Washington's San Juan Islands

by Andrew Collins

Out Of Town

It's amazing how easily you can feel completely removed from crowds, urbanity and the busy pace of modern life, even when you're within 50 miles of several major cities. A nice case in point is the San Juan Islands, a blissfully tranquil and picturesque archipelago in northern Puget Sound that's just 65 miles north of Seattle, 40 miles south of Vancouver and 10 miles east of British Columbia's capital city, Victoria. These lovely isles with a friendly vibe, a strong following with LGBT visitors, and easy access – by ferry boat or plane – from all of these nearby cities make for a restorative summer getaway.
Although there are more than 170 islands in the archipelago, only four have regular ferry service. On three of these – Lopez Island, Orcas Island, and San Juan Island – you'll find hotels and B&Bs, vacation rentals (a good option for longer stays), restaurants and other visitor services, including outfitters and tour operators offering whale-watching excursions, kayak and bike rentals (and guided rides), fishing tackle, and gear related to other outdoorsy endeavors.

Lopez Island

Lopez is the smallest of the three main islands, with a sparse population and few formal attractions. This pastoral island is less hilly and has far less car traffic than the other main islands, which has made it a magnet for biking enthusiasts (you can rent bikes at a couple of shops on the island). If you're seeking a peaceful getaway and don't have much want of social interaction, Lopez Island is an ideal choice.
There are just a few accommodations on Lopez Island, including Lopez Farm Cottages and Edenwild Inn Most of the island's restaurants are in the village of Lopez, a compact community on the west side of the island, about a 5-mile drive from the ferry terminal. Don't miss the Bay Cafe for lunch or dinner overlooking the water (there's a large deck) – the contemporary American fare here is first-rate. Another excellent option is Vita's Wildly Delicious, which has a few outdoor tables on a lovely tree-shaded patio; this little gourmet food-and-wine shop is also useful for picking up picnic supplies and prepared salads. Caffe La Boheme bakery serves tasty cookies and sweets, Vortex Juice Bar & Cafe is well-regarded for its affordable and healthy vegetarian cuisine, and the Just Heavenly Fudge Factory store carries locally beloved Lopez Island Creamery ice cream, which comes in such delicious flavors as wild blackberry and toffee coffee crunch.

San Juan Island

The most populated of the three islands, and also the seat of county government, is San Juan Island, which also has the region's largest town, Friday Harbor, a lively center of shops, restaurants, bars and inns, and the site of a terrific farmers market on Saturday mornings. Within walking distance of the ferry terminal, this is a great little neighborhood for a stroll. Be sure to stop by the Bean Cafe for a cup of well-brewed espresso; Pelindaba Lavender store, which sells all kinds of lotions, soaps, and edibles featuring lavender grown on the store's farm a few miles away; and San Juan Islands Museum of Art, which shows rotating exhibits and recently announced plans to move into a new, larger space.
Beyond Friday Harbor, the island has a few notable attractions, the most interesting of which is San Juan Island National Historic Park, which chronicles the strange – and now amusingly recalled – Pig War (of 1859), during which the United States and British governments battled, or perhaps bickered, over possession of San Juan Island. The American government ultimately prevailed, and the maritime border between the United States and Canada now cuts down Haro Strait, the body of water between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island. The national park has two sections, larger American Camp and northwesterly English camp, and each has both historical exhibits and numerous opportunities for hiking, bird watching and wildlife viewing. Overlooking Haro Strait, another highly popular destination on the island is Lime Kiln Point State Park, which has a short trail leading along the shore to an ancient, oft-photographed lighthouse. Visitors here are treated to great views across Haro Strait toward Victoria, BC as well as regular sightings during the summer months of orca, humpback, blue, gray and other whales.
San Juan Island has a variety of inviting places to stay. One of the region's most popular venues for destination weddings, Roche Harbor Resort has quickly become a favorite of LGBT couples exchanging vows, now that Washington state has legalized same-sex marriage. It's a scenic place to stay for any occasion, with a huge marina filled with pleasure boats, a few different restaurants overlooking the water, and a nice mix of overnight options, from standard rooms in a historic hotel to spacious, multi-bedroom village homes. Other properties on the island that are away from Friday Harbor and offer comfy accommodations and quiet, pretty surroundings include the stately Wildwood Manor and the artfully designed, eco-minded Juniper Lane Guest House In town, within walking distance of restaurants and shops, the economical Earthbox Inn & Spa is a good bet, as are the historic Tucker House Inn and the sleek and contemporary Island Inn at 123 West An advantage to staying in Friday Harbor is that you can walk to your hotel from the ferry terminal, which is handy if you don't bring your car over.
Notable restaurants on the island include romantic and rustic Duck Soup, a 15-minute drive from town, which is known for its house-smoked oysters and miso-ginger roast duck, and Coho Restaurant for Northwest-inspired Mediterranean fare in Friday Harbor. The Market Chef serves very good sandwiches and soups, and Cask & Schooner is a fun gastropub for brunch, dinner, or knocking back a few beers with locals.

Orcas Island

Regular visitors to the archipelago all seem to have their favorites, with Orcas Island – the largest of the bunch in area and second-largest in population – garnering quite a few votes for number-one getaway. What's nice about this 57-square-mile island shaped a bit like a butterfly is the tremendous variety – you'll find the highest point in the San Juans, Mt. Constitution (elev. 2,398 feet, and with an observation tower at the top, which is reached by a scenic car ride), several gorgeous beaches and harbors, a couple of endearingly quiet rural villages (Deer Harbor and Westsound), a quaint cluster of shops and eateries by the ferry terminal, and a bustling main village, Eastsound, near the center of the island. Visitors seeking total relaxation and quiet can find it on Orcas Island, but there are enough lively bars and restaurants to keep more socially inclined visitors happy.
One of the favorite dining options, for lunch and breakfast especially, is quirky Cafe Olga, which occupies a historic building that once housed a strawberry-packing plant and has become renowned for its savory scallop-halibut (“scallibut”) cakes and fresh-made, sweet blackberry pies; check out the attached gallery, which carries works by some extremely talented locals. Also on this quiet southeastern side of the island you'll find Doe Bay Resort, a very gay-popular lodging with several types of accommodations Рthe cuisine served at Doe Bay's cafe is worth the trip, even if you're not staying overnight. Most of the other noteworthy restaurants are in Eastsound, with Allium a particular highlight Рtalented chef Lisa Nakamura serves farm-to-table fare in a lovely second-floor space overlooking the water. Downstairs, Madrona Bar & Grill is a more casual option for beer and fresh seafood. Mijitas is a good bet for hearty Mexican food, and relative newcomers like Hogstone, for wood-fired pizza, and the Barnacle, for tapas and craft cocktails, have quickly become top picks among local foodies.


Among accommodations, the Inn on Orcas Island is a lovely gay-owned inn near the quaint village of Deer Harbor, on the west side of the island. Right near Eastsound (and the island's little airport), the Kangaroo House has five charming rooms and a lovely Arts and Crafts design. West Beach Resort is a stunningly situated compound of cabins and tent/RV sites with reasonable rates and a friendly staff. And Inn at Ship Bay is one of the most romantic lodging options on the island, its 11 rooms with gas stoves and plenty of cushy amenities – note the terrific restaurants here, too.
Getting to the San Juan Islands takes a little planning, since there's either a ferry crossing or flight involved. The islands are big and spread out enough that it can be very handy having a car, or at least bikes, to explore a bit. The most frequent ferry service is out of Anacortes, Washington, about a 90-minute drive north of Seattle and a two-hour drive south of Vancouver; expect to pay about $75 for round-trip ferry service to the farthest (San Juan) island for a car and two passengers. The fare is much less if you leave the car in Anacortes (there's inexpensive long-term parking there). Once a day, there's also a passenger-only ferry from Victoria's Inner Harbour to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and car-ferry service from Sidney, BC (a 30-minute drive north of Victoria) to Friday Harbor.
Kenmore Air has flight-plane and conventional small-jet service to Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan from Seattle's Lake Union – you'll save a lot of time making the one-hour flight, but fares are rather steep, and once you arrive on island, you may end up spending a good-bit more on rental cars. If time is tight and you can afford it, flying makes sense, but for most visitors, traveling by ferry is an efficient, scenic, and cost-effective way to get here.