There are good reasons to consider a trip to the islands this time of year. The ferry lines are short, there are no crowds, and lodging rates are reduced. The ferry route on the way is considered one of the most scenic in the world. After boarding in Anacortes, there is a sense of romance as you sail through picturesque islands sheltered with fir and cedar trees.
San Juan Archipelago has 172 named islands. There are large and small ones, some with just a single home and others that seem to be uninhabited. As the ferry slows on approach to the town of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, we see a town with a row of colorful buildings facing the waterfront and other rows of what appears to be shops and restaurants lining both sides of a paved incline that goes straight up the hillside.
The ferry ride and the sight of this picturesque setting give a hint of why the islands get national attention. In 2012 the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine called them the top islands in the continental U.S. and Canada, while and National Geographic listed the islands as one of America’s best adventures. Just in December, Lonely Planet named the San Juan Islands No. 3 for the top 10 U.S. travel destinations for 2013.
Jumping back into the car, driving off the ferry, heading single file for one block up a gentle, paved road named Spring Street will get you right into the downtown. Within walking distance from the landing dock are restaurants, gift shops, book stores, hotel, inns, art galleries, museums and more.
The Whale Museum
Just a half block off Spring Street is the Whale Museum. Certainly one of the attractions for visiting this area is the large concentration of wildlife on and around the various islands. Of special interest are whales, specifically the orcas, or killer whales, which travel in family groups called pods. The Whale Museum provides a good starting place in the quest for learning and viewing the islands’ wildlife. The use of models and actual whale skeletons provides insight on how large these marine animals are. The whale’s natural history is well described, and you can learn the location of the best viewpoints on the island to spot them.
Drive the Island
San Juan Island is 55.3 square miles and the interior roads and land are fairly flat (great for biking), surprisingly and pleasantly rural with barns, plowed fields, orchards and wooded land. Traveling counterclockwise around the island a stark white school house associated with San Juan Vineyards stands out. They are not open in January but a call to owner Yvonne Swanberg at (360) 378-9463 will likely get you a taste of award-winning Island wine. In February they are open on weekends.
Roche Harbor is a good place to have lunch. This historic place dates back 200 years and includes the original stone lime kilns where lime for almost the entire western U.S. was produced. There is an interesting walking tour of this town that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Just outside of town is a 10-acre sculpture park with 100 art pieces to browse.
Taking the tour back toward Friday Harbor, you can stop to explore English Camp, one of the two garrisons overseen by the National Park Service. Take a short walk down to the block house and the formal garden where produce was and still is grown. From the parking lot the other direction, the path leads to an old cemetery and overlooks the water and the other islands.
There is an alpaca farm and store with soft, warm clothing made from, you guessed it, alpaca. The store has winter hours. Farther south is Lime Kiln State Park, which has popular hiking trails and a lighthouse and is one of the best places to spot offshore whales. Continuing south, you’ll find a lavender farm. The farm store is closed for winter, but the grounds are open. A store in Friday Harbor is open year round. Stop by American Camp with its visitor center with more trails and old buildings to explore. Finally, getting back to Friday Harbor close to dinnertime there are several excellent restaurants. One to consider is at the end of Spring Street overlooking the harbor, the marina and the ferries, named The Place. Can you say sea food?
Four miles inland from Friday Harbor there is Lakedale Resort, an interesting resort with a different variety of accommodations. On 82 acres there are three freshwater lakes, with Canadian Amish-crafted cabins, a large lodge, canvas-sided cabins, restored Airstream trailer, RV sites, and tent camping. Winter accommodation is restricted to rooms at the lodge and one of the six cabins. Breakfast is provided and both the lodge and cabins are very clean and upscale.
The winter season is a great time to visit. There are on average 247 days with sunshine a year, about half the rainfall of Seattle. San Juan Island is in the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Mountains. A quiet getaway on an island can be more than just in your dreams.