Ferry Tale – San Juan Islands

Sit and relax watching the view through the large windows, or on a nice day it is highly recommended to climb up onto the upper deck and into the fresh air.

A view of the San Juan Islands (photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
A view of the San Juan Islands
(photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
 We were searching for a remote, serene place as a weekend getaway from our tour of Seattle. We headed for the San Juan Islands, which in fact are a set of four islands: San Juan, Orcas, Shaw and Lopez.
Located in the northwest corner of Washington State in the vicinity of Seattle, the islands promised pristine coastlines, forests, coves and bays. The pleasant weather and the feeling of being far away – yet still close to the larger cities on the mainland – was alluring.
At the northwestern tip of the lower 48 states, the islands are protected from the mighty Pacific Ocean by Canada’s Vancouver Island. Surrounded by water and without connecting bridges, the only way to reach this archipelago is by sea or air. Among the 172 islands that make up the county, four are the most familiar and famous; they are known as the San Juan Islands. The population of these islands is just over 16,000 (2,200 reside in the capital, Friday Harbor).
The main gateway to the islands is the town of Anacortes on the mainland.
Our journey began as our rental car joined a line waiting for the ferry to arrive.
The large vessel, bathed in white and green paint, is easily recognizable on its approach. As it gracefully pulls up to the dock, the experienced crew efficiently directs the cars on and off. Hundreds of cars and bikes are neatly organized on board and the ferry leaves on schedule westward toward the islands. You pay once on the westward leg of the journey; the return trip is included in the ticket.
So if you are visiting multiple islands, the most efficient method is to head to the farthest and work your way back.
After an hour-and-a-half ferry ride, we reached the ferry docks at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. This lovely and colorful town is a historic seaport. There are many restaurants, coffee shops, parks and lodgings. Of special interest is the whale museum, which opened in 1979. It tells the story of the endangered local population of orca killer whales and the stories of other species of whales that inhabit the intricate network of coastal waterways that make up the Salish Sea.
Not surprisingly, many of the activities on the island are water-related.
While on the island, don’t miss the 15-kilometer drive to Roche Harbor, another lovely town north of Friday Harbor. It offers a large marina in a sheltered harbor and boasts the beautiful historic Hotel de Haro. At the entrance to the town, you will see on the left side a large sculpture garden offering an enjoyable walk through big, colorful and interesting statues. The trek can easily fill an afternoon.
The lifeline between the islands is the ferry. Most of the inhabitants depend on it for efficient and cheap transportation. You can drive back to Friday Harbor to the ferry landing to continue your exploration of the other islands. In the summer months, one can access an online reservation system and find instructions about where and when to load your car on the ferries.
Our next stop was Orcas Island, which is a 30-minute ferry ride from San Juan.
Orcas is the largest of all the islands, but is home to only 5,000 residents. With only roughly 40 residents per square kilometer, it leaves a lot of room for visitors.
The most common way to get around the islands is by the Washington State Ferry. The largest ferry system in the United States, it serves Washington State and British Columbia in Canada with 10 routes and 22 vessels. The ferry ride is an efficient way to get around and a pleasurable experience.
Sit and relax watching the view through the large windows, or on a nice day it is highly recommended to climb up onto the upper deck and into the fresh air. The sights are wonderful and include the seascape, small islands, sailing and fishing boats, many species of sea birds and even a good chance to spot a whale or a killer whale (orca). Enjoy the clean crisp air in the sheltered straits of this unique marine region.
Orcas Island is a quieter and more rugged island and alongside its scenic nature, it provides a range of activities. In the west, you can explore trails on Turtleback Mountain, offering breathtaking vistas, birdwatching (hummingbirds included) and the occasional deer sighting. There are no predators on this island, like bears and wolves, even coyotes or foxes, so the wildlife is relaxed and you can get up close to them.
On the east side of Orcas Island rises Mount Constitution, the highest mountain in San Juan County. You can drive to the top of this 750-meter mountain to enjoy a beautiful lookout over the island surroundings. In good weather, you will be able to see the snowcapped peaks in British Columbia to the north and to the south will be the majestic Mount Rainer in Washington.
If you are interested in a hike or swim or camping, Moran State Park has what you are looking for. In the middle of this horseshoe-shaped island lies Eastbound village, where you can find restaurants, a supermarket and shops. Many of these venues have a tendency to close early in the evening, so you may want to arrive early. Delightful bed-and-breakfast accommodations such as the Blue Heron provide a great base for exploring Orcas and all its offerings.
Orcas Island was not named for the killer whale that lives in these waters.
It was shortened from Horcasitas, the viceroy of Mexico, who in 1791 sent an expedition to explore the Pacific Northwest. Despite this factoid of trivia, you don’t want to pass up an opportunity to get a sighting of the real orcas. Take one of the companies that offers tours and head out to watch these giant marine mammals. The orcas are elusive but many people spot them, or you may catch a glimpse of one of the other whale species.
This unique marine region is not a common tourist hot spot, but it will probably soon become one, because it has everything to offer the visitor, and yet it still remains relatively pure and untouched.