The San Juan Islands are Washington’s most popular destination

by Beth Graham

Being an East Coast girl, I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t spent much time (ok, any time) in the Pacific Northwest. I pictured dense forests with tall trees, cool, breezy weather and rugged outdoor activities. So what would a lounge-by-the-beach girl possibly find to do there? I was about to find out on a weekend adventure to San Juan Island and its charming seaport, Friday Harbor. Getting to the San Juan Islands is half the fun!

Where is San Juan Island?

Located just off the coast of Seattle, the San Juan Islands are comprised of 172 named islands and reefs yet only four are served by the ferry system – San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island. At just 55 square miles, San Juan Island is home to fewer than 7000 year-round residents and promotes an ‘unplug and just relax’ lifestyle. But one fact that really surprised me? The islands boast 247 days of sunshine and half the rainfall of Seattle. Sunshine? Check! Water views? Check! A laid back destination? Check!

Like I said, getting to the San Juan Islands is surprisingly fun. We took an incredibly picturesque ferry ride from Anacortes on Fidalgo Island to San Juan’s gateway port, Friday Harbor.  If your budget is hefty, you can also take a seaplane. Arriving among the schooners and sailboats, I knew that this water-loving girl (I’m a cancer the crab, after all) was going to feel right at home. The charming and historic seaport village, Friday Harbor, just steps from the ferry landing, is lined with quaint shops, art galleries, gift shops and cafes.

The seaport itself is very walkable. You can explore the harbor, shops and restaurants easily on foot. But to explore the island beyond the harbor, you’ll want to rent a vehicle. I recommend renting either a moped or scoot coupe as a great way to get around and enjoy the scenery.

Where to stay in Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor House
Perched high on a bluff with simply spectacular views of the harbor, this boutique hotel has 23 guest rooms. All rooms include a king bed, gas fireplace, and oversized jetted tub-for-two (my tub had a view of the harbor). I especially appreciated a few of the thoughtful amenities like the Chemex with a freshly ground bag of local San Juan Roasters coffee, the sleep tight kit with an eye mask, earplugs and lavender sachet, and a pillow menu that let me choose my level of comfort. Room rates at Friday Harbor House start at $249.

Things to do on San Juan Island

Take a drive, or scoot, along the coastline on the southeastern part of island for what might be the most scenic place ever. In the spring, you’re likely to spot orca whales breaching off the coast. In the distance, you’ll see Mt. Baker and the Olympic and Cascade Mountain ranges.

Be sure to visit San Juan Island National Historical Park, where in mid 1800s, America and Great Britain settled ownership of the land through peaceful arbitration. You can stop into the American Camp visitors center for a quick history lesson and then stroll the rolling fields. We happened to spot a pair of nesting bald eagles and saw several red foxes.

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor is a must-see for any animal lover. It’s all focused on the preservation of the species but is also highly educational and interactive.

If you’re looking for more outdoor adventures, be sure to read my article on Orbitz.

The great restaurants of San Juan Island

Stop for lunch at Cask & Schooner Public House & Restaurant, an English-style pub. You can enjoy local beers on tap along with locally-sourced mussels and clams. The menu is traditional pub fare like fish and chips, Shepherd’s Pie and Bangers & Mash. There’s also the gastro-pub  inspired Stout Spiked Chicken Sandwich and Lamb Burger. 

Enjoy dinner at Backdoor Kitchen and sit outdoors in the garden surrounded by bamboo, trickling fountains, and artisan sculptures. The food is international cuisine inspired by local ingredients, like Feta Cheese Wrapped In Grape Leaves, Seared & topped with dried apricots, currants, crispy garlic chips & a rosemary-lemon honey. There’s also the Corn Masa Cake 

topped with sharp white cheddar, sliced avocado, green onions, and Napa cabbage salad. Another favorite is the East Indian Vegetarian Platter that features chard leaves stuffed with spiced potato-pine nut filling topped with coconut ginger coriander sauce, served with red lentil dal, sweet and spicy tamarind chutney.

Distilleries and vineyards on San Juan Island

Because none of my trips would be complete without a few local libations.

Visit the San Juan Island Distillery, a family that produces small batch ciders and spirits. Their apple brandy (using local Washington apples) won gold and best in class from the American Craft Spirits Association.  They produce flavored gins (like Salish juniper and elderflower) and seasonal liqueurs (like lavender and wild rose liqueur and thimbleberry brandy) under the ‘Spy Hop’ label (a term for when whales leap from water).  And since I just love a local story, the apple brandies are named for the owners’ granchildren, and each is stored in a barrel labeled with the child’s name.  All of the profits from those barrels go to each grandchild’s college fund.

San Juan Vineyards is a small production winery that serves its estate wines in a renovated 1896 schoolhouse. The award winning estate wines include Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe. If you look across the street, you might see Mona the camel and her alpaca sidekick grazing in the field. If so, toast a glass of the ‘Mona Red’ to her.

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