The San Juan Islands Travel Guide
Where to Weekend

The Perfect Weekend Getaway: Whidbey and the San Juans From Seattle

PHOTO: Matthew Connolly/Shutterstock

Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.

Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.

“Getting there is half the fun” served as an advertising slogan for boats crossing the Atlantic in the 1950s, but it feels like it could have been invented for the Washington State Ferries, which whisk people from their everyday urban and suburban homes and transport through the cold water straits of Puget Sound, through a maze of islands blanketed in old-growth forests. Bountiful shellfish, windswept cliffs overlooking the saltwater, and winding pastoral roads make Whidbey Island and the San Juan Islands like Orcas and Lopez appealing escapes for anyone who wants to slow down and feel the breeze blow their worries away as they sip a glass of something cool.

GETTING THERE

Careful planning and booking ahead are essential to a low-stress trip to the San Juans. Check the somewhat complicated Washington State Ferries process for reserving to get your spot two months, two weeks, or two days ahead. For Whidbey, you can drive around the north end of the island if everything is booked up, or just to pause at Deception Pass and think, “Dang, this is high off the ground!”

DAY1

If you want your day to go smoothly, hopefully you’ve long since made your ferry reservations, as few spots remain by the day of. If you’re heading to Whidbey, a mid-morning boat will leave you plenty of time to get across the water for a Prima Bistro lunch of mussels from nearby Penn Cove on the deck. If you’re headed to Lopez, try to time yourself to pick up an early lunch at the Shrimp Shack to eat on the ferry. Once you get to the other side and drop your bags, make your way to Iceberg Point to spend the afternoon hiking out to one of the best views in the islands. For dinner, taste the essence of the island at Ursa Minor, where chef Nick Coffey slices, ferments, churns, and cooks the local flora, fauna, and seaweed into dishes that showcase the terroir. On Whidbey, find a similar flavor in a much more high-end form at the three-hour, many-course meal served by the Inn at Langley.

DAY2

On Lopez, start your day with a healthful drink from the Vortex Café & Juice Bar, then hop on a bike from Lopez Bike Works to make your way around the island, a flat ride that can be done in loops various lengths. Get back into town in time to grab lunch overlooking the water at Haven before you hope on the inter-island ferry to Orcas.

Whidbey’s hills and size make it less good for a bike ride, but nothing can compete with the fun of playing in the old naval forts that are converted into beachfront parks. Duck into bunkers and climb the old cannons at Fort Casey before stopping for a light lunch at Toby’s Tavern. While away the afternoon at the nearby Penn Cove Brewing Company until the Oystercatcher opens for dinner. The tiny spot specializes in using the local bivalves in creative ways, like pork belly and scallops with curried crème fraîche and kimchi.

The reason for the early dinner comes in the form of your date night at the drive-in. Oak Harbor’s Blue Fox Drive-In keeps the old tradition alive, with low-cost second-run movies played on a big screen for you to watch from the comfort of your car.

If you’ve made your way to Orcas, take the opportunity to make your way to the top of Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands, and look out from the top of the tower. If the weather cooperates, rent a kayak at the bottom in Moran State Park, and take a paddle around the lake. For dinner, choose between two options at the same restaurant: the casually spectacular many-course tasting menu at Aelder or the less spendy (but no less burgeoning with fresh local oysters, green garlic and more) pizza shop Hogstone. Either way, end the night with a cocktail at the nautically themed Barnacle.

DAY3

Grab brunch on Orcas at Roses Bakery Café, digging into their baked eggs with Gruyere or polenta and eggs with red chile sauce before you hop on an Eclipse Charters boat for a whale-watching tour (which “guarantees” whale sightings in summer). When you get back, have a late afternoon snack to tide you over at Buck Bay Shellfish, where you can buy oysters, crabs, and more right from them, then picnic out front—they’ll give you a shucking lesson if you need it. Finish the trip with a dip in the clothing-optional soaking tubs at Doe Bay Resort and dinner at the attached café before you grab a ferry back.

If you stayed on Whidbey, sit down to so much more than the name implies at Whidbey Donuts, where the standard diner does sneak in a few treats like the doughnut French toast. Play the day away at Fort Ebey, hiking, surfing, or foraging for seaweed, before ending your trip on the patio at the Captain Whidbey, looking out over the water and slurping up oysters that were recently in it.

WHERE TO STAY

Lopez offers few formal lodgings, so it’s just a matter of finding a rental home you like, while Orcas spans the full array of options, from a luxury room at the Rosario Resort and Spa to the yurts and basic cabins at Doe Bay. On Whidbey, the Captain Whidbey Inn offers an enticing boutique feel with Filson-outfitted cabins, while the high-end Inn at Langley awaits your splurge for the balcony view rooms looking over the water.

WHEN TO GO

Lopez offers few formal lodgings, so it’s just a matter of finding a rental home you like, while Orcas spans the full array of options, from a luxury room at the Rosario Resort and Spa to the yurts and basic cabins at Doe Bay. On Whidbey, the Captain Whidbey Inn offers an enticing boutique feel with Filson-outfitted cabins, while the high-end Inn at Langley awaits your splurge for the balcony view rooms looking over the water.

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