San Juan Island
Friday Harbor just one of island's attractions
There are those who are quite certain the San Juan Islands were created just to be a paradise for boaters, but the good news for the rest of us is that we can hop a Washington State Ferry and enjoy the same amazing scenery as the yachting class. And, while fares aren't really cheap, they're a lot less than maintaining your own boat.
A popular destination in the islands is San Juan Island, one of three main inhabited islands in the group, although there are many more islands - some even with people - that would be considered part of the San Juans. San Juan Island is the most diverse of the main islands with its beaches and rocky shores as well as miles of pasturelands, some lakes and even forests.
If you don't have your atlas handy, the San Juan Islands are in Northwest Washington, midway between Seattle and Vancouver B.C. and a few miles to the west of the busy Interstate 5 corridor. The jumping off place for a San Juan Island adventure is Anacortes, just a couple of hours from Seattle and home to the ferry terminal where you find a regular schedule of boats going to and from the three main San Juan Islands: San Juan, Orcas and Lopez.
Arriving at the ferry terminal, cars are directed into neat lines where the occupants will spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours waiting for their ferry to load. Good planning is key - ferry schedules are available online and you'll be able to minimize the wait. But don't cut it too close; it's good to check with the Washington State Ferries about what might be a reasonable time to arrive and not miss your boat. A small gift store and restaurant are located at the ferry terminal, so your ferry line wait is a good opportunity to have a snack or meal, whether you buy food there or bring your own.
Keep in mind you don't necessarily have to take your car to the islands. If you're going to Friday Harbor, for example, you can walk on the ferry with your overnight bag and find that most accommodations are within walking distance of the Friday Harbor ferry landing. Walk-ons have the advantage of big savings on their ticket price, and they also can show up at the terminal just before the ferry departs with no waiting in line.
Once on board your ferry, you'll again have the opportunity to snack or have something hot or cold to drink. Most ferry passengers get out of their cars and go to one of the upper decks to enjoy the view. The ferries are big and spacious and there is always seating available, although sometimes you won't be able to sit right next to a window. Many passengers enjoy visiting one of the outdoor decks, which are perfect for getting dramatic pictures of the incredibly beautiful islands as you pass by.
On our recent trip to Friday Harbor - the biggest town on San Juan - it was just about an hour ferry ride from Anacortes. Arrival at Friday Harbor feels like you've just taken a ferry to a New England fishing village - the town's historic architecture, a fleet of fishing boats, the island's thick forests and rocky shoreline, the sounds of the seagulls -- all combine to bombard the senses. If it's atmosphere you are looking for, you are sure to find it in Friday Harbor.
We disembarked from the ferry, driving our car onto San Juan's Main Street and, in just a couple of minutes, we were on San Juan Island's country roads, far away from civilization yet close to many scenic treasures located on just this one island. Nothing on San Juan Island is more than a few minutes away and it's easy to find the island's main attractions.
One of those is American Camp and English Camp, a place where the U.S. and Great Britain almost went to war over a pig. The boundaries between British and U.S. lands were a bit unclear in one of the treaties and Americans began squatting on land that Britain had claimed. It all came to a head in 1859 when one of the Americans shot a pig owned by the Hudson's Bay Company. Soldiers were brought in and sabers rattled until cooler heads finally prevailed - 12 years later. Today, visitors to San Juan Island can see the land that was in dispute and visit authentic buildings from the period.
Another place we made a point to visit was Lime Kiln Point State Park, considered to be the best place on San Juan Island to view the Orca whales that inhabit the waters in and around the San Juans. If you're looking for trails and great picnic spots with spectacular views of Victoria, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains, Lime Kiln is an easy drive from Friday Harbor and, on weekdays, is often quiet with only a smattering of fellow tourists. We didn't see the whales on our June trip, but you can potentially see whales in this area throughout the spring and summer months.
Just a few miles to the north of Friday Harbor is Roche Harbor, with its historic lodgings as well as stores and, most days, dozens of luxury yachts moored in the harbor or docked near the hotel and stores. During warm summer weekends, Roche Harbor becomes the boating capital of the San Juan Islands and you're likely to see mega-yachts from around the world tied up here so that boaters can take in the scenery and socialize. Visitors can rent kayaks or small boats, or charter fishing boats - as they can from Friday Harbor.
Back in Friday Harbor, we enjoyed browsing through the shops, stopping by the popular Whale Museum and just simply basking in some early-summer sun while dining outdoors on fresh fish and chips across from the ferry landing. With these sights and sounds, it's easy to be transported to another world that is far away from the demands of your daily job.
There are several fine places to stay overnight in Friday Harbor but, on our most recent trip, we tried out the new Bird Rock Hotel, about a block from the ferry landing. The hotel is in a historic building but that's the only thing "old" about the Bird Rock, which has been completely updated to the point that it could go head-to-head with the finest boutique hotels in San Francisco. The hotel uses contemporary lighting and design to create a modern, functional look with its earth-tone décor and modern furnishings.
The Bird Rock features custom beds with "organic, fair-trade linens" and such modern extras as ipod-docking radios, flat-panel satellite high-definition TV, hi-speed wireless and inroom espresso makers. If you want to do a little biking, the hotel has beach cruiser bikes for you to use anytime you like. And, no need to go out for breakfast - your room includes a gourmet breakfast basket and, we might add, warm gooey cookies upon check-in. All and all, the Bird Rock is the perfect place to pamper yourself while visiting the San Juans.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: San Juan Island is about a one-hour ferry ride from Anacortes, Washington. From Seattle, visitors can reach Anacortes in about two hours by driving north on Interstate 5 and following the signs.
WHAT: San Juan Island is a world apart from the mainland, even though vegetation and terrain may be similar. Visit Friday Harbor and you're on island-time, leaving the bustle of the city far behind.
WHEN: Year-round, but with big differences in the crowds. The summer months in the San Juans are packed and for good reason - there's just nothing like being in the San Juans on a blue-sky, warm summer day. Off-season is much less crowded. It's a temperate climate, but you're much more apt to get gray skies and some rain during the winter.
WHY: The San Juans are legendary for their beauty. Visiting Friday Harbor and San Juan Island gives you a good taste of the islands, but with relatively little hassle or expense.
HOW: For more information on the San Juan Islands, call the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau at 888-468-3701 or visit
www.guidetosanjuans.com. For more information on the Bird Rock Hotel, call 800-352-2632 or visit www.birdrockhotel.com.
Photos, from top: Washington State Ferry in San Juans, Roche Harbor dockside cafe, the view leaving Friday Harbor, Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway