Trace Back – San Juan Islands

I have often been asked, “How do you pick your vacation destinations?” My first reaction to the question is that if I tell you, you will crowd those places too. And hence there is a conflict of interest here. But since I cannot really say that to someone, I tell them that I look for places where fewer people go. Places that offer more than just an opportunity to take a hundred or so pictures. And most importantly, I like going to places that challenge me. I don’t go for vacations to relax as the urban myth goes. I travel to explore new challenges. It does not bother me if my travels exhaust me, as long as they are stimulating.

One of the most challenging trips I have ever planned was a ten day, action packed trip to Alaska. A trip I will no longer be taking this year. It was the toughest itinerary to build and included a dozen or so reservations all over Anchorage, Homer, Seward, Sitka and Denali. It was also very challenging to cancel this trip. But now that I have done it once, I can reuse my recipe whenever the time is right.

The second most challenging trip to plan was San Juan Islands. I got to know about San Juan Islands from the NY Times 41 places to go in 2011 list. Eversince I read about it, this trip was on my radar. I just did not know where to start. This travelogue is my attempt to simplify San Juans for the uninitiated. Are you up for the challenge?

Some quick facts before we get started. San Juan Islands is a name given to an archipelago of 700 + Islands in the state of Washington. Three of these islands have recently emerged on the tourist scene and are attracting a lot of tourists year after year. These islands are – Orcas Island, Lopez Island and San Juan Island. There is no road that connects these islands to the mainland and your only option is to take the ferries run by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

To get to these islands, you fly into Seattle, rent a car from SeaTac and drive to Anacortes Ferry terminal. From Anacortes you can take ferries to different parts of Washington and Canada. The drive from SeaTac to Anacortes is  ninety minutes at its best. You can board ferries to any of the three San Juan Islands from Anacortes ferry terminal. Note that you only pay for trips that are eastbound. Westbound trips are free. As an example you will buy a ticket from Anacortes to Orcas Island. But the trip from Orcas back to Anacortes is free. These rules apply to the inter island ferries too. So be careful when you buy tickets. It is possible you don’t really need one for the trip you are about to take. The ferry schedules are published here.

Orcas Island is the biggest of the Islands and Lopez is the smallest. San Juan is between Orcas and Lopez, but is most inhabited (in other words crowded). There are several bed and breakfasts serving these islands. You will not find a Marriott or Sheraton here (thank god). Follow my advice and book a B&B or an inn. Most of the attractions on these islands are along the coastline. So you don’t really need a map. But if you insist on getting one, you can find one at all the ferry terminals. It is advisable to take your car along with you to the Orcas and Lopez Island, unless you are planning to bike. San Juan Island has shuttle tours that take you to all the major attractions, but that is only  available in summers, so plan accordingly and look up their schedule in the internet before you go.

But before you board that ferry, you have a few decisions to make. You need to pick an Island where you will begin your journey. Also you need to pick which island you want to stay on. You can also do some island hopping and come up with an itinerary based on your flight times. I can tell you what I did. But find your own.. explore your options. On the day of arrival into Seattle, we took out first ferry from Anacortes to Lopez Island. We spent a day in Lopez and took a late evening ferry to Orcas Island. The second day we explored Orcas, and the third day we took a ferry from Orcas to San Juan. After spending a gorgeous day in Friday Harbor, we took a ferry back to Orcas. The next day took a ferry from Orcas, back to Anacortes. So we stayed at Orcas for the three nights we were on these islands.

Now let us focus on each of the Islands. Beginning with Lopez since it is the smallest of them all. Lopez Island is a forty minute ride from Anacortes. Once you board the ferry, look for the tables with the big jigsaw puzzles. It is a great way to spend your time. As you leave Seattle behind, on a clear day you start seeing Mt Baker, Mt Rainier and other snow peaked glaciers in the backdrop. The gorgeous water way that takes you to these islands is a national scenic byway, and a great opportunity for photographers to capture the waters and the beautiful islands from up close.

You can cover the entire Lopez island within hours. That’s how small it is. But the beauty of the island is not to be measured by its size. The rolling fields in Lopez Island and the secluded beaches contribute to its charm and appeal. There are a couple of state and county parks that you can visit or plan a picnic at : Odlin County Park is a good place to just sit and relax and watch sun’s shadows play games with the ocean. Spencer Spit Park was another very interesting park where a short trail led us to a vast marsh that has been clogged with chips of wood over the years. There is a lot of open space to explore and hike around. There is a narrow stretch of land jutting out of this park that will one day connect this island to its neighboring island. It is quite a sight. There is also the Otis Perkins Day Park that fell on our way and was a cute stretch of land that separated the ocean from a small lake. You can walk this stretch or drive over it. The views are beautiful on both the sides.

After speaking to some locals we were directed to the Iceberg point. It is the tip of this Island and offers beautiful views of the archipelago. At this point, our cell phones alerted us to the fact that we were in Canadian territories and were to be charged roaming charges. That actually made us realize how close to Canada we were at that point.
After some sightseeing, we yelped the best place to eat on the island and locked in The Bay Cafe. We had an hour before our reservation time and we loitered around the small streets and grabbed a delicious cup of espresso from Isabella’s cafe. There is a book shop right next to Bay Cafe called the Lopez Bookshop. It was good to see some locals ruminating over books and authors. We finally arrived at the restaurant and picked  the fresh fish of the day. The fish was good, but the sides were just ok. Overall I was not very impressed by this place. In the same area as the Bay Cafe, you will find a string of other restaurants by the road, so look around and take a pick.

Lopez Island also hosts the Tour de Lopez every year in spring. It is a small and content island with some beautiful vistas and very warm and affectionate people. I won’t mind visiting this Island again and bike the green paths and alleys.

Orcas Island is the biggest island amongst the three and has a little bit of everything. it has lakes, mountains, oceans views, bays, good food and lovely people. The major attraction of this island is Moran State Park, that also has an observation tower perched upon Mt Constitution, that looks down upon all the tiny islands in the area. The state park is quite big and you can do a couple of different hikes. We did a 4 mile mountain lake trail. It was a great way to start our morning. There is also the Cascade Lake trail and Summit Lake in this state park.  

After our hike, we drove  to eastsound for a meal. There are plenty of food options in this area. To name a few, there is Madrona Bar and Grill, that serves a good variety of beer, and fresh fish and chips and burgers and grilled sandwiches, Their sweet potato fries are just awesome. There is also the New Leaf Cafe, which is my favorite place to eat on the island. Beautiful views and delicious food. I would keep this one for an evening meal, simply because it makes a very cozy date place. There is also the Rosario resort if you fancy a little splurge. For coffee, there is Darville’s books store. Yup, these guys get it. Books and coffee together make a great evening.

Whenever I am close the water, I get a little bit (ok thats an
understatement) excited about sunsets. I chase them like that dog who runs behind a car. Just that in my case I catch them, and capture them in my camera and never let them go from my memory. There are a couple of places you can catch a beautiful sunset on the Orcas Island. We found one by chance and one by choice. West Beach Resort, at the West Beach is a good place to grab some coffees and watch the sun drop and splash a gamut of colors in the sky upon its descent. Since this was the “west” beach, it made sense that we would find a good spot to enjoy sunset. But with our next spot, we got lucky. YMCA has Camp Orkila on the north western tip of the island. The hostel was not in session and we had the entire beachfront property to trespass. There was not another soul on a mile long stretch of the beach, except for us. I loved how chance played its cards on us and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset sitting on the benches of an open air amphitheater overlooking the ocean. It will be hard to erase that evening from my memories. You can also enjoy the drive to Doe Bay, Deer Bay and Obstruction Pass State Park while you are on the island.

We stayed at Otters Pond Bed and Breakfast. This warm and cozy B&B is huddled right next to the Moran State Park and a short distance from Eastsound. Orcas Island was like the Big Island in Hawaii. It has something for everyone. It is impossible to not enjoy the charm of this Island.

The last of the trinity is San Juan Island. As the ferry approaches Friday Harbor, you can distinctly notice the swarms of tourists and activity on the island. Given its proximity to the mainland and the number of food options available, this island attracts a lot of day trip visitors. There is lots to enjoy on this island. Including the English and American camps. History of the islands lists to its credit an almost war caused by a pig on the island. The camps are now deserted, but there are reenactments and other ceremonies still carried out in remembrance. There are also a couple of lighthouses, namely Lime Kiln Point and Cattle Point. Both of them are situated across from Canada and offer a great picnic spot. On your way to the Cattle Point Lighthouse, you can stop by Blue Lagoon area and enjoy a short and shaded hike to the blue lagoon and enjoy the backwaters.

If you drive to the northern tip of the island, you reach Roche Harbor area. The marina is a great place to enjoy watching the boats come in and out of the island. There is also a Sculpture Park close to the harbor that has some interesting art forms that can be enjoyed alongside a leisurely walk to the harbor. Food options on this island are plenty. But believe me just directly go to Cask and Schooner. Their food was the best I have had in a very long time. Their lamb burger and the Stout Spiked Chicken Sandwich were mouth watering. We enjoyed our meal and a few beers and some dessert and were almost tempted to pack more for the ferry ride. This meal was simply the best meal of our entire trip.

While you wait for the ferry, there are a lot of small nooks and corners to enjoy on the Friday Harbor. One of them being the Serendipity Book Store. A cozy bookstore with a unique collection of books. Right across the street from the bookstore I saw a lot of people enjoy clam chowder and crab cakes at a hole in the wall shop. And right at the ferry banks is the San Juan Coffee Roaster Co. where you can grab your joe for the ride. Overall San Juan is a perfect tourist destination that attracts a lot of crowds and charms them with its small town feel.
After visiting all the three islands, I was quite inspired by nature’s creation and the ways of the world. Ideally if I could take Cask and Schooner’s food and vibrant energy from San Juan and blend it with the serene rolling fields of Lopez and add to that a dash of the Moran State Park and the french onion soup from the New Leaf Cafe in Orcas Island, that would be the most perfect destination for any tourist. But the world has its ways.  And just like – not all of us are created equal and each of us have to play to our strengths, these islands that are all but a stretch of land in the ocean, are still not the same. They too offer their distinct flavors to their patrons and play to their strengths.

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