The Voyage Aboard to the Islands!
I hope you travelers love the water, because whether you’re flying in to Washington or you’re driving from far away there is only one main way to access the San Juans: by boat! You can walk on to view the front of any island you visit, or rent a bike to reach the rest of the islands; if you’re planning on seeing the entirety of an island then driving on is recommended! There is more to see in Washington than the vampires in Forks and the beer gardens in Leavenworth; in the upper left corner of the state are the San Juan Islands! The San Juan Islands is the most beautiful, and exciting location destination in the United States; you can find mild temperatures, green landscapes, and blue waters at the San Juan Islands. If this sounds like a glorious spot you want to see, here are some tips on places to be sure to stop to eat, camp, and visit!
Start the Journey Early
The San Juan Islands have escalated in popularity as a vacation destination over the last 5 years. To ensure a spot on the ferries, make sure to arrive at least an hour early for your reservation (and you MUST make a reservation!). The most popular times to ride the ferry are between 10:00am-6:00pm, so if you’d like to avoid the ferry traffic driving (the ferry terminal is on the far north end of Anacortes Island) take note to board an earlier ferry, or a night ferry, and spend the night on the island of your choice! If you’re looking to walk on board there are many free lots as well as ‘pay by day’ lots you can leave your car to save a little extra money for the islands!
What to Expect on the Ferry
If you’re a water lover such as I am then you’ll LOVE the ride to the islands! Endless water all around you, and the salty air brushing your face as you hang out on the deck of the ferry, and all the evergreen and pine trees atop the tiny islands here and there will make you never want to leave the boat! If the ocean makes you a little seasick, be sure to enjoy the amenities inside that the ferry has: puzzles on certain tables throughout the boat, newspapers, magazines, a food galley, and tv’s. The galley is great to find a quick snack like a pretzel, a cookie, or a hot chocolate; if you’re looking for a heartier meal there are sandwiches and Seattle’s famous Ivar’s Clam Chowder! If watching the waves and the other boats on the water isn’t enough to keep your attention, be sure to pack things with you such as your own snacks (you’re allowed to bring your own food and drinks on the ferry), headphones, a good book, cards, a sketchbook, and whatever else you want to keep yourself occupied. The trips to the islands range from 45 minutes to 1 ½ hours.
Arrival at First Destination: Orcas Island!
Once the boat lands at the first island you will be welcomed with a sign that’s overhead with the name of the island you’ve arrived at. Orcas Island, the first island the ferry takes you to greets you with a foods and ice-cream shop where you can stop and situate yourself to plan where to go next. Up the hill there is a hotel you can stay at if you need a rest before you venture to the back of the island. Orcas Island is a horseshoe shape, so there’s only one way to the front of the island and to the back. Rent a taxi and head to the middle of the island, Eastsound, where you will find a quaint walkable town with shops and spas during the day, and an exciting bar and restaurant scene at night! For families, there are beautiful parks and campgrounds right on the beach that you can paddle, fish, and swim at. For those looking for some adventure be sure to visit Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands where you can get a 360 view of the surrounding islands and the Cascade mountains, including Mount Baker on a clear day! Orcas has a great community and events as well including the annual ‘Orcas Island Lit Fest’, a writing workshop for those passionate about story writing! For a bite to eat walk from Main St up N Beach Road and visit Harmony Chai, a cute coffee and tea house with healthy and delicious snacks and meals! There is also an Island Market grocery store where you can find everything you need for camping and living.
On to The Next Island: Lopez!
Our next stop is Lopez Island, across the way from Orcas; and if you walked on there’s no need to buy another ticket, the San Juan Islands have inter-island ferry runs that go between San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez. Lopez Island is a great destination for adventure seekers! This island is full of parks, bike riding trails, picnic areas, and great walking and hiking paths.
Lopez Island Vineyards
For the adults on this trip, be sure to visit the vineyard in the north center of the island! This charming vineyard full of lush greens, gardens, and rows of vines is a picture-perfect landscape for photographers! Enjoy an outside patio setting with bread, cheese, and different wines on tasting days, or go inside and chat with the kind owners about their brand and the things they enjoy doing on the island.
Sweets and Treats!
Craving a sweet treat? Look to Lopez’ Just Heavenly Fudge Factory, for made fresh fudge, as well as ice-cream and souvenirs! If you’re a bit hungrier than something sweet there are multiple great restaurants to choose from. A personal favorite of mine is Setsunai’s, a great hole in the wall noodle bar that has a great selection of ramen and udon bowls, as well as a special kids bowl for any picky eaters! And be sure not to pass up Vortex, a juice bar and café that has mouthwatering salads and wraps and all natural smoothies! Great place to grab something to take with you if you’re not wanting to sit around.
For anyone wanting to grab a book for the ride home or to read at the beach, stop in to Lopez Bookshop to find a friendly and helpful staff as well as some very interesting books! Hang out inside and explore all the different books or purchase your next thriller and hit the road!
Time to Explore Outdoors!
As great as all the indoor attractions are, don’t forget to see all the sights Lopez has to offer too! Lopez is the most outdoorsy island, with lots of natural animal reservoirs and parks you can bring a blanket and a sketchbook and stay and stare in awe at the surroundings for hours! Each spot you go is a hike (like I said Lopez is an island for the adventurer spirit!), so be sure to bring a backpack full of essentials you may need (clothes, shoes, deodorant, socks, bug spray).
Spencer Spit State Park
A serene park where you hike at level with the water to reach driftwood filled beaches and sea kayak rentals. The staff are helpful and will take you out on a kayak around a stretch of the island. Beautiful views of the marsh and camping is available during peak seasons.
An off the path hike that takes you in the evergreen and pine trees that open to a beautiful view of miles of ocean in front of you. An easy hike for all to do and circles back to the trail if you walk around the point. The point is full of wildlife and scenery that is worth the hike!
Shark Reef Sanctuary
Don’t get too scared off by the name, this wildlife area is great for everyone! The hike there is mild, but be sure to watch where you’re going in the trail! Sit and have a picnic and watch the seals and sea lions play and eat on the rocks in the water, and be sure to bring a camera, you won’t want to miss these views!
Rent a Bike!
For $10 an hour or $35 for the full day you can rent a bike to take yourself to all the destinations listed. Lopez Island is one of the tamest islands to do, taking a 30-mile circle around the island, or just rent the bike to go to bucket list places along the way!
Our Final Stop: Shaw Island
The last island you’ll want to stop by I saved for last because it’s an interesting one. Shaw Island, also known as the Holy Island, is a quiet island full of, nuns! Shaw is not a vacation island, but more of a stop for relaxation, some mental clarity, and rejuvenation one may need after a long trip. Shaw does not have any restaurants or tourist attractions, but the island is so calm and the energy everywhere you go is so relaxing and welcoming you may want to come back more than once anyway!
Shaw County Park
One of few public accessible parks on Shaw Island; this park has camping and sandy beaches that you’ll want to walk on forever, and the spot provides stunning sunsets every night.
Contributed with the local historical society, this library is chalked full of amazing stories and books that you’ll want to check out every book in the building! Hang out and read for a while or hear about the history first hand from locals and residents who oversee the library.
Our Lady of the Rock
A farmhouse run by the nuns living on the island, this house brings serenity and peace to those seeking it. Welcome to everyone by donation, you can visit a tranquil koi pond, eat fresh and organic meat and produce provided from the farm, and you can even feed a lamb if you’re up to it! The nuns encourage all to come, and welcome any of those willing to help in the vegetable garden or with the animals!
Time to Head Home!
The journey through the San Juan Islands ends at Shaw. The ferry ride back to Anacortes more than an hour, but you can sleep on the ferry at the comfortable booth tables, and the food galley stays open until the last ferry run, so if you need a pretzel, popcorn, or a coffee you can head up to the galley and get an energy boost. Don’t forget your car if you parked and walked on, and if you drove, safe travels back to where you came from! I forgot to mention that there is a 4th main island I haven’t included, and that is Friday Harbor, I can’t touch on that one as it has too much to share! Stay tuned for my article on places to explore on the original San Juan Island (i.e. Friday Harbor), the most popular tourist island to date, and you will learn all about the killer whale island!