Island Idyll: Washington’s San Juan Islands

leadsanjuanislands2Refreshing salt air buffeted me softly as I leaned against the ferry railing. The mainland was just a streak on the horizon, and the emerald-green water bubbled, forming lacey patterns in a trail behind us. Seagulls churned the air, crying raucously, in hopes that someone might toss popcorn skyward for them to catch. Off the port side, we approached a rounded hummock of an island, solidly blanketed with the deep blue-green of a Douglas fir and cedar forest. Another forested island, rimmed with driftwood, slipped past on the starboard side.

Over the soughing of the waves and cries of the gulls, the ferry’s public-address system crackled as a voice announced: “The Lopez Island soccer team wishes Casey a happy birthday!” Cheers erupted from the passengers, and smiles broke out as everyone joined in the celebration.

Even before the announcement, I had a big smile on my face. Along with my husband, I was on my way to one of my favorite places: Washington state’s San Juan Islands, an enchanting archipelago where visitors and locals alike wave as they pass each other, where kayaking and bicycling are as common as driving, and where the pace of life slows to a languid mosey, whether along gallery-filled streets or along a sandy beach.

The San Juans, located north of Seattle , between Washington’s mainland and Canada’s Vancouver Island, consist of 172 named islands, with a population of just over 14,000. The largest is Orcas Island, a horseshoe-shaped island that encompasses 360,000 acres (147.37 km²).

Four of the largest islands (San Juan, Lopez, Orcas and Shaw) are reachable by state ferry service; the others range from privately-owned islands to tiny islets with marine campgrounds. Situated in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains to the west, the San Juans enjoy 247 days of sunshine annually, and average only 22 inches (56 cm) of rainfall, making them ideal for exploring in every season.

As we rolled down the ferry ramp and onto the dock, we were greeted by a row of bright flowers in pots decorating the ramp, offering a cheery welcome to Lopez Island. I already knew all about Lopez’s welcoming attitude, from years of visits. In my youth, I had sailed here with friends and rowed ashore to traverse the island beaches.

On other trips, I had ridden my camping gear-laden bike off the ferry, then meandered through fields of browsing sheep to Spencer Spit State Park. There, I watched great blue herons stalking minnows in a saltwater lagoon, counted graceful deer and scurrying rabbits, and then counted the stars at night, sitting around a campfire with friends.

On visits to Orcas Island, I kayaked to the nearby wilderness preserve of Jones Island, soaked in the streamside outdoor tub at the rustic Doe Bay Resort & Retreat and climbed to the top of Mt. Constitution for a bird’s-eye view of the islands and skerries. On San Juan Island I visited art galleries and attended an intimate jazz concert. And on diminutive Shaw Island, I biked to a tranquil beachside campsite.

On this trip, though, we weren’t roughing it. It was fall, and rather than waking up to frost, my husband, Eric, and I had chosen to stay in the charming, Cape Cod– inspired Three Seasons cottage, in Lopez Village. We settled into the sea-themed cottage with its blue-and-white décor, then set out on our walk to dinner. We didn’t have to walk far to the Bay Café, with its gorgeous views of Fisherman’s Bay and distant islands. A crackling fire warmed the intimate room, and soft jazz music set the stage for creative riffs on local fare.

The restaurant is renowned for serving food grown and harvested on the islands, and our meal was no exception. We enjoyed fresh Dungeness crab and shrimp cakes, housemade apple-squash soup and filets of tenderloin with grilled Portobello mushrooms.

Morning arrived, and with it, the sun. We rolled out of bed and onto our bikes, which we had brought with us. Our first stop was Holly B’s Bakery, in the village, for coffee, and nut-and-raisin-filled cinnamon rolls that are siren calls for me. (I admit that I’ve scheduled trips to Lopez just to enjoy these buttery delights.)

Sufficiently sated, we rode around the curved arm of Fisherman’s Bay, past fishing boats at piers, past the island’s homemade ice cream store and past a gorgeous stretch of sand beach where several sea lions bobbed in the waves, watching us with intense, curious eyes. It was low tide, and blue herons waded like prehistoric dinosaurs in the shallows among algae-covered rocks.

The road wound through fragrant, dark cedar woods, then emerged into the sunlight in a meadow with a gnarled heritage orchard. Once a homestead, this gorgeous tract of forest, meadow and beach at the end of a peninsula is part of the island’s land trust; it has been set aside for all to enjoy. After wandering across the dune grass–covered tidal flats, we reached the beach, where smooth pebbles in many hues competed with verdigris algae on driftwood for the flashiest colors. Arms around waists, we gazed out at the islands dotting the waters.

The serenity of the scenery was mirrored in watercolor-like silk wall hangings at Chimera Gallery in the village, where we browsed later before catching the ferry to San Juan Island.

There are 172 named islands in the San Juan archipelago, between Canada and Washington state.
There are 172 named islands in the San Juan archipelago, between Canada and Washington state.

The ferry slipped past rocky islands with homes on mossy knolls before docking at Friday Harbor . At the dock, Eric steered me down a ramp to one of his favorite places, Friday Harbor Seafoods, in a blue cottage with flowers overflowing pots outside. We purchased fresh king salmon for dinner as a leopard seal spun in lazy circles, blowing bubbles, in the water beside us.

Driving down the road, we saw a sign for Lacrover Farm. Joining the farmer, Paul Lacrampe, and his four-year-old son, we tramped the rows of organic produce, peering between leaves in search of squash, carrots, leeks and raspberries, which we added to our dinner basket.

Farther along the road, we dipped down a gravel road to Westcott Bay Sea Farms, where water tumbled through self-service bins holding oysters, clams and mussels. Eric scooped out the plumpest oysters — appetizers for our do-it-yourself island feast.

A few minutes beyond, we rounded a bend in the road to emerge at Roche Harbor, where the historic Hotel de Haro, built in 1886, is surrounded by formal gardens and fronted by a picturesque boat harbor. New guest cabins — Victorian style, in keeping with the rest of the resort — were under construction on a nearby hillside. A new hotel and spa will open in early 2007.

While there are few hotels on the islands, there are no shortage of places to stay, with numerous bed & breakfasts, small inns and rental houses, in addition to campgrounds. We stayed in a modern, light-filled guest house at Lakedale Resort, which has more than 200 campsites, some of which overlook Neva and Dream Lakes. While there, we canoed on Neva Lake, watched wildlife — deer and a particularly earnest pileated woodpecker — and made twilight visits to a hot tub in a gazebo at the water’s edge.

The beauty of nature in the San Juans is so intense and so accessible that many artists have made these islands their home.

At the Westcott Bay Sculpture Park, we strolled through fields and woods dotted with metal, wood and stone sculptures. My favorite, Salutation, a bronze, is a delicate study of a woman in a yoga pose. We both admired the artistry of Airborne, a soaring sculpture of hundreds of miniature silvery kayak paddles that spun at the merest brush of a breeze.

In town, the Island Museum of Art also featured sculptures inspired by local nature, including a black, human-sized flicker sculpted of cast iron, by Ross Matteson. I overheard a gray-haired gentleman perusing a sculpture of a life-sized eagle on a branch, who said, “I’ll take this and the owl outside. I have 40 old-growth trees on my property, and I’ll put these there.” I wished I could invite myself to see the installation.

A few blocks away, we paused at Pelindaba for a piece of homemade lattice-top berry pie, amid the stock of all things lavender: lavender honey, lavender syrup, lavender-sugar facial scrub and scores of other lavender products, all made from lavender grown on the island.

In coming days we visited the San Juan Vineyards, where the fall grape pressing was underway. We took a ride on a converted whale-watching boat to one of the nearby islets for kayaking amid the resident orca whale pod. And we playfully squeezed into driftwood lean-tos on a sand beach backed by a cliff, where we listened to the sonorous thunder roll of the waves.

We also visited the island’s historic sites: English Camp, a rocky cove with tidy lawns and a small formal garden, where British soldiers lived for 12 years during the Pig War — which began in 1859 after an American settler shot a British pig on the sovereignty-disputed island — and American Camp, a lonely, windswept prairie where the Americans lived during the war.

Somehow I wasn’t surprised to learn that, with the men stranded here for so many years, friendships sprang up between the camps, and the soldiers even celebrated holidays together.

I like to think that these truces sprang from the spirit of warmth and friendliness that comes over island dwellers and visitors alike that worked its magic … the same magic that’s still very much at play today in these nature-filled, out-of-the-mainstream islands.

If You Go

San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

Getting to the San Juan Islands

By Sea:

Washington State Ferries ( offer frequent sailings to the San Juan Islands from Anacortes, about a 90-minute drive north of Seattle, Washington, or south of Vancouver, British Columbia. If you choose to drive on the islands, be forewarned that ferry waits can be long on summer weekends, so allow plenty of extra time to wait in line.

The islands are beloved by bike riders, even though they are hilly. Lopez is among the flattest. If you choose to get around by bike, you can walk your bike onto the ferry in Anacortes. In summer, the Victoria Clipper hydrofoil ( travels passenger service once a day from Seattle to Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island.

By Air:

San Juan Airlines ( offers daily scheduled flights from Anacortes, Bellingham and Orcas Island to Friday Harbor, as well as charter service. Kenmore Air ( provides float-plane service from Seattle’s Lake Union and Lake Washington to Friday Harbor.

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