FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — Suddenly, the orcas are everywhere.
Their telltale fins pop up all about us—a pod of at least dozen. Our whale-watching boat, the Sea Lion, is one of a handful nearing them at a safe distance in the waters of the San Juan Islands nearly into Canada.
“August and September are when we see them the most,” explains Haleigh Yang, a naturalist guide with San Juan Safaris. “The orcas like it here.”
So do the visitors who board ferries at Anacortes to arrive in the San Juan Islands. They come to see the magnificent whales. They also enjoy the art galleries, wine cellars, theaters, spas, and many other attractions of this versatile destination. The islands receive more than a million visitors annually.
Located northwest of Seattle, the San Juan Islands are a loose archipelago of more than 170 islands in the Salish Sea, loose because some islands are so small that they appear and disappear with the tide. They are the remains of a mountain range that connected Washington to Canada’s Vancouver Island.
The temperature stays pleasantly cool most of the year, a primary reason—along with whale watching—the San Juan Islands are a popular destination for international travelers. Scenic beauty, fun and relaxation are as abundant as the many sea lions that sunbathe on the islands’ rocky shores.
Ferry to Friday Harbor
The big, white ferries, some holding as many as 140 cars, navigate from Anacortes and arrive at Friday Harbor, the largest town in this cluster of islands. People watch arrivals and departures from benches near the docks and the patios of restaurants, like the Downriggers. Sailing yachts dock alongside excursion boats and other watercraft.
From the harbor area, gift boutiques, clothing stores and coffee shops fan across a hill that rises from the waterfront. Casual dining eateries, such as Cynthia’s and the Market Chef Deli, use island-grown vegetables and meats. San Juan Island Brewing Company serves locally made ales and lagers, along with pizzas, and is packed to the rafters on trivia night. The restaurant at Friday Harbor House treats guests to an elegant dinner and a supreme harbor view.
Wall murals and sculptures sprinkled throughout town display the town’s embrace of a vibrant cultural lifestyle. Theaters and performing arts venues flank bookstores and art galleries. The San Juan Islands are deemed an “arts hot spot” by the Washington State Arts Commission because of the high number of galleries, working artists and art dealers.
The San Juan Islands Museum of Art hosts exhibitions of paintings, drawing, sculpture and photography by regional, national and international artists. The Arctic Raven Gallery specializes in Arctic and Northwest Coast Native art, particularly cedar wood carvings, baskets, totem poles and stone carvings.
The Whale Museum illuminates interesting facts about the big creatures. Orcas feed in the salmon-rich waters of the surrounding Salish Sea, as do minke whales and humpback whales, porpoise, seals and sea lions. Two types of orcas are seen in the saltwater: resident orcas that live here year-round and orcas that pass through during their migrations.
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Not surprisingly, wildlife and whale-watching tours are highlights in people’s visit to the San Juan Islands. The powerful orcas with shiny, smooth skin and black-and-white markings awe onlookers. Tour operators work together to locate whale pods and provide thrilling experiences. Three pods with about 75 orca whales inhabit the waters of San Juan Islands.
Getting around San Juan Island
San Juan Island begs exploration. The island is about 14 miles long and 6 miles wide. The San Juan Islands Scenic Byway threads through rolling pastures and forests of cedar and fir. Islanders are dedicated to preserving their beloved open spaces, and they put conservation-focused, land-use planning into place. In this nature-blessed environment, people pursue bicycle riding, hiking, sea kayaking and wildlife watching, and enjoy the pleasures of rural living.
The San Juan Vineyard hosts a tasting room in a bucolic setting complete with grape arbors and a picture postcard-perfect white church. Afterglow Rose is the best-selling wine among a substantial list of offerings to be sipped on the garden patio. Tastings are also available at the San Juan Distillery. It offers a wide selection of ciders, brandies and gins.
The Palindaba Lavender Farm, a sea of light purple with a scent that mellows the soul, is open to visitors. Visitors can tour the farm’s lavender distillery. A shop sells all things lavender, from soap to chocolate. The 40-acre Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm welcomes guests wishing to learn about its hairy herd and shop for luxury clothing and accessories. Westcott Bay Shell Company, a working farm that grows oysters, clams and mussels, accommodates those who want their meals prepared on the spot. Tables overlook the cultivated tidelands.
For travelers looking for lighthouses, they will find a white beacon by following Cattle Point Road to the southern tip of the island. This beach is also a prime view area for bald eagles and many migratory birds.
At Lime Kiln Point State Park on the island’s west side, a 38-foot octagonal lighthouse rises from the rocky point overlooking Haro Strait. The loudest sound is the rhythmic hush of waves. People gather on the driftwood-strewn beaches to watch for whales. Also, they hike the trails laced through the 36-acre state park, including one that leads to the long-abandoned lime kiln.
The Only Casualty Was a Pig
The San Juan National Historical Park has ties to an unusual incident. British and American troops almost fought a war because a farmer killed a pig for invading his garden. The Pig War, actually a dispute about who owned the San Juan Islands, lasted from 1859 to 1871 and eventually determined the American sovereignty of the San Juan Islands.
The American Camp at the island’s south end showcases several wood-framed buildings, an earthen fortress, and magnificent, windswept views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Dark amber prairies blanket the hills leading to South Beach, the longest public beach in the San Juan Islands.
In the island’s north region, the British Camp features a blockhouse, restored formal English garden and parade ground. A short hiking trail loops through woods and alongside Garrison Bay.
Roche Harbor Resort
Near the top of San Juan Island, the village of Roche Harbor is a world unto itself. In the resort community, pastel-colored houses rests on a small hill. The historic Hotel De Haro, three restaurants, shops and spa surround the main pier. Madrona Bar and Grill is an ideal place to watch the activities of the harbor: kayakers preparing for saltwater adventures and yachtsmen readying for departure. Kayakers appreciate the quiet bays where they often glimpse otters and harbor seals. Sailors consider the San Juan Islands to be among the world’s best cruising waters.
The resort adjoins the 20-acre San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, a meadow and woodland with more than 125 artworks by Northwest artists.
More Islands Just a Ferry Ride Away
San Juan Island is the most-visited island in the archipelago; however, two other islands claim a good share of visitors. Those islands are lightly settled and blessed with natural beauty, comfortable accommodations and cultural attractions.
Horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island is the largest. The 5,424-acre Moran State Park is a hiker’s heaven with 30 miles of trails. A stone observation tower sits atop Mount Constitution allowing for views of Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and the Canadian Gulf Islands. The tower is one of 20 buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s. An 8-mile trail network extends across the Turtleback Mountain Preserve, where hikers wander through woodlands, grasslands and wetlands. The beauty of the landscape inspires artists in the hamlet of Olga. Orcas Island Artworks, a cooperative, sells the wares of more than 45 local artists.
Bicycle riders love Lopez Island because it has few hills. The 15-mile-long island appeals to hikers and golfers, as well. The Lopez Island Vineyards serves its fine wines at a tasting room in Lopez Village. Nearby are a fine arts gallery, bakery, historical museum, shops, restaurants and lodging.
Linda Lange and Steve Ahillen are travel writers living in Knoxville, Tenn.