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Explore the San Juan Islands

Explore the San Juan Islands
Explore the San Juan Islands

© JOHN LLOYD

Ranked #2 on the New York Times’s list of “Best Places to Visit in 2011,” the San Juan Islands are as close to perfection as you’re likely to ever come. The main islands—San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw—are just four in an archipelago of over 170 scattered along Washington’s northwestern crook, just north of the Olympic Peninsula and east of Victoria, British Columbia.

Though once inhabited by indigenous tribes, the islands fell into European hands in 1791 when they were charted by Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza. Centuries later, the archipelago’s dense pine and evergreen forests, rippling fields, sleepy villages, and tremendous local hospitality beckon explorers of all ages like a Siren’s song.

The islands are serviced by ferries departing from Anacortes, just an hour-and-a-half north of Seattle.

Orcas Island

The only downside to this rural getaway, with its miles of rolling pastureland, grazing cattle, winding country roads, and thick groves of madrona trees, is that the rest of your life will pale in comparison. The largest of the San Juans, Orcas’s permanent population of 5,000 nearly triples during the summer months, as tourists spill from the ferry in droves—a sight reminiscent of the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

One of the main destinations for out-of-towners is Moran State Park, the largest park in the San Juans. In its over 5,000 acres, the park contains Cascade Lake—a major warm weather hotspot with a children’s play area, a fishing dock, a roped-off swimming area, and kayak and paddle boat rentals—as well as several smaller lakes accessible by 30 miles of hiking trails. The gem of the park is unquestionably Mt. Constitution, which at 2,409 feet is the highest point in the archipelago. From the top of the stone fire lookout tower at the summit, visitors will see the crisp outlines of the Cascade Mountains (including Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker), Saturna Island (as well as dozens of the smaller San Juans), Bellingham, and the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia.

Back at sea level, Orcas’s main town, Eastsound, is a quaint hamlet containing everything from the requisite restaurants and grocery store to a gourmet chocolate shop, pottery gallery, and bakery. Every Saturday from mid-May through September, Eastsound holds a farmers market on the Village Green, complete with homegrown produce, grilled oysters, falafels, jewelry, face-painting, soaps, and live music. A quick stroll past the white makeshift tents will prove that the island prides itself on its resident artists. In fact, it seems that all roads lead to at least one pottery shop, among which are beloved and historic Crow Valley Pottery and Orcas Island Pottery, the latter established in 1945 and now in its fourth generation of potters.

Though Orcas is indeed the gateway to orca territory, the island was not named for its killer whale populations. The name “Orcas” comes from the Mexican explorer Juan Vicente de Guemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo (Try saying that ten times fast). Nevertheless, the island has taken advantage of the coincidence, and orcas are everywhere. A handful of companies ferry sunblock-wearing, binoculars-toting tourists into whale waters, and the orca spotting couldn’t be better.

Also of note is the town of Olga, with its art gallery and adjoining café. Peaceful Doe Bay Resort and Retreat outside of Olga is another draw, as is the YMCA’s Camp Orkila, and historic Rosario Resort and Spa (now a museum and events site), built in 1906 by Seattle shipbuilding Mayor Robert Moran.

Lopez Island

If you’re heading to Lopez, you’d be remiss if you didn’t pack your bike…or at least rent one when you arrive. The island’s mostly flat rural roads make it the most bicycle-friendly of the San Juans, and every spring Lopez holds its Tour de Lopez—a non-competitive family-friendly ride with both short and long routes.

As you’re cruising down the road with your helmet securely fastened, be sure to take a few pit stops at several of the island’s many beaches and public parks, where the sealife and eagles are bountiful. There are also golf courses and tennis courts available to the public, in case pedaling around an entire island isn’t enough physical activity for one day. No doubt you’ll catch a whiff of freshly baked cinnamon rolls at Holly B’s bakery; a detour here will reward you with a peach blackberry Danish or a pesto Parmesan brioche. You’ll probably need a minute to digest before climbing back on your bike.

Lopez Village is the heart of the island, with bookshops, cafes, galleries, a library, and kayak rental shops. As you make your way down the sidewalk, don’t forget to greet everyone you encounter—it’s the code of the locals.

San Juan Island

If you notice an inordinate amount of walk-on passengers disembarking the ferry at San Juan Island, that’s because you don’t need a vehicle to find yourself in the midst of the action. The ferry docks in Friday Harbor, the island’s main town, and the second you set foot on island soil you’re no more than five blocks from parks, public beaches, hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, ice cream parlors, bookstores, clothing boutiques, boat and kayak rentals, sailing lessons, fishing, diving, and whale watching tours.

If you’re traveling with a car or bike, you have no excuse not to visit the island’s Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Lose yourself in the organically certified (and certifiable aromatic) fields of undulating purple, or spend an afternoon browsing the farm’s 240 handcrafted lavender products. There’s even a cutting field where you are encouraged to harvest your own herbs, and a nursery where you can find the perfect potted lavender to start your garden or augment a preexisting one. The farm hosts San Juan Island’s annual Lavender Festival every July, which features lavender cultivation demos, freshly made lavender ice cream and lemonade, and workshops that teach you how to use the fragrant herb while cooking.

Once you’ve picked, smelled, and tasted your fill of lavender, head over to Roche Harbor on the northwest tip of the island. The seaport includes a 377-slip marina, which is considered one of the best in the western United States. Originally the site of the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company, the harbor is now a major launch point for kayaks and whale watching tours. The Roche Harbor Resort allows guests access to gardens, bocce ball and tennis courts, and hiking trails.

Shaw Island

With an area of just under eight square miles, Shaw is the “runt” of the San Juans and has a yearly population of approximately 230. It has one store, a museum, a library, and a one-room schoolhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “Little Red Schoolhouse.” But don’t let its diminutive size and lack of tourist activities deter you: for those seeking a peaceful weekend getaway in the woods, Shaw is the place. The island contains two small parks—Indian Cove County Park and Shaw Island County Park—with wooded campsites, boat launches and beach access, picnic areas, and walking paths that are part of the Cascadia Marine Trail System.

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