-year old’s raspberry-lemonade stand. You can score fudge samples, listen to some fiddlin’ and laze about the green, soaking in a vibe more reminiscent of an open-air English market than the street markets of Seattle.
Like any bohemian enclave, bakeries abound in Lopez Village. Order sandwiches at Vita’s, a wonderful alchemy of wine merchant, deli (if balsamic-marinated Portobello mushrooms smothered with a sun-dried tomato tapenade can be called deli fare) and delicious baked goods, including a wickedly good lemon tart. It’s an easy stroll to Holly B’s Bakery for a caffeine punch. Then there’s Isabel’s Espresso, as authentic a bohemian outpost as you’ll find in the state.
If San Juan Island is Washington’s Martha’s Vineyard, then Friday Harbor plays Vineyard Haven. You’ll discover plenty of traditional dockside dining featuring Dungeness crab and oysters grilled to order. The Bluff at Friday Harbor House goes haut coastal cuisine with flash fried kelp and calamari featuring locally harvested bull kelp. Numerous ice cream shops serve Lopez Island Ice Cream, sweetening the mood toward island life.
Mornings here begin at Rocky Bay Cafe, followed by exploration of the harbour village to check out the maritime aesthetic inside Mystical Mermaid, the lavender essence at Pelindaba Lavender and kite selections at the eclectic Toy Box. Pick up a white truffle oil slice of pizza at the Farmers Market. Should you miss this Saturday institution, open year-round at the Brickworks, make the effort to visit Bakery San Juan, located near the airport about five miles from town.
Located four miles outside of Friday Harbor, Lakedale Resort at Three Lakes provides every type of rustic lodging imaginable from lodge rooms, log cabins, platform tents and campsites to the newest addition, a 1978 Excella Airstream trailer. Reminiscent of a 1950’s resort, Lakedale features stocked lakes, self-powered boat rentals and one of the best “king of the raft” platforms around.
No trip to the San Juan Islands would be complete without exploring the great Salish Sea, aka Puget Sound. The University of Washington recognized the rich tidal zone ecology when zoology professor Trevor Kinkaid established the Friday Harbor Laboratories in 1903. A visit to this marine biology centre provides an ideal introduction to the Cascadia marine biosphere. The San Juan Nature Institute also offers a prolific schedule of lectures, workshops and other events.
Follow your inspired academic visit with a paddle, sail or marine mammal tour from one of numerous island outfitters located in Friday Harbor. San Juan Safaris offers group and charter whale watching excursions, with an excellent record for spotting orcas through November.
Kayaking is king on Orcas Island. East Sound and West Sound provide gentle waters ideal for novice kayakers. Several outfitters feature some variation of culinary kayaking excursion. Outdoor Odysseys and Discovery Sea Kayaks feature three to five-day beer or wine tasting trips throughout the 172-island archipelago departing from Orcas.
Save an hour to scurry up Mt. Constitution, located in 5,252-acre Moran State Park. The 2,399-ft peak, highest in the islands, provides a 360-degree vista of this gorgeous archipelago, mainland’s Mt. Baker and, on a clear day, Mt. Rainier and other volcanoes in the Pacific Rim of Fire. Turtleback Mountain Reserve is also worth the visit, as is nearby Shaw Island, especially when taking a bike on the interisland ferry system.
Orcas Island’s kitchen scene evolves annually, long considered one of the culinary hot spots in the entire Pacific Northwest. The New Leaf Café at Outlook Inn and The Inn at Ship Bay restaurant purvey fresh takes on sustainably harvested seafood from the region.
Note: foodies should not miss The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, home to James Beard chef Blaine Wetzel, who recently collaborated with food writer Joe Ray to publish “Sea and Smoke – Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest.” Though part of the San Juan Archipelago, Lummi Island access comes via a cable ferry located eighteen miles northwest of Bellingham.
First time visitors to Seattle often explore no farther than city landmarks like Pike Place Market and perhaps a day-trip excursion to Mt. Rainier, having not heard about the San Juan Islands. Once they explore this fabled archipelago of old growth forests, ecological and cultural niches however, they feel the ineluctable desire to return that locals know all too well.
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Have you visited the San Juan Islands? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Crai Bower