A lone customer sips a coffee in a café in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island. Looking as though he had been out on a fishing boat all night, he gives us a tired smile. It turns out he had stepped off the boat only minutes ago – he catches sea urchins by hand, a heavily gloved one, diving for them in often storm-tossed waters with dangerous currents, poor visibility, and in water that is not exactly warm. Now that is what I call a Deadliest Catch.
We were on a road trip exploring the Northwestern US during a freezing December and were craving a place where six layers of clothing wasn’t mandatory. Our internet search had come up with an intriguing location: in 2013, TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Awards voted the San Juan Islands – located off rainy, foggy Washington State – as the number one island holiday location in the US. How was it that a group of islands placed between Vancouver Island, Canada, and Washington State, USA, beat off challengers with balmy weather and palm trees like Hawaii and Florida Keys?
San Juan Island is one of around 400 islands in an archipelago known as the San Juan Islands. The islands vary greatly in size and nature, with some merely rocky pimples barely rising above the high tide. The climate is relatively mild, thanks to the moderating effect of the surrounding waters. There is only a little bit of snow in winter and summers rarely rise above 25°C.
Only four islands are large and fertile enough to support people and three – San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez Islands – offer the infrastructure to cater for tourism. If you’re hiring a yacht, though, you can visit the other islands. Our trip being in winter, the best times (April to October) for boating had passed us by, so we had to opt for a car instead.
SAN JUAN ISLAND
We had just disembarked from the ferry that runs between Anacortes, 129km north of Seattle, to Friday Harbour on San Juan Island. With our Jeep parked in the main street lined with quaint shops, restaurants, and pubs with a distinct seafaring theme, we wandered around the township that overlooks the boat-studded harbour and distant islands.
Friday Harbour is the commercial centre and international ferry port of the San Juan Islands. As well as ferries operating from mainland Washington State, there is a regular run between Canada and San Juan Island.
You can hire a yacht from Anacortes and start your cruising experience from there. A good option is to sail directly to Lopez Island. At a distance of 19km (10.3nm), it’s the closest of the three main islands from the mainland and features boat moorings, including at Spencer Spit State Park. Watch the weather forecasts, as these are open waters until amongst the islands. For those using the ferry, Lopez is the last stop and Friday Harbour, on San Juan Island, is the first.
By sea from Lopez Island, it’s a mere 14km (7.5nm) to Friday Harbour, the archipelago’s biggest harbour with moorings for up to 130 touring yachts and plenty of boat-hiring options.
There is a peaceful atmosphere about Friday Harbour. It has a population of around 2000 but, come summer, the town swells with tourists attracted to the vast watery playground. The large harbour full of commercial fishing vessels, sailing craft and powered boats of all shapes and sizes is a good indicator of what most locals and many visitors do around here.
There’s a lot to do and see around Friday Harbour. In keeping with the island’s maritime heritage, we walked to the Whale Museum. Since 1979, the museum has been devoted to the conservation and research of over 80 resident orcas. Visitors can look through the museum’s powerful binoculars and spot cruising orcas, if they are around. Each of the whales has unique features that enable them to be identified using a brilliant display of photographs. There is a bio on each of these well-studied whales, including ‘Granny,’ which is believed to be over 75 years old. One of the Free Willy movies was filmed around Friday Harbour.
Tourist charter boats offer numerous whale-watching tours, with the peak viewing times from late May to mid October. Grey, minke, and humpback whales also make forays into these waters. At any given time bald eagles, seals, and sea lions are about. Some of our most memorable wildlife encounters have occurred while on an orca charter.
Leaving Friday Harbour behind, we drove along a twisting country road through farmland and conifer forest to our accommodation at historic Hotel de Haro on Roche Harbour. Situated on the northwest coast of San Juan Island, this sheltered harbour is considered by many as one of the best anchorages along the US west coast. Our hotel was built in 1887 and is actually part of a small company town owned by Tacoma and Roche Harbour Lime and Cement Company. The lime is no longer mined on the island and the village now caters for tourists and boat owners.
By sail from Friday Harbour to Roche Harbour, it’s a journey of 18km (9.7nm) through breathtaking islands scattered throughout a sparkling sea. You would be hard-pressed to find a safer, more picturesque anchorage than Roche Harbour.
American Camp is on the southern tip of San Juan Island. Along the way there we stopped at an apple cidery, one of many boutique businesses that cater to tourists throughout the three islands.
American Camp is a well-preserved reminder of a time when the US and the United Kingdom were on not-so-good terms. The Pig War started in 1859 over a disputed territorial boundary. No actual fighting took place, but came close when an American farmer shot a trespassing pig belonging to an Irishman.
The Americans drew the short straw when it came to location. The day we visited this exposed location, the wind was up, blowing the tussock grass flat. The English Camp, by contrast, is located in a pretty, sheltered bay on the northern end of the island.
For a sunset view, we headed out to Lime Kiln Point State Park, on the island’s western coast. With the camera at the ready we waited for sunset, on the lookout for orcas as this is one of the best land-based locations to see them. Although the site of a lime mine, it was the stunning lighthouse we were there to see. Perched on a rocky point, it guards a busy shipping channel between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island. Impressive Mount Olympus dominates the horizon while gnarled Pacific madrone trees turned bright pink as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Just a little over 6km (3.2nm) further is a gem of an anchorage at Reid Harbour on Stuart Island, with good protection from all directions and plenty of mooring buoys.
From Reid Harbour you may want to set sail in the early hours to allow time for exploring the bay-studded coastline of Sucia Island. At 26km (14nm), it’s a bit further away from Reid Harbour, but well worth the journey.
One of the great features of cruising the San Juan Islands is exploring the numerous deserted coves and landmarks inaccessible by motor vehicle. From Sucia Island to Rosario Resort it’s 29km (15.6nm) by sail. Rosario Marina is part of the complex and is open for daily and overnight mooring.
Having a liking for historic hotels, we visited the Rosario Resort and Spa on Orcas Island. Built over 100 years ago, the resort has an elegant, old-world appeal that’s further enhanced by visiting the organ room and Moran Museum. The historic indoor swimming pool and relics of the past are other must-sees.
Horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island is the largest island in the group and is more forested than San Juan and less built up. The short, sheltered journey there snakes around numerous forested islands … it’s no wonder the waters are a haven for boat lovers. We found ourselves driving through forested hills and pastures with old apple barns.
We checked into our accommodation at the historic and beautifully restored Outlook Inn in the delightful village of Eastsound. That night, a howling wind bent trees and formed white caps in the bay, clearly visible from our hotel window.
Moran State Park is the natural centrepiece of Orcas Island. Our plan was to reach the 731m-high summit of San Juan’s highest point, Mount Constitution. As it was windy with a big chill factor kicking in, we decide to drive up rather than hike. There are panoramic views to die for, so we were told, but as we began the steep drive up Mount Constitution, a chain blocked further progress. Workers clearing storm debris told us there was ice, snow, and 100km winds at the summit. Luckily, there is a lot to see and do elsewhere, regardless of what the weather is up to.
The township of Eastsound lies at the tip of that stunning fiord that gives Orcas Island its unique shape. It’s a charming hamlet geared towards visitors, with cafés, restaurants, boutique shops, bed and breakfast accommodation and art galleries. The Orcas Island Museum is worth a look as are various artist’s hangouts and galleries. There are plenty of great restaurants on Orcas Island to top off a day of touring.
Deer Harbour is located on the northwestern point of the island and is one of the best locations to hire power and sailboats. Whale-watching tours operate from there, too.
Our island-hopping adventure continued to Lopez Island. There, forests and hills gave way to rolling pastures and rustic farmhouses. Lopez Island’s rather flat terrain has become a sort of hub for cyclists. Cycling is a great way to get around, especially if you are hiring a sailboat. For hikers, there are several easy-to-challenging trails, most notably Lopez Hill, the highest point on the island at less than 200m.
The Lopez Islander Resort has great views over Fisherman’s Bay near Lopez Village and we enjoyed a couple of wines from the local bar’s balcony as the sun went down.
Two weeks on the islands would be ideal to properly explore one of the richest maritime environments in the US.
San Juan online
Located just 120km north of Seattle, the San Juan Islands is a world-renowned destination for boating enthusiasts and lovers of the island lifestyle.
There are fishing charters that help anglers catch phenomenal salmon (July to the end of October) and giant halibut. Picking the tides is key to good fishing here, as they flow very strongly around the islands.
Search for ‘self-guided fishing the San Juan Islands’: TheSanJuans.com.
Sea kayaks can also be hired and there are always calm waters somewhere, no matter what wind direction. Kayak tours generally run from June to September.
The ferry fares to Friday Harbour and return depend on the size of vehicle and cost around US$60; more for a motorhome. The route is included in the loop, so there’s no extra charge for visiting Orca and Lopez Islands as long as you continue onward to Anacortes.
Find ferry information at: wsdot.wa.gov.
For tourism information, including whale-watching times and tours: VisitSanJuans.com.
For boating charters and hire companies: VisitSanJuans.com/what-to-do/boating.
Anacortes Yacht Charters offers some great sailing touring options: AnacortesYachtCharters.com.
The NW (Northwest) Cruising website is a good resource for information about cruising the San Juan Islands: NWCruising.com.
Recommended reading for boaters: San Juan Islands: A Boaters Guidebook. Publisher: Blue Latitude Press. Web: BlueLatitudePress.com.