By VALERIE MELLEMA
A visit to the San Juan Islands is an educational, fun, and spectacular journey. The islands are part of the state of Washington and also part of the San Juan Archipelago. Altogether there are some 450 islands in this region – half in Canada – and, of those, only a few are inhabited. And even then, only about six are easily accessible by ferry service.
Several of these make up a group called the San Juan Islands which includes includes San Juan, Orcas, Shaw, Blakely, Cypress, Lummi, Guemes, Lopez, Decatur, Waldron and Stuart. San Juan, Orcas and Lopez islands are among the most popular tourist destinations.
San Juan Island
A visit to San Juan Island is a step into a picturesque location that is a combination of beautiful rocky shores and elegant beaches. You will find that the island is filled with forests and lakes including pastures where you will find many animals lurking about. When you arrive by ferry, which is available to all three islands from Washington State, you will arrive in the small town of Friday Harbor. This is a grand place to visit as it offers some of the most unique art galleries, small shops, and incredible dining experiences. When you dine here, plan to make at least some of those meals happen in the ocean-view restaurants that dot the islands.
You will also enjoy the Whale Museum located on San Juan Island. What you may not realize at first is just what the island is home to — some 90 Orca whales make their home here and this museum helps to educate visitors about them. The whales are here usually from the end of April until September, sometimes a bit longer depending on the weather. You can see them from many of the shores of these islands and, to find one of the best vantage points, head to the western side of the island at Lime Kiln Point State Park. Locals call this park the Whale Watch Park because it attracts so many visitors.
There is much more to do on the island as well. As with all of the San Juan Islands, you will find a number of activities readily available to you here. Enjoy the San Juan Vineyards, or stop in and look at the Roche Harbor, which is a historic landmark. You can visit the 19-acre outdoor museum of sculptures made from a variety of materials at the Westcott Bay Reserve Sculpture Park. Visit San Juan Golf and Country Club, and much more. You can go sea kayaking, boating, beach combing, scuba diving and hiking throughout the island.
The second of the San Juan Islands to visit is Orcas Island. This is the largest of the islands in the collection and with it comes a number of unique activities. The island is in a horseshoe shape. Throughout it, there are amazing farm valleys, scenic lakes and even mountains. What is unique here is that the cities are not cities at all, but rather small hamlets and even smaller villages. As a boater, you are likely to come into West Sound or Deer Harbor; both are great little locations that offer hotels, dining, and recreational activities.
The eastern portion of the island is where the mountains are located, but the small village of Olga is a great choice where you will find an art gallery, some homes and a restaurant. Also found here is Rosario, which is perhaps the most lavish resort and spa in the San Juan Islands. Visit the Funhouse, a discovery park and center for children or enjoy the performing arts centers on the island. You can visit the 5000-acre Moran State Park here. Go swimming, paddle boating, or camping here.
From Anacortes, on the Washington mainland, you will take about a 45-minute ferry ride to the next of the San Juan Islands (which is usually the first stop). Throughout your ride over, you will likely see some amazing wildlife including bald eagles and seals. Sometimes, you will be lucky enough to catch an orca moving past as well. There are flights available to Lopez, as well as a water taxi service. You can bring your own boat to one of the marinas located here such as Fisherman Bay.
Lopez Island is rural and offers about 29 square miles of activities, though much of it is farmland. It is one of the most interesting of the islands in terms of culture. People readily wave and greet each other, even visitors. The population is small, about 2,200 people in total and many of them are artists, fishermen, farmers and eccentrics. When you arrive, you can enjoy a relaxing day on the beaches. Alternatively, you can head to Spencer Spit State Park for a hike. You can also go fishing, boating or biking. The wildlife is everywhere around you so be sure to take note of it. Do plan to visit the historical museums here, as they will take you back in time to the founding of the island itself.
Each of the three main islands that make up the San Juans offer lodging and dining options for guests. You will find local shops offering artist wares on each one, as well as local entertainment and great people. The residents of the San Juans are often eager to greet visitors so just go with the flow — smile and wave as they wave to you. It’s a more peaceful, simpler way of life in the islands — and isn’t that why you’re on vacation?
Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island, photo courtesy of the San Juan Islands Visitor Bureau