San Juan islands – lush landscapes, lattes and a whole lot more

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San Juan Islands

It’s a misty, grey June morning here at my Colorado home and I’m actually glad, because it feels like Seattle. I had just spent six days in the gloriously green, vibrant Pacific Northwest city and the nearby, blissfully tranquil San Juan Islands – and I did NOT want to leave. Indeed, my mind is now filled with memories of enormous rhododendron bushes, steaming lattes, hikes and bicycle rides through woods so dense that our eyes had to adjust and some of the friendliest people we’ve met anywhere in the world. Just stop for a moment with a map in hand, and locals will rush over, offering to help!

Incredibly lush and forested, flowers tumbling down staircases, window boxes, and trees, with brilliant blue lakes, rivers, bays, Pacific coast, tidal pools and waterfalls, one is hard-pressed to leave natural beauty to take in other attractions. But with such a heady offering of museums, cultural sites, intriguing neighborhoods and gastronomic experiences, you just have to pick and choose. In our short stay, we saw and did so much, yet felt we just touched the surface.

We started our trip to the area in the three named San Juan Islands, a 172-island archipelago north of Seattle, in the lower reaches of Puget Sound, toward the Olympic Mountains. No wonder Lonely Planet named the San Juan Islands as number 3 on its list for the “Top 10 U.S. Destinations for 2013” – they are spectacularly beautiful. The islands, varying in size from 58 square miles to the area of a city lot, are mostly famed for the three we visited – Orcas, San Juan and Lopez.

Each has its own personality and draw, but all enjoy daylight until 9:30 or even 10 in the summer, have splendid forests with wildlife galore (bald eagles, sea otters, seals, sea lions, deer, turkeys, ospreys,) exquisite beaches as well as freshwater lakes, waterfalls and rivers, and whale watching tours. Each also has fresh farmers’ markets and restaurants ranging from upscale to fast food (although never a chain, thankfully – not even Starbucks!) and at least one large grocery. San Juan and Lopez islands’ local wineries are pleasant stops for tastings and purchases. The climate here is temperate, with average lows never getting below freezing and average highs topping out at about 26-28 degrees in August. Heaviest rain months are October through January.

San Juan Vineyards

Driving just under two hours (80 miles) north from Seattle to the Washington State Ferry port of Anacortes (fueled by superb coffee from locally-owned Penguin’s,) we took the 40-minute ferry trip to horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island, known as the largest (57 square miles) of the San Juans. Orcas is known for 2,409-feet Mount Constitution, affording the most spectacular views in the islands, located within the 5,252-acre, incredibly lush Moran State Park. Strolling around Eastsound Village, an enchanting little area of shops, bistros, and flower-bedecked, porch-wrapped homes, we meandered past the Oddfelllows Hall, where we found a troupe practicing some esoteric form of martial arts. Then we wandered down a lane and found a sign warning us that we were at the entrance of a sacred Lummi (Native American tribal) site.

View from Orcas Island; image © Carl Silvernail

We perused it silently, wondering what spiritual ceremonies occurred farther on. A fine spot for dinner is the Madrona Bar & Grill in town – casual and friendly, lovely waterfront view with a healthy beer list and juicy burgers (as well as more substantial dinner items.) While on Orcas, you’ll want to stop at Orcas Island Pottery, the oldest pottery in the Northwest, opened in 1945 and featuring the work of 22 potters. Another spot to see is the famed Rosario Resort, a glamorous retreat with a historic mansion, exhibits, marina, excellent restaurant and swank spa. Stroll around the grounds and imagine what it was like back in the day.

Next, we took the ferry to 55-square mile-San Juan Island, docking in the bustling, lively one square mile-walkable town of Friday Harbor, with about 2,000 year round residents. San Juan is the island that gets the action – with a ‘real’ county seat town that sports many 19th century wooden fishing village homes, art galleries (check out Arctic Raven for fine Pacific Northwest Native American arts,) boutiques, museums (including the Whale Museum,) and many dining spots. Rumour Mill specializes in live music almost every night, with outdoor seating and tasty, reasonable food and a good happy hour.

San Juan Island features splendid hikes and beaches as well as such unusual delights as the Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, a pastoral, hilly paradise with the adorable South American animals in brown, black, white and mixed grazing everywhere. The gift shop is one of those you truly won’t want to miss – exquisite creations you can’t find elsewhere made of the supremely soft, warm wool from the alpacas – pricey, but true quality that lasts forever. You’ll also want to visit and learn about the so-called Pig War at the English and American Camps – a fascinating history of a time in the 1800’s when this island was manned by the two nations’ militaries due to a bureaucratic botch-up. Best of all, Lime Kiln State Park (a.k.a. Whale Watch Park) is probably the best place anywhere to see orca whales from the shore – particularly from June to August.

The sublime Lakedale Resort is truly a special place to stay, reminiscent of an upscale summer camp, with a mix of 72 tent sites, a large beautiful lodge, “glamping” canvas cabins, log cabins, store, three fresh water lakes with canoe, kayak, paddle boat, rowboat and standup paddleboard rentals, swimming and fishing, daily activities (weekly wine tasting!) and even a restored, adorable Airstream trailer (which was our choice.)

Shark's Reef, Lopez Island

A short ferry ride took us to Lopez Island, with about 2,400 residents, nicknamed the “Friendly Island,” but really, people are very warm on all three islands, as well as in Seattle. Pastoral and bucolic (lambs, horses, cows, goats and pigs grazing,) ideal for bicycling, 29.5-square- mile Lopez is famed for its organic farms, lovely hikes and its rich Lopez Island ice cream (we decadently ate a whole pint of Coffee Toffee Crunch while lazing on the green grass outside the market!) Some of the most beautiful sites are Agate Beach County Park with its tidal pools (check for low tide for best sightings!,) Shark Reef Sanctuary (sea lions and seals at farthest point to the left,) Watmough Bay and Spencer Spit State Park. Be sure to get specific directions to these sights as they are not so easy to find. The island is dotted with meadows interspersed with old-growth cedar and fir forests leading to rocky shores and cliffs – some quite romantic spots if so inclined! A ‘don’t miss’ night out here is the lovely Bay Café – incredible sunset view and exquisite cuisine – with a nice price range and great wine list. We stayed at the Lopez Islander Resort a bayfront resort that is retro-flavored but well kept up, with an exceptional staff, a large heated swimming pool and hot tub, restaurant and lounge, and very close to town.

Too soon our stay in the islands was over and Seattle beckoned. The ferry journey back to Seattle would take us n the next stage of our trip.

For more information about the San Juan Islands, click here

For more information on the ferry links between the islands, click here.

All images © Mark Rush unless indicated.

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