The San Juan Islands, an archipelago between the coast of Washington and Canada's Vancouver Island, are like members of a clan. They share a family resemblance but each one has its own personality.
The islands are riding a wave of trendiness. A playground for outdoor lovers and wildlife enthusiasts, they are a hip getaway for mainlanders who come from as nearby as Seattle.Tourists who set up headquarters in the Emerald City, as Seattle is sometimes called, will find the San Juans to be a refuge from high-rises and hassles.
You won't lay eyes on a McDonald's, a Marriott, a Motel 6 or a mall. The islands don't even have a traffic light.
Your getaway can be as short as a day (counting the commute, you won't have much time on the island), or as long as a week.
The San Juans are some of the most pristine real estate in the Northwest. Kayaking, bicycling, hiking, sailing and just plain relaxing are the most popular activities. During the summer, you'll also likely spot pods of orca whales.
Whales understand that the area is a vast playground. "I (recently) saw a little pod of orcas swimming next to the ferry," said Michael Rivkin, president of the Orcas Island chamber of commerce. "They love to play and put on shows for people."
Altogether, there are hundreds of islands. One hundred and seventy two have names. The four largest - San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw - are served by Washington state ferries.
From the ferry, the islands look like they're covered with a carpet of evergreens. Once you set foot on ground, you'll discover they have wide open valleys, hills and dales. Towns are small and far between and roads are the two-lane version.
We visited the San Juan Islands this spring. We walked around Friday Harbor, following a dirt road over the crest of a hill where we overlooked the San Juan Valley. Farmhouses were here and there among the rolling fields of green. A small church, not much bigger than a double-wide trailer, was along that road. It had the familiar lettering of an LDS chapel.
A friendly resident walked quickly past us, carrying lilacs for her dinner table that she had picked in a neighbor's yard.
When you visit the San Juans, put your watch on a slower setting. One that allows you to breathe deep and smell the evergreens.
San Juan Island
Whale watching is probably the most popular activity. "The number one reason people come here is to see the orcas," said Elise DuFour, executive director of the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce.
Whale Watch Park and San Juan County Park on the island's west coast are two of the best places to spot whales. There are also whale watching cruises. May through September is the best time. But remember, Mother Nature doesn't offer a money-back guarantee.
The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor will enlighten you on the species.
The island also has seals, sea lions, eagles (both bald eagles and golden eagles), osprey and peregrine falcons.
San Juan is popular with RVers, but it isn't a place where you can drive forever. The island is approximately 19 miles long and seven miles wide.
Friday Harbor, where the ferry docks, is the island's hub and the most happenin' place on all the islands, offering the most amenities, including eateries and places to stay.
This is the most mountainous of the islands. Mount Constitution, 2,400 feet in elevation, is the highest point in the archipelago, which means it has the best view in the neighborhood. Drive, hike or ride your mountain bike (off-season only - during the summer, it's too crowded) to the peak's summit, which offers a 360-degree panorama. The observation tower, formerly a weather tower, is open to the public.
The terrain, with all its ups and downs, means it's a good island for serious bicyclists.
The island has five villages: Eastsound, Westsound, Deer Harbor, Doe Bay and Orcas Village (where the ferry docks). Shaped like a horseshoe, the island is 27 miles from tip to tip. It may have been named after orca whales, or after a Spanish explorer named Orca.
A hundred years ago, fishing and agriculture were the major industries. Tourism took hold at the turn of the century. The Orcas Hotel, which opened in 1909, is still up and running. Today, the island is known for art galleries that sell everything from paintings to pottery. Crow Valley Pottery is housed in a log cabin that dates from the 1860s.
"Beyond being beautiful, there's an eclectic group of residents here," said Michael Rivkin, president of the chamber of commerce. "I haven't met anybody boring here . . . There's a special magic on the island that people latch onto."
This is more rural than San Juan or Orcas. It offers good bicycling for people who don't suffer from testosterone poisoning. First, "there's less traffic, and, second, the terrain is rolling farmland. It's not as hilly or difficult a ride as San Juan or Orcas," said Becky Smith, who manages the San Juan Islands' visitor information service. She and her family moved to Lopez 15 years ago when their children were young. They moved there because of the laid-back lifestyle and the family orientation.
The island has one resort-type property along the shore called the Islander Lopez. Otherwise, accommodations are B&Bs or cabins.
Aside from a small grocery store at the ferry terminal, there are no commercial services on Shaw Island. The only place to stay is the campground at South Beach county park.
If you go
Getting there: Washington state ferries leave for the San Juan Islands from Anacortes, north of Seattle.
The ferry to San Juan Island departs Anacortes at 4:10 a.m., 6:15 a.m., 8 a.m., 11:25 a.m., 2:55 p.m., 5:20 p.m., 9 p.m and 12:10 a.m. The round-trip fare is $21.75 for a car and driver and $5.10 for each passenger.
The ferries also provide service between Anacortes and Orcas, Lopez and Shaw islands. The fare for a vehicle and driver is $19.25 to Orcas, $19.25 to Shaw and $16 to Lopez.
The Anacortes ferries also serve Sidney, B.C., near Victoria on Vancouver Island.
The one-way trip to San Juan Island takes 11/2 hours; the trip to Orcas is an hour and 20 minutes; the ferry ride to Lopez is under an hour; and the trip to Shaw takes a little more than an hour.
Island hop aboard the inter-island ferry at no extra charge as long as you're heading east. If you backtrack and go west, you'll pay extra.
Timing, as they say, is everything. If you arrive at the ferry dock just right, you'll have a minimal wait.
On a weekday, get there anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes ahead of time. On weekends, pleasure seekers from the mainland, their vehicles loaded with kayaks or bicycles, add to the congestion. The wait could be anywhere from two to eight hours.
In any case, it pays to bring your knitting.
For ferry information, call 206-464-6400.
For information: San Juan Islands Visitor Information, 888-468-3701, (www.guidetosanjuans.com), will send you a free booklet with information about the major islands.
The San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce, 360-378-5240, P.O. Box 98, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, will send you written information on request. Or visit its Web site at (www.sanjuanisland.org).
Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, 360-376-2273, P.O. Box 252, Eastsound, WA 98245, has limited written information. The best source is the island's Web site at (orcasisland.org).
Camping: Make reservations at county parks on the islands by calling 360-468-4413. Reserve sites at the islands' two state parks (Spencer Spit on Lopez and Moran on Orcas) by calling 800-452-5687.
Accommodations: Places to stay range from lakefront resorts to cabins to B&Bs. Prices start at about $39 a night but average about $100. If you'll settle for nothing but the most expensive, you might pay as much as $300. Unlike destinations on the mainland, you can't drive to the next town if you don't find a motel. Reservations are strongly recommended during the summer. Tourists who have landed on an island without reservations have been known to return to Anacortes the same day because they weren't able to find a place to stay. A hotline for last-minute reservations on Orcas Island is 360-376-8888.
The weather: On average, the islands get half the rainfall of Seattle. They average 245 days of sun a year. Summer daytime temperatures are in the mid-70s to mid-80s. Nights are cool, so take a sweater.
Things to do: Kayaking outfitters, bicycle rentals, sailboat rentals and whale watching cruises are available on the islands.