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An oasis in the Pacific Northwest

San Juan Islands offer a whale of a time.


The cool, crisp breeze against my face contrasts perfectly with the creamy clam chowder warming my throat as I nestle in for a good view from the roof of the Victoria Clipper. I gaze at the horizon as the Puget Sound opens up into the Salish Sea and more distance grows between me and the Seattle skyline.

The Clipper runs two regular ferry routes — one to Victoria, British Columbia, and another to the San Juan Islands, a dreamy archipelago known for its sweeping Douglas firs, spectacular views of the northwestern coast and snowy Mount Baker, ample opportunities for orca-spotting and undulating layers of blue sea, sky and land.

While they are temperate all year round thanks to the magical rain shadow effect of the Olympic Mountains, summer and early fall are the best times to visit the islands, which are located between Victoria, B.C., and Anacortes, Wash. From May through October, orcas can be seen feeding on migrating salmon.

Harbor seals, porpoises and river otters are also frequently spotted, as well as over 290 species of birds and one of the largest populations of bald eagles in the country. Passengers of the Clipper will learn all these facts and more on the 3 1/2-hour ferry ride to Friday Harbor.

While the archipelago technically has 172 islands, the four largest offer the most in terms of lodging, dining and activities — San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw. While San Juan is the second-largest island after Orcas, it is the most populous, with 8,000 year-round residents and plenty to do during your stay.

There is a variety of whale-watching excursions, including the Clipper, from which to choose during peak season. There are also many knowledgeable kayaking outfitters based out of San Juan’s Friday Harbor, such as Outdoor Odysseys, which also provides paddlers with three gourmet meals a day. Outdoor Odysseys’ guides are chosen not only for their outdoor experience but their culinary skills, and they lead several craft beer and winemaker expeditions throughout the year as well.

If you need to find your land legs, Susie’s Mopeds provides undoubtedly the best mode of transportation to take in all the sights of San Juan Island. Choose from three different models of moped, with prices starting at $30 an hour or $70 a day; electric bikes are available at the same rate. Susie’s also rents out Scoot Coupes, which are essentially more-powerful mopeds covered by a bright red shell, with room for two passengers and storage.

After a brief but effective lesson, Susie’s will arm you with a map of the island, best routes and main points of interest highlighted, and you’re free to explore the rolling oceanside hills at your own pace. Glide past lush meadows, historic farmhouses and beaches lined with buttercups until you reach the Cattle Point Lighthouse at the tip of the island. Nearby American Camp offers a 360-degree view of mounts Rainier and Baker, the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, Griffin Bay and Vancouver Island.

Lime Kiln Point State Park, which features hiking trails and picnic sites, is considered one of the best places in the world for whale watching. Locals often know when a pod is nearby, so ask around and be prepared to wait patiently. Red Checkered Picnic is on site to ease the wait time with juices, sandwiches, ice cream and snacks like mango curry chicken puffs. Not everyone will experience an orca sighting, but you’re likely to catch a glimpse of the seals and sea lions, which will often be seen sunning themselves on the rocky shoreline.

The nearby Pelindaba Lavender Farm features fields of the fragrant purple herb available for clipping your own bouquets. Its store carries hundreds of handcrafted culinary, household and beauty products — from vinegar and mustard to insect repellent. Take a tour of the grounds and the distillery, craft something out of dried flowers in the workshop space or enjoy a picnic with signature lavender lemonade, ice cream and shortbread cookies.

San Juan Vineyards grows several varietals of grapes across its 30 acres and opens its historic schoolhouse tasting room throughout the year for harvests and barrel tastings. Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm is another interesting stop on the island. Stroll the farm, visit with the llama-like creatures that live there, then browse the selection of alpaca fiber sweaters and coats. Sweet Earth Farm grows a wide array of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms on its 20 acres and invites guests to visit with their ducks, turkeys, chickens, pigs and donkey. For a truly unique experience, book a night at the furnished on-site teepee.

There are plenty of other options as far as accommodations go. The Island Inn at 123 West is a green boutique hotel featuring sleek, modern rooms, suites and penthouses overlooking Friday Harbor. The nearby Friday Harbor House also offers fantastic views, oversized jetted tubs and fireplaces, cooking lessons led by Chef Aaron Rock and monthly dinners that spotlight one local farm at a time.

There are plenty of farms on the island, and you can sample their fresh bounty at the San Juan Farmers Market, which happens every Saturday from April through October outside the Brickworks building. Besides crafts from local artisans and prepared foods, you can find lamb sausage from Thirsty Goose Farm, shellfish from Westcott Bay Sea Farm, eggs from Thornbush Farm, vegetables and herbs from Blue Moon Produce and more.

If you book a room at Harrison House Suites, you can use this exquisite island-grown fare to prepare a delicious dinner in the fully stocked kitchens before relaxing in a hot tub overlooking the harbor on your private deck. The next morning, enjoy a three-course breakfast made with more items from the island, including their own organic gardens.

If you have no time or desire to shop and cook, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy island edibles, as many of the Friday Harbor restaurants focus on local and seasonal produce, meat and seafood. Coho features upscale Pacific Northwest cuisine with a Mediterranean flair and focuses on sustainable seafood, with dishes like a silky Dungeness crab stuffed Dover sole and grilled troll-caught King salmon with shrimp celery salad. Backdoor Kitchen also serves dishes made with local ingredients and an international twist in a garden setting. Try the Vietnamese duck and prawn platter or plump pan-seared sea scallops with ginger sake beurre blanc.

Market Chef is a great lunch spot with sandwiches, soup and salads made from the season’s freshest ingredients, all from local farms and ranches. Try the signature curried egg salad with peanuts and sprouts, served over greens or with a touch of chutney and wheat bread. Overlooking the harbor, Cask and Schooner serves freshly shucked oysters, clams and mussels as well as burgers, chowders, fish and chips and a variety of small and large plates.

If you manage to tire of the captivating mountain and seascape views or find yourself needing a break from nature, there is plenty else to do on San Juan Island. Art studios like Spaulding Studio and Paula West Pottery open their doors to visitors, and there are plenty of galleries to peruse in town, like Arctic Raven Gallery or Waterworks Gallery. There are also several antique stores with names like Funk and Junk and Acanthus.

The main strip of Spring Street features all the essentials for family vacations, such as a grocery store, bowling alley, movie theater and ice cream shops. Griffin Bay Bookstore is the stop for all your literary needs (and nearby Serendipity is filled with used selections). Daisy Bloom and Be Chic Boutique peddle stylish, comfortable clothing that exudes laid-back island demeanor. Sandpebble carries unique gifts as well as cards, paper, art books, clothing and home goods. You may just find yourself leaving with a whale-print apron or whale-tail necklace as a keepsake of the trip.

Didn’t catch a breathtaking orca sighting on your visit? Make sure you pay a visit to the oceanside Whale Museum before you board the ferry back (you can even adopt an orca for a modest fee). And take comfort in the fact that there’s always next time. You know you’ll return, with so many more San Juan Islands to explore.


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