- Distance from Seattle: 100 miles
- Best time: April to October
- Best for: Girl's GetawayRomanticFood and Wine
It may be a long way from Puerto Rico, but Washington State's version of San Juan has its own charms (minus the tropical temperatures). Comprising 172 islands off Washington State's northwest boundary, San Juan County offers locavore restaurants, plentiful indoor and outdoor activities, and charming hotels in one incredible escape. The Washington State Ferry system delivers travelers to two shining stars in the inky waters: the horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island and the undulating San Juan Islands. Head here to relax and rejuvenate during a weekend getaway, where you'll browse pottery galleries, walk through an outdoor art collection, visit a whale museum, encounter spectacular nature, and eat fine island food. Who says you need 90-degree days and Caribbean water to experience true rejuvenation? – By Lora Shinn
San Juan Islands Cheat Sheet
View a printable list of all sights, restaurants, entertainment, and hotels from this itinerary. View
1The ferry drops off passengers at Friday Harbor, the islands' largest village. Unwind from the week with a glass of Washington syrah and bite at Downriggers, which overlooks the ferry terminal and marina. After your pre-dinner snack, stroll this quintessential Washington harbor town, featuring compact, walkable streets filled with boutiques and cafes.
2For dinner, slip into the Backdoor Kitchen for a meal of free-range chicken or organic Oregon steak. This restaurant focuses on regional ingredients, gently prepared and served in the bright dining room or on the outdoor patio shaded by umbrellas.
3Several old-fashioned evening options entertain, including a flick at the Palace Theater (209 Spring Street; 360-370-5666) or bowling at Paradise Lanes. Or head to the Rumor Mill for live music and more than twenty beers on tap.
Did You Know? More than a dozen types of whales live in local waters, including orcas, gray, minke, and humpback, along with porpoises and dolphins.
1Pick up a carb-friendly breakfast at Cafe Demeter (80 Nichols Street; 360-370-5443), the town's artisanal bakery. Sip a double-shot latte and slowly savor a flaky cinnamon roll or chocolate croissant in the cozy café, which bakes everything on site.
2Come on in, the water's fine. In Friday Harbor, you can rent electric boats or Hobie kayaks from Friday Harbor Marine Center and explore life-filled inlets around the calm harbor—or just enjoy the peace of the water as it laps the boat.
3And what lives in those waters? After your boat rental, return to Friday Harbor to learn more about the graceful denizens of the local Salish Sea at The Whale Museum. Here, a whale skeleton hangs in the air while you eavesdrop on whale conversations in the "whale telephone booth" and find out what resides in a whale's stomach.
4Now it's time for a drive. Head out of Friday Harbor on Tucker Avenue, which becomes Roche Harbor Road. Pull over to sample wine at at the San Juan Vineyards tasting room, about ten minutes out of Friday Harbor. Another ten minutes north, past the rolling countryside and farmland of Roche Harbor Road, you'll take a left after the Roche Harbor welcoming arch, where you'll find the Westcott Bay Nature Reserve and Sculpture Park, an unusual outdoor collection of sculpture art. If it's a bit wet out, set out in rain boots (some of the park is in a wetland, after all) and explore the 19 acres of works that sprang from artists' minds. Birdwatchers will delight in the 120 species that touch down here, as well.
5Continue along Roche Harbor Road for a few minutes and take a right on Reuben Memorial Drive to arrive at Lime Kiln Café, which serves salads, giant sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, and "world famous" doughnuts. Eat indoors at the café and watch boats and seaplanes arrive on Roche Harbor. On sunny days, take your lunch outside or to the next stop for a picnic adventure.
6Now you'll head south along Roche Harbor Road for five minutes and take a right onto West Valley Road. After another five minutes turn right on Mitchell Bay Road and then left at West Side Road. Stay on for ten minutes to arrive at your next destination: Lime Kiln Point, a 36-acre day-use park that offers some of the best whale-watching in the lower forty-eight states. Survey the waters to the west for orca, minke, and porpoise fins. Naturalists may be available to help you spot whales.
7On your way back to Friday Harbor, head south on West Side Road, take a left on Wold Road, and stop by Pelindaba Lavender Farm to browse the store and learn about lavender, one of the islands' top crops. Don't miss the cookies—they're pretty amazing. Then head five minutes east back into Friday Harbor. Take a left onto West Side Road to head south (it becomes Bailer Hill Road at this point). Take a left onto Douglas Road and a right onto San Juan Valley Road back into Friday Harbor on Spring Street for a hearty pub-inspired dinner at Cask & Schooner, with specialties like shepherd's pie, spicy braised short-ribs, and bangers and mash.
1Grab a latte and pastry breakfast in Friday Harbor, then ride the ferry from San Juan Island to Orcas Island. Disembark, then drive for about twenty minutes along Orcas Road until you reach the 5,252-acre Moran State Park, where you'll find more than thirty-eight miles of trails and the stately, 2,409-foot high Mount Constitution, the island's highest point. Atop the mountain, clear days offer panoramic perspectives of surrounding British Columbia and Washington peaks and cities.
2Drive south along Olga Road to the artists' enclave of Olga, or head north again for Eastsound, where galleries burst with creative expression. At Orcas Island Artworks, more than forty artists display sculpture, glass, jewelry, and wearable art, along with paintings and prints. Crow Valley Pottery exhibits a mix of locally produced oil paintings, pottery, woodcuts, and jewelry.
3While in Eastsound, make sure you snag a table at the New Leaf Cafe. Have a bite of the duck mac and cheese with toasted hazelnut crust or the house-smoked Sockeye salmon pasta with scotch cream and parmesan. An extensive regional wine list is a welcome top-off to the locally sourced dinner menu. There's no rush to drive back to the ferry dock, which will return you to Anacortes and then Seattle.
Where to Stay
On San Juan Islands, you'll find a variety of price points at the fine and funky Bird Rock Hotel (rooms from $145/night), located in downtown Friday Harbor, near dining and activities. This patchwork of hotel room styles includes simple shared-bath (but oh-so-sleek) simple rooms and luxe, Jacuzzi-equipped suites overlooking Friday Harbor. Courtesy beach cruiser bikes sweeten any in-city ride.
For an exclusive, get-away-from-it-all option, head for Roche Harbor Resort (rooms from $149/night), which snuggled into San Juan Islands' northern tip near the lime quarries that once sustained the island. The 1880s "Hotel de Haro" still rents antique-decorated, Victorian-era rooms (some with shared bathrooms), while the grand, contemporary Quarryman Hall rooms offer stunning views of the floatplane-festooned Roche Harbor.
When to Go
The San Juan Islands are glorious in summer, featuring amethyst lavender fields, green deciduous trees, and impossibly sapphire-blue waters. Festivals include spring's San Juan Island Artists' Studio Tour and the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival. You'll find increased ferry sailings (not all inter-island ferry trips return to the mainland; check schedules carefully).
The "shoulder" seasons of spring and fall offer less expensive lodging—and more options, as the international crowds slow. Spring may be rainier, but you'll see more flowers. Fall generally offers drier weather than spring or winter and a changing autumn slideshow in the trees.
Winter is quiet—stores have shorter hours (and some may even close for a few weeks). You can romantically enjoy winter storms pacing across the Puget Sound. At times, however, ferry service is disrupted due to weather conditions and seasonal demand.
How to Get There
By ferry: Half the fun of a San Juan Islands trip is the journey, via car ferry. The Washington State Ferries ply Puget Sound waters daily, a sort of mini-cruise for enthusiastic locals and visitors. Snag a comfortable bench or table, but don't forget the binoculars—this is prime real estate for catching a glimpse of bald eagles and leaping orcas.
The drive from Seattle to Anacortes takes about an hour and a half along I-5 North, then a quick twenty to thirty minute jog to the west along Highway 20 West. A direct ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor is an additional hour (not including lineups). Ferries stopping along inter-island routes take a little longer. Expect long lines in the summer and pack snacks and reading materials accordingly. Your smartphone may even have a ferry app—check the online store for your device.