The foghorn puts out a powerful blast, so strong that the entire boat rattles. Seagulls screech and flap into flight, then circle overhead. The saltwater begins to churn and, once again, a Washington State Ferry moves away from its dock, headed toward Whidbey Island or one of the San Juans.
No exaggeration, this is one of the most exciting moments that a traveler can experience. Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are vast highways of sapphire water. Snowcapped mountains come into view, down the Olympic Peninsula to the west and from Mount Rainier, marching all the way into British Columbia to the east.
Perhaps you’re headed to Whidbey Island to kick around Langley or Coupeville, hike the high-bluff grasslands of Ebey’s Landing, or walk the rocky beaches of the state park, then make the safe, but nonetheless courageous walk across the bridge that spans Deception Pass. Or maybe you’re off to Orcas Island to stay at a bed and breakfast, or to climb Mount Constitution, or visit galleries. The gentle farm county of Lopez Island may have drawn you. Or you might have abandoned your car, making a secret getaway to a romantic resort on San Juan Island. All that’s with the two of you on the oat are backpacks (complete with a change for a formal dinner and a couple bottles of Washington wine) and your bikes.
There’s an easygoing cheerfulness, a laid-back way of living well, on Washington’s islands that is irresistible. Visitors are spared no courtesy, but you’ll never feel fussed over. At any café you’ll be right at home for breakfast with a cup of good coffee, a chewy pastry, and a newspaper. Dinner will mean a skillfully prepared meal and you can expect locally grown, fresh produce, quite likely organic, served in handsome, but unpretentious surroundings. The islands are just that kind of place.
No matter what has lured you to make the voyage, great discoveries await and getting there on one of Washington’s wonderful ferries is a great beginning to the fun. There’s no easier, or for that matter, no more beautiful island getaway.
San Juan Islands
Through there are over 700 islands in the entire San Juan archipelago, and a mere 40 that are inhabited, Washington State Ferries only travel to four of them: Lopez, Shaw, San Juan and Orcas. Don’t fret. Those four emerald jewels, harbored in a luxuriant crown of northwest glory, are filled with enough splendor and adventure to satisfy any traveler.
Strewn like glorious, green-coned buttons amidst the Levi blue Puget Sound waters, the San Juan Islands are truly extraordinary. Mingling forests and farmlands, villages and hideaways, each has their unique personality, yet all share a distinct brand of physical beauty. The islands are the ideal place to gather and create lasting memories. If you plan to drive, you can board the state ferry from Anacortes. Arrive early – especially during summer peak season.
Anacortes, the gateway to the San Juan, is actually an island but is connected by two bridges to the mainland and Whidbey Island. Home to colorful Alaska-bound fishing fleets, several bustling marinas and the largest collection of bare-boat charter companies in North America, Anacortes isn’t just a colorful entry way; it’s a self-contained destination.
There are more than 2.200 acres of wild Community Forestland in the middle of the island with miles of trails and several freshwater lakes. Mouth Erie, the highest point in Skagit County, features views of Mount Baker to the Olympics and across the San Juans to Canada.
Downtown hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, most notably the popular Arts Festival in August. With great shopping and a fine collection of dining options, the downtown greets visitors with nearly 90 life-sized cutout murals adorning the area’s buildings, including many on the national historical register.
Conclude any day on Anacortes’ waterfront. There are tours in the open waters or protected estuarine bays, whale watching, underwater diving or kayaking beside the intricate shoreline. Come sunset, cap the day with a view of the ferries traversing Rosario Strait from Washington Park.
After exploring downtown Anacortes, passengers waiting to board the ferry often glide into relaxation mode and bring a book or amiable companions to the ferry dock to help while away the time. Once you’ve departed, the ride itself is a true delight, with views of charming and enviable homes, pastoral outlooks, quiet coves and staggeringly beautiful foliage. This isn’t just paradise for humans. Seals, sea birds, three resident pods of Orca whales and the highest concentration of nesting bald eagles in the continental United States all flourish here.
Day trips are always an option in the San Juans. Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Eastsound on Orcas, and Lopez Village on Lopez welcome visitors with great shops and dining options. But, try to take advantage of the bevy of lodging options throughout the islands to fully appreciate the San Juan experience. Shaw is the only island that doesn’t have commercial accommodations, although limited camping is available. The others have a wide variety of charming cottages, resorts, vacation rentals or seaside campsites. There are many B & B’s sprinkled throughout the lush farmlands, above or beside the salt water or nestled into the native forests. Reservations are strongly recommended for the summer season.
Lopez Island is the first ferry stop, reflecting its strong agricultural history with lovely pastures bordered by the region’s spectacular outlooks. Lopez Village is the primary town on the island – leaving lots of acreage for viewing and exploring. There are several parks and hiking trails here and great freshwater fishing at Hummel Lake. Lopez has an outstanding collection of public access parks and beaches, including Agate Beach, Shark Reef Point and Spencer Spit, containing 130 acres with hiking trails and one mile of waterfront. This is also the island that bicyclist love best for its gently rolling roads, friendly residents, and numerous stopping points.
Shaw Island is sparsely populated and has few amenities outside a small store at the landing and limited camping and picnicking at Indian Cove Park. Even if his is not your final destination, walk out on the deck and take a moment to appreciate and snap a photo of the Shaw Island docking crew. Members of a local order of nuns have been operating the ferry landing here every day for over 15 years.
Saltwater fishing charters are available throughout the islands, as are skippered sailing and powerboat charters. Kayaking is very popular; Lopez, Orcas and San Juan have outfitters that can provide rentals and guided tours. There are strong tides and currents in these waters and observance of safe wildlife viewing guidelines are highly recommended. Scuba divers will appreciate the dynamic range of underwater activity.
From the moment the ferry lands at the enchanting town of Orcas Village, Orcas Island simultaneously stuns and seduces visitors with its natural beauty. As a vacation spot, gateway, full-time home or summer residence, Orcas guarantees a warm welcome for all. With first-class marinas, an active, year-round community of 4.400 creative spirits, a multitude of accommodation options and a long list of places to discover, Orcas is on the “don’t miss” list for any visitor to the San Juan Islands. Come summer, get to the ferry line early, and load your camera in hopes that the captain stops the boat to watch a pod of whales – a frequent occurrence.
This is an island that unravels its secrets village by village, cove by cove. Orcas Village – the starting and ending site for island visits – has eateries, shops, a grocery store and the landmark historic Orcas Hotel. West Sound boasts a marina, County Dock, Yacht Club and a store/café. Deer Harbor, with its marina, is a hub of activity during high season with fairs, fireworks and free concerts.
It isn’t just the towns and shoreline that distinguishes Orcas as a prime destination. Travel the Crow Valley Road to appreciate the island’s interior between Turtleback Mountain and Eastsound. Those who choose this route will view fertile farmlands, old barns, and the historic Crow Valley School, established in 1888 and now a museum. The Re Apple Barn, also along the route, is a beloved island landmark.
Be sure to respect the island’s speed limits – the roads are narrow and are shared by bicyclist, pedestrians, children and animals (the deer and bunnies on Orcas are not shy). There are no spotlights, no streetlights and many “blind” curves. Besides, why rush and take the risk of missing all the stunning scenery?
The “hub” of Orcas is the village of Eastsound. There are shops, galleries, a wonderful museum featuring the region’s history, Saturday Market and Sunday “Music in the Park”. Eastsound’s Waterfront Park offers great public saltwater access and is the location of numerous summer events. Nearby is the airport, a medical center and Orcas center, the community venue for the performing and visual arts. If you’re looking for the perfect sunset, go to North Beach Road for water access and fabulous outlooks. Drive east on Mount Baker Road and take advantage of one of the island’s most spectacular views of – you guessed it – Mount Baker.
For a breathtaking panoramic view, Moran State Park contains, literally, the pinnacle of the Orcas experience within its 5.000 plus acres. Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands, reigns over the park at an altitude of 2.500 feet. There’s a stone tower at the peak that provides a 360-degree view of the San Juans, Vancouver Islands and the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges. On a perfectly clear day, the queens of the northwest, Mount Baker and Mount Rainer, hold court.
Moran State Park was a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project during the Depression and its lodges and pavilions reflect that era’s classic “park” architecture. Be sure to make reservations for camping during the summer. And, just outside the park is the historic Rosario Resort. Drawing upon its natural setting and colorful history, Rosario has a special charm. Shipping magnate Robert Moran originally built this magnificent complex as an idyllic retreat and it now serves that same function as a premier destination for Orcas visitors – many of whom have vacationed here for generations. Past Moran State Park is the delightful village of Olga. Once a port of entry for the island, the town now welcomes visitors with a public pier, an artist’s co-op and two restaurants. A turn onto Pt Lawrence Road will soon give you the choice of heading out to Doe Bay or turning right to investigate the trail that will lead you to Obstruction Pass Park’s public beach and picnic area, a real treat.
San Juan Island, originally settled in the late 1800s, is the home of Friday Harbor, the county seat and the business center for the islands. Filled with fine restaurants and shops where local artisans display and sell their wares, Friday Harbor is also the home of the Whale Museum, a nationally renowned facility dedicated to education of the fragile ecosystem in which these gentle giants reside.
San Juan Island was the site of an infamous boundary dispute between Great Britain and the United States in 1859. An American farmer shot a British-owned pig, igniting a potential conflict, resulting in joint occupation of this island until Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany awarded the islands to the United States as part of arbitration. San Juan Island National Historic Park at Friday Harbor commemorates the peaceful resolution of the “Pig War”.
San Juan also offers extensive recreation venues – for starters, hike the six-mile beach and trails at American Camp. Then, visit historic, charming Roche Harbor and the grand Hotel De Haro, built in 1886.
Whidbey Island, big, beautiful and easy to find from the Seattle/Everett area, is a choice escape for a weekend or weeklong odyssey. Miles of gentle rolling hills seem made for bicyclists, while a trio of towns and many specialty shops please both browsers and serious shoppers. Couples and families schedule regular visits here, gathering at inns, B&B’s and other inviting lodgings witch, when coupled with a moderate climate, define Whidbey as a perfect year-round gateway.
Access the island via the Mukilteo ferry just north of Seattle, or from Highway 20 at I-5 exit 230, as if heading west toward Anacortes. The latter route includes a short, splendid drive through Deception Pass State Park and over Deception Pass Bridge – providing a magnificent view and outlook you won’t want to miss no matter how you approach this wonderful island. A third access point is via ferry from Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula to Keystone Landing near Coupeville. Whether your destination is a beachfront cabin on a picturesque bay or a meandering tour of captivating towns, once experienced, Whidbey Island becomes the secret you share and the place that, somehow, now belongs to you.
A perfect introduction to Whidbey begins down south, at the thriving artists’ colony of Langley, where pastel painted wooden shops overlook shimmering Saratoga Passage, and the Cascade Mountains. The town is resplendent with flowers and miniature parks, galleries, outstanding restaurants, and fine antique shops. Gray whales are a frequent springtime sight. To the west, dog lovers gather to walk three miles of sandy beach at Double Bluff Beach Park, watch “ship traffic” on its way to port in Seattle, and search shoreline for ancient woolly mammoth bones.
Heading north is Freeland Beach Park at Holmes Harbor. Here families can enjoy warmer protected waters while children play on the beach. Throughout the Freeland area, especially at South Whidbey State Park, old growth cedar forests line miles of easy hiking trails and surround private campsites.
Garden fanciers will appreciate a celebration of our state flower, gloriously abloom during peak months of March through late June, at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens in Greenbank. Open all year, this high season is among many colorful surprises throughout Meerkerk’s 50 acres of tranquil trails, forest and meadows. Just up the road, the historic spot to sample wines of the recently recognized “Puget Sound” region is the Greenbank Farm where a pleasant informal tasting experience comes wrapped in a turn-of-the-century red barn.
Coupeville, situated on placid Penn Cove, about ten minutes north of Greenbank and ten south of Oak Harbor, will soon celebrate a 150th birthday. Quaint and rich in historic appeal, the town invites all to “step back in time”. The waterfront district offers plenty of seafood and other dining options as well as galleries, antiques and specialty shops. Victorian homes and fine old barns charmingly reflect Coupeville’s 19th century beginnings.
“Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve” – 25 square miles of preserved forest, prairie, farmland, bluffs, beaches, parks and hiking trails – surround tiny Coupeville. As Whidbey grows, the “Reserve” remains as it was 100 or more years ago. Here, many buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places are homes and businesses today.
Magical Whidbey isle legitimately boasts of her charming villages, but is also home to a thriving city, Oak Harbor, and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Along the northern shores emigrants settled at the turn-of-the-century and visitors are reminded of the rich Dutch heritage by windmills like the one at City Beach Park. City Beach Park also has a campground; many play areas, and an old-fashioned saltwater “swimming hole”. Oak Harbor’s modern public marina hosts one of the premiere sailing regattas in Puget Sound. Further north, an extensive trail system, saltwater fishing and canoeing are available at Deception Pass State Park.
South Whidbey claims the name “County Inn B&B Capital” of the state, a correct moniker south of Oak Harbor, but look to Oak Harbor for practical lodging and amenities of a metropolitan area, minus the big city feel. With a variety of unique and historic “boutique” lodgings and five state parks on the island, Whidbey offers hospitality daily. Year-round camping is available at Deception Pass State Park. Whidbey’s weather is equally hospitable. Protected by the towering Olympic Mountains, most of Whidbey is smack in the middle of a “rain shadow” – a geologic escape from the Northwest’s famous heavy rains. Add sites with views of Mount Baker, Mount Rainer, the Cascades and the Olympics, then factor in a glimpse of eagles dipping their wings over pristine waters, and you’ll understand why visitors flock to this serene paradise.