Tucked between Canada's Vancouver Island and Washington state's northern coastline sit four of the most beautiful, secluded, and peaceful islands of the U.S.: the San Juans. This is a place where wildlife plays, artisans thrive, and where travelers need to travel. So, whether, you're heading to Seattle or Vancouver, make time to explore this seriously enchanting Pacific Northwest gem. Trust me, you won’t want to miss this place.
First, you'll need a car (or at least a bike) and a few days planning. Ferry reservations to the San Juans fill up fast, no matter the time of year. Book your tickets, to and from, online, and be willing to get up at the crack of dawn to catch the earliest ferry out of Anacortes (about 1.5 hours north of Seattle) if you want to squeeze out every last drop of your weekend on the islands. At this point, you’ve got options: Orcas, San Juan, Lopez and Shaw.
By far my favorite of the islands, Orcas Island has it all: hiking, biking, beautiful views, serenity, hot springs, a winery, and a brewery. From the ferry dock, head north toward Eastsound, the tiny town center of the island. It’s where you’ll find most of the island’s cafes and eateries, including Clever Cow Creamery and the weekend farmer’s market. Catch a quick breakfast at Mijitas or Brown Bear Bakery, and then get out on the water. There are plenty of places to rent kayaks or reserve an expedition to paddle next to river otters, seals and other wildlife that call this region home.
Once you’re back on land, stop off at Rose’s Bakery for a French baguette with ham and gruyere, or pick up crackers and cheese for an afternoon picnic (coming up next). Start making your way east. Moran State Park is a big hit and a great spot to put up a tent for the weekend. Even if you’re just there for the day, Moran is worth a visit for Mt. Constitution alone. Hike or drive to the top, and you’ll be rewarded with the most incredible view. There's a pull-off on the way to the top that I think is even better than the final point, and it’s much less busy. Of course, this is where that picnic comes in handy.
My top pick for accommodation on Orcas is, hands down, Doe Bay Resort and Retreat. The beauty of this area is unreal. Cabins, yurts, and car camping spots line the coast. And, aside from the oceanside views, my favorite things about this place are the amenities, including the secluded hot springs. (That view. Am I right?)
If you're anything like my seafood-obsessed sisters, Buck Bay Shellfish can’t be missed. Eat local oysters and dine al fresco. And before heading back to the ferry don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Malbec from Orcas Island Winery or grab a couple of brewskis from Island Hoppin' Brewery. (Trust me, they’re worth the mini detours to the dock.)
SAN JUAN ISLAND | FRIDAY HARBOR
If you're looking to get up close and personal with a pod of orcas, head to Friday Harbor and book a seat on the Western Prince. No one does it better than these guys, and you won't be disappointed. No matter who you book with, keep in mind that whale watching is seasonal. Be sure to look into the migration patterns before you plan your trip. I’ve seen 50 orcas on a trip before (early September), and barely two on another (late July). We’ve taken whale watching tours from Anacortes too, but Friday Harbor absolutely trumps it. When you set sail from Friday Harbor, you get far more time looking for whales and other wildlife. Whereas from Anacortes, your time on the water is mostly transportation to and from the whale-watching area (located near Friday Harbor), with limited time (about 30 minutes) dedicated to actually searching the water for wildlife.
As an alternative, sea kayaking expeditions out of Friday Harbor are also a good bet since seals and river otters are frequently spotted in the harbor. I’m not sure about spotting orcas from kayaks, but I suppose anything is possible!
No matter what you choose to do with your morning, you need to visit Cynthia’s. Those pastries (!!!). And, as any good Cheesehead would recommend, swing by the San Juan Cheese Shop for a Bite Box to go! They have cheeses from all over the world, and plenty of crackers and treats to fix up a tasty lunch.
From Friday Harbor, you can’t go wrong no matter what direction you travel. Some of the island hot spots include Roche Harbor in the north, Lime Kiln Point in the east (great for whale watching on land), the southern San Juan National Historical Park, and the Friday Harbor historical area in the west.
As for the best place to stay? Snug Harbor Resort is where it’s at. Their newly-built ocean view cabins are a dream. Go ahead, take in that island life. With a more modest budget, their campsites boast champagne views on a beer budget. And they pull out all the stops with complimentary kayaks, canoes, and SUPs for guests.Not bad, right? Back at the dock, as you wait for your ferry to arrive, pour yourself a glass at Mike’s Cafe and Wine Bar or sit down for a pint at Cask & Schooner Public House.
LOPEZ & SHAW ISLANDS
With a 33.5-mile (mostly flat) loop, Lopez is a haven for cyclists. It’s also the most rural of all the islands. I haven’t visited Lopez or Shaw yet, but given the beauty of this PNW pocket, I'm confident they're worth a visit. If you’re sticking around the San Juans for a few days, consider taking the inter-island ferry to Lopez and renting bikes from Lopez Bicycle Works or Village Cycles. A few highlights to circle on your map: Spencer Spit State Park for DIY clamming and crabbing when in season (be sure to get a license); a hike to Sharks Reef Sanctuary to spot some seals; and Iceberg Point for beautiful coastline views.
Without hotels, restaurants or shops, a trip to Shaw is quite the escape. Set up camp on the sandy shores of Shaw County Park (you'll want to make a reservation). Or, make it a true farm-to-table experience. At the center of the island sits Our Lady of the Rock, a Benedictine Monastery where nuns run all 300+ acres of a working farm. It's one of the last on the island. Guests are welcome for a day, weekend, or longer retreat. You'll join the nuns in their daily tasks and will be treated to homemade meals, featuring the fruits of your labor.
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