Our friends that knew Washington told us “Don’t miss them!” They told us it could be the highlight of our entire trip. Research revealed that even the experience of getting there was a strong incentive. But taking an Airstream on more than an hour-long ferry ride over the Salish Sea just didn’t seem practical. Not something one would spontaneously jump on and do. Not to mention the cost. In the end, we did decide to take in the San Juan Islands, but we’d leave the Airstream behind.
Leaving the mountains as the sun was rising, it required two ferry rides—one with the trailer—and a drive through bucolic Whidbey Island to arrive at Friday Harbor, the main town on San Juan Island. Locked up on a parking lot at the ferry landing, we hoped our Airstream would remain unscathed for the coming 3 days. The sailing went smoothly and we enjoyed the views as our course intertwined among several islands.
Pulling into their harbor, the marina of mostly sailboats with the town rising up the hills beyond, made a very enticing picture. Let the island pleasures begin!
Millions of years ago, this area was a mountain range. Mount Constitution on Orcas Island is the only remaining peak with much elevation, but evidence of glaciation is found throughout the islands. This archipelago of over 100 named islands sits directly between the southern end of Vancouver Island and Washington’s northern coast. The channels and straits that surround the islands have come to be collectively referred to as the Salish Sea—named for one of the native tribes that frequented the islands.
Disembarking from a pleasant and invigorating ferry ride, we wasted little time exploring the town and getting a bite of lunch. The flower-bedecked marina entry gave a very inviting introduction to the town of Friday Harbor.
Okay, so some might say we were cheating. Staying at a fancy–smancy island lodge is hardly roughing it on this trip. With few campsites available on San Juan, it came as no surprise the sites were all taken many months before. So gee—what was the trip planner to do??? She found accommodations, despite it being a busy weekend. Lakedale Resort more than fit the bill! Maybe this most-civilized interlude should become a custom in our future camping trips?
Rustic exterior . . . very comfortable interior . . . designed in a Craftsman style—it was surely our kind of place.
French doors in our room brought the outdoors inside. Something like camping—we had the view and the sweet aromas of forest. Did we really need to leave our room?
Breakfast was set either inside or out—a cozy fireplace helped to make our choice simpler.
A village with a medley of interesting shops, cafes and galleries, pastoral landscapes and scenic trails, whale watching tours and lavender farms–three days on this island promised to speed by. As happy as we were with the lodge, we set out to explore before the day was done. Melinda had a destination—of course a sunset was involved.
By far the best and most popular location on San Juan Island, Lime Kiln boasts a beautiful, rugged, rocky coastline, a distinctive lighthouse, and the opportunity to see false killer whales (namely Orcas) swimming in close proximity. It is also arguably the prime location on the island for sunset photos.
The park got its name from a lime operation active from the 1860s to the 1920s. Limestone was quarried from adjacent deposits, and much of the island’s forest was cut to fire the kilns that processed it into lime. One of the lime kilns was acquired by the state parks in 1996 and has been renovated and interpreted for the public.
The lighthouse is still functioning and it is a quaint beauty. Built in 1919, it serves as a navigational beacon for ships in the Haro Strait. Interpretive programs, a visitor center with gift shop and lighthouse tours are available in the summer. It is a gathering place for travelers and locals alike.
Not every evening can bring on the clouds and hence the colors in the sky. Luck seemed to be with us that very first night. Standing on the edge of a precipitous cliff, the lighthouse presented a classic shot. It wasn’t long before the sky brought on its show. Sunset comes late this far north in the summer—we didn’t leave until way after dark. But the well-earned photo seemed a presage of our days here to come.
Farmers’ markets seem to be big here in the towns of Washington. We had yet to take one in. It was a good way to begin our first full day on San Juan Island. We mingled with the locals.
Another small community on the island had its beginnings as a quiet little Hudson Bay Company camp in the late 1800s. Roche Harbor was a company town with a population larger than Friday Harbor. Structures from the lime processing plant can still be found scattered around the more recent buildings. But now, it’s a very different picture—Roche Harbor is a full-scale resort complete with second homes and a large marina. The complex is quite attractive with the harbor, gardens full of flowers and the historic Hotel de Haro.
The lime kilns were a remnant of the past . . .
But its marina was the reality of present day.
Yachts pulling into and out of the harbor were a very common sight.
As were seaplanes taking off and landing. Everyone must have his own mode of transportation around these islands, right?
Sometimes, all a person can do is stand and ogle.
As well as catch a more practical sight—yes, even the wealthy need to dump every once in awhile!
If you come to the San Juan Islands, be sure to take a whale watching tour! It could easily be the most memorable event of your stay. The tours are VERY popular and reserving far in advance is good advice. You’ll be able to choose from large boats or small intimate groups . . . sailboats or motorboats or even a catamaran. Bring a camera, binoculars are usually provided, then sit back and hope for a show.
Most of the whales seen in the San Juan Islands are Orcas—three pods (families) live off shore and are typically in the area from mid-April to early October. We learned many new and interesting facts about the nature and lives of these mammals—our captain was as earnest in his love of these creatures as he was knowledgeable. Some of his stories were fascinating—how they interact and play and take care of family members, while others were very disturbing. Before being regulated, Sea World nearly decimated these pods by capturing the young, fertile females (often separating them from their newborn offspring) for the sake of putting them in captivity and on exhibition. It was pointed out that there has never been a recorded incident of a Killer Whale (Orca) attacking a human in the wild. Take note of that. Then sit back and enjoy the show.
Then luck was with me and I caught one out of the water!
WOW! Can you believe what a show we were seeing???
As we headed back to dock, Chris and Captain Spencer obviously had some informative conversations.
And a great time was had by all!
But wait . . . there’s more charm this island has going for it! Another day . . . another sight. Some would even say it could compete with the whale watching tours. Even if you don’t think it’s your cup of tea, lose yourself in a lavender field for awhile and see if your senses don’t pull you in.
Lavender farms are big in Washington—around certain areas like Sequim and Whidbey Island and here on San Juan too. Pelindaba Farm is one of the oldest and largest, and lends itself very well to photographic capture. And wouldn’t you know, the weekend that we happened to be visiting, the farm was having its annual Lavender Festival. What good fortune!
It’s another way San Juan works her magic.
A drive to Cattle Point where the empty prairie lands dropped into the sea and a lonely lighthouse kept its vigil, offers a scenic viewpoint and trails through a variety of settings.
And a roadside farm brought moments of delight.
Sunday morning saw us once again at Friday Harbor, waiting to board the returning ferry. We walked some streets, checked out their harbor, and then loaded on board and soon pulled away from the island.
Our friends were right, their advice was true . . . much appreciation to Alex, Joan and Mike! You steered us in a wonderful direction. Our time was short, but the memories are deep, and we’ll cherish every golden moment.
From the special place that we found
on San Juan Island,
Melinda and Chris