The San Juan Islands: Washington’s ultimate food and adventure getaway
There’s a place in the Pacific Northwest where wild deer roam free, orca whales are spotted daily throughout spring and summer, incredible wine and spirits are made, delicious beers are brewed, and the culinary scene is so notably local and innovative that it alone is worth travelling for. A place where the shoreline remains unspoiled, people are friendlier, and things move just a little more slowly and are done more thoughtfully—a quieter pace of life.
There’s some sort of magic on the San Juan Islands, an archipelago of 172 named islands and reefs off the coast of Washington state. Covered in lush evergreen forests, towering mountains, and surrounded by the Salish Sea, it's an outdoor enthusiast and wildlife lover’s haven. Hike, kayak, swim, relax and indulge on these spectacular unspoiled islands. Here sustainability is not only key—it’s a way of life, integrated into every activity and meal you take part in. The islands foster a sense of community that’s tangible from the first hello.
San Juan Island and Orcas Island—the two largest in the archipelago—are the perfect long weekend getaway from Vancouver. Busiest in summer, but still thriving in fall, they are a year-round destination. The cooler months offer a respite from the crowds, shorter ferry lines, reduced accommodation, and the weather is still mild (the islands get an estimated 247 days of sunshine a year). Luckily, it’s easy to bounce between islands with the Washington State Ferry, so you don’t have to choose just one.
The second biggest and most populous island in the archipelago is its namesake. A two-hour drive from Vancouver to Anacortes, plus an hour(-ish) ferry ride—depending on the route and time of year—gets you to the quaint little port town of Friday Harbour on San Juan Island. Here, you instantly feel things slow down. Apart from when you first come off the ferry, there are no traffic lights anywhere on the island—which you can drive around in an hour or so.
Where to stay
Facebook/Lakedale Resort at Three LakesLooking for a quintessentially Pacific Northwest camping experience, but still want a little luxury? Make your way to Lakedale Resort. If glamping is your thing, it doesn’t get much more glam than their 425-square-foot yurts. Most yurts are fairly basic, and the wi-fi signal is usually non-existent. Here, you’re greeted with a bright and airy space, with a warm electric fireplace, a smart TV playing local music, bright and colour-coordinated yellow and blue furniture, a king-sized bed, a luxuriously large bathroom and shower, and a full wi-fi signal—all the while surrounded by wilderness (ask for yurt 4 at the end for an extra-secluded feel).
Even though the signal is strong, unplug anyways. Grab a board game or a good book. On a clear night, switch off the TV and all the lights inside and head outside to the 180-square-foot deck and submerge in the hot tub. Don’t forget to bring out a bottle of wine from nearby San Juan Vineyard or a growler filled at San Juan Island Brewing to enjoy, then spend the evening looking up at the stars. Though it’s only a 10-minute drive from the ferry, the secluded location of the resort and distance from the mainland make it a pristine spot for stargazing.
The property has been around since the early 70s and started as a campground. It still has a feeling of a bygone era, with art installations by local artists, lawn games, and—in the summer—a little tuck shop giving it a good old-fashioned day-by-the-lake feel. Speaking of the lake, there’s a communal firepit there, set underneath globe lights strung between the trees. Ask for some logs at the front desk and cozy up by the fire. It’s the perfect perch for a good reading session or to enjoy a drink. There’s also canoes and kayaks available for rent if you’re feeling up for a paddle on the lake, and fishing poles should you feel like testing your angling skills.
Inside your yurt, there’s a small kitchenette and, just outside, a BBQ. If you’re visiting over the weekend, stop in on the Saturday San Juan Island Farmer’s Market at the historic Brickworks building—restored in 2013 as the market’s permanent home—to pick up some local goods to enjoy for breakfast: freshly baked bread, pastries, cheese, locally-roasted coffee beans and jam (Girl meets Dirt makes the most delicious organic preserves made with all local ingredients—her tomato jam is incredible).
Yurts from $244 USD per night. Rooms in the lodge, standalone cabins, canvas cottages, a vintage airstream and campsites are also available; Details online
What to do
Wander about Friday Harbour
The town of Friday Harbour is the perfect place to while away a rainy afternoon. In town, you’ll find lots of little businesses in converted heritage homes. Don’t miss Serendipity Used Bookstore inside of a quaint little Victorian home, complete with over 50,000 books and a wood-burning stove. It was opened by two neighbours who were both librarians and had a mutual dream. Just two months after meeting, they were in the bookstore business. Friday Harbour House has epic views over the harbour, an extensive cocktail list, and duck fat fries that will have you ordering seconds in no time. On a dry evening, enjoy a cocktail outside on of the chairs placed around fire pits overlooking the harbour.
Get to know the resident orcas at The Whale Museum
Even if museums aren’t usually your thing, this is one worth visiting if you even have the slightest interest in whales (and if you don’t already, guaranteed you will after spending a day on these islands). Here, you’ll be so immersed in learning about all the transient and resident orcas who call the region home, their ancestry, and what we can all do to protect their endangered population. You’ll leave feeling like you got to know each documented resident whale personally, and you'll be well-versed in the Indigenous heritage of the region. It’s a great place for adults and kids alike to spend a rainy afternoon on the island and—let’s be real—we’re in the Pacific Northwest and one of those is bound to happen during any given long weekend.
General admission is $9 USD per person; Details online
Where to play outside
Whale watch from a vintage lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park
Touted as North America’s best land-based whale-watching spot and known as Whale Watch Park, Lime Kiln is most well-known for the southern resident killer whales that pass through from May through September. Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of the whales, the park has a path that runs along the shoreline towards the historic lighthouse built in 1919, educating visitors along the way about all kinds of wildlife. Orcas, humpbacks, grey and minke whales, seals, porpoises, sea lions and river otters frequent this deep-water tidal zone. Inside the lighthouse, whale sightings are recorded, monitored, and can be seen in comparison year over year.
Most importantly, you’ll learn about the disappearing Pacific Northwest resident orca whale population. They have falling numbers, so much so that they are on the verge of going extinct. They are in serious trouble because their primary food source—Chinook salmon—is dwindling, the oceans where they feed are getting louder, and the water is becoming more polluted from contaminants that are being dumped into the rivers and building up in their bodies.
Even on a blustery fall or winter day, this park is the perfect place to breathe in the fresh ocean air while being surrounded by arbutus trees and craggy coastline or to simply sit at one of the many picnic tables and watch for marine life as you look out over the Salish Sea (specifically Haro Strait).
$10 USD; Details online
Kayak in giant kelp forests with San Juan Island Outfitters
Roche Harbour on the northwest side of San Juan Island has a very regal, East Coast, luxurious feel to it. It’s also home to San Juan Outfitters, who guide organized private and group kayaking tours between April and October. If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the resident orcas, bald eagles or seals. Our guide, Jacob, paddled with us through giant kelp forests (which happen to also taste delicious and be full of vitamins and minerals, especially calcium), pointed out nesting bald eagles and playful seals on the three-hour kayak tour. Throughout, you’ll hear stories of the history of all the islands, while navigating your way around the area. Nothing beats breathing in fresh, salty air on a kayak.
From $99 USD per person; Details online
Where to eat
Shuck your Oysters at Westcott Bay Shellfish Company
Set right on the edge of quiet Westcott Bay, you’ll find a working aquaculture farm that sustainably grows hand-raised Pacific oysters, Manila clams and Mediterranean mussels on their tidelands. In the late '70s, the farm was known then as Westcott Bay Seafarms and their oysters were world-renowned. The farm fell into a steady decline until—in 2013—the current owners bought the property with a vision to restore it to when it was at its peak.
Just 100 metres from the shell-covered shoreline, you’ll find locals and tourists mingling around the campfire, cooking, shucking and slurping fresh catch of the day at various picnic tables and grills, sitting on Adirondack chairs on the waterfront, taking in the quintessentially Pacific Northwest views.
You can pay inside the shop by the dozen, where you can also purchase freshly baked baguettes, served with creamery butter, packages of olives, local cheese and local wine and beer. All the tools required for DIY shucking are on the table, and—if you’re a newbie—the friendly staff are more than happy to show you how it’s done. On the menu that day were High Beach Sweets and Salty Franks that taste best raw, and meaty Chubbies which are great thrown over the grill. Let them cook for five to 10 minutes, shuck them and give them a squeeze of fresh lemon, then leave them to bake over the flame for another five. Pro tip: the smaller they are the sweeter, and the bigger the earthier and brinier.
Hours vary seasonally; Oysters by the dozen from $17; Details online
Indulge inside a cozy cabin in the woods at Duck Soup Restaurant
This rustic little restaurant in the woods has a menu full of foraged foods and local ingredients. The menu includes the likes of homemade anchovy butter and freshly-made sourdough bread, small green peppers charred in a chili sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds and nasturtiums, plus melt-in-your-mouth scallops on a bed of butternut squash risotto. The wine and cocktail list changes seasonally. The Finally Fall comes highly-recommended, made with honey crisp apple vodka from nearby Lynden’s Bellewood Farms, hard-pressed cider, apple beer and a touch of nutmeg and allspice—the perfect warmer in the cooler weather.
Where to drink
Sip wines in a remodeled schoolhouse at San Juan Vineyard
Set in a schoolhouse built in 1895, the quaint tasting room at this vineyard is the perfect place to enjoy a glass, or do the tasting experience of a rotating cast of favourites—ours included the 2017 Syrah and Sigerrebe, and 2018 Afterglow Rose and 2016 Cattle Point Red, whose grapes grow in Walla Walla and Red Mountain (Washington’s most famous and prestigious wine region, known for its bold earthy reds). The vineyard follows organic practices, treating vines biodynamically. This spot might be the first time you’ll realize the island is magical when you spot free-roaming deer from the window or patio.
Taste gin distilled from apple cider at San Juan Island Distillery and Cidery
This unique little spot distills their gin from really great cider. Stop in for a tour where they’ll walk you through the entire process which is done on-site, from pressing the apples, making the cider (the result is super dry, high-quality cider made from real cider apples), to making their gin with fermented golden delicious apples in a breathtakingly beautiful German-made pot still.
Co-owner Suzy Pingree, a former science communications professor at the University of Wisconsin, and her partner Hawk retired early in 2005 and built a house on San Juan Island. They were looking for something to keep them busy when they joined forces with master cider-maker, Rich Anderson. These days, they brew cider as well as 14 variations of gin, distilled in small batches. Four are made with apple brandy, and some are made with grain spirit, while still more are distilled with locally-foraged herbs such as juniper, or trees including the arbutus. Notably delicious are their Spy Hop gins (named after a behaviour when an orca whale sticks its head out of the water to have a look at what is going on upon the surface), especially the Meredith’s Citrus blend. Their gins have won awards at the American Craft Spirits Association and you can only get it on the island or in select shops in Seattle, so this one’s worth the trek over the border.
U-shaped Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands. If San Juan Island felt like it had a calm demeanour to it, Orcas takes the chill vibe to the next level. Time your ferry between islands so that you dock just after the sun sets, and make your way through forest, mountains... and seaside bliss.
Where to stay
Doe Bay Resort and Retreat
This quiet, rustic, seaside retreat is nestled between the forest and the shoreline, far from anything else. The drive to the property spans—almost—the entire length of the island, and the property is a true respite from the bustle of city life. Here, you can truly disconnect from everything.
If you’ve ever dreamt of sleeping in a treehouse... on an island... in the middle of the woods, this is the one you’ve been picturing. Built by the DIY Network’s Treehouse Guys, the unique structure is quite literally built into and around a tree. Its branches remain intact throughout the structure, making for some architectural genius. It has a loft bedroom up top, and a small living room with a half bath (shower rooms are available nearby on the property) Even in the pouring rain, this spot is pure magic as the rain pattering on the roof lulls you to sleep. On site, there’s also a spa that overlooks the bay, bright blue-green waters. At the spa, the saltwater soaking tubs and saunas are clothing-optional. Be brave—you’ll feel even more out of place with a bathing suit here.
Treehouse from $229 USD per night; Details online
Doe Bay Café
The resort’s on-site restaurant sitting above the bay, is a foodie destination in itself. Tucked inside a cozy cabin-style building, the locale is focused on hyper-local, insisting that all the ingredients for its many dishes are from the islands. Fresh seafood is pulled right of the water, garnishes are home grown, and meat is from a nearby farm. Dishes include pasta Bolognese, and freshly-caught Salish Sea halibut, accompanied by perfect wine pairings.
Where to sip
Orcas Island WineryOrcas Island Winery
Stepping onto the Orca’s Island Winery property feels like coming home to your dream house—a barn converted into an ultra-modern space—and then getting cozy inside your living room with a glass of your favourite wine and some old friends. Originally from Los Angeles, Wesley and Tera Landman relocated with their son, Winston, and two dogs to start the family business of their dreams and live a quieter life closer to nature. The result is a beautifully welcoming space at the base of Turtleback Mountain (a favourite place for locals to hike), run by a couple of very passionate people. In the summer, you can have a picnic on the lawn with a crisp glass of their Isla Rosé, and in fall, cozy up inside the barn with a bottle of Cabernet Franc. Keep an eye out for their new spritzy, sparkling Cabernet Franc Pétillant Naturel (aka Pét-Nat), launching in Spring 2020—a delicious fermented wine that is made in the original manner of production, dating back pre-Champagne.
Island Hoppin’ Brewery
It’s doubtful there are friendlier brewery owners than Nate Schons and Becca Gray, who opened Island Hoppin’ Brewery in 2009. The brewery's logo is inspired by an old treasure map, which is fitting since this spot is a true gem. This little brewery right in the middle of the island in Eastsound serves a rotating cast of beers, from unique one-off creations made once and never again, to staples like their lager. Some of their unique beers that are staying put include the Chili Blonde, brewed with seven types of peppers and packing a serious bite, or their Black Bear Porter, named after a bear who repeatedly kept returning to the islands after being relocated. There’s also a delicious Raspberry Wheat Ale brewed with organic golden raspberries, ensuring all the flavour is there, but none of the sweetness (because as they say, beer should never be sweet). Don’t miss trying their fresh hop beer: a Washington classic only made during a magical time of year during which brewers add freshly-cut hops to brew their beer within hours of harvesting it. To taste fresh hop at its finest, you should have it at the source, and it doesn’t get much fresher than this. Your best bet is the tasting flight—ensuring you don’t miss a thing. Ask the barman, John, about his mushroom foraging business North Beach Mushrooms. He crafts tinctures out of different fungi collected from all around the island and supplies the island’s finest to many restaurants. Apparently, he also makes a mean mushroom grilled cheese sandwich topped with balsamic.
How to get there
The drive from Vancouver to Anacortes takes about two hours, then you’ll hop on the Washington State Ferry to San Juan Island’s Friday Harbour or Orcas Island. Round trip, including the ferry between Friday Harbour and Orcas Island, costs $65 USD. Ferries run year-round, but make a reservation early. If you’re planning a last-minute trip, additional reservations are released 48 hours before departure.