The San Juan Islands -- located just north of Seattle in the Salish Sea -- comprise more than 400 islands and rocks, just four of which are inhabited. The largest, San Juan, has a population of less than 8,000 people and is home to Friday Harbor, the islands’ biggest town. On Lopez Island, cyclists can explore miles of flat trails; Orcas is home to local artists, an artisanal food movement, and hills favored for hiking; and Shaw Island is the place to unplug, with 11 campsites and quiet beaches.
Designated a National Monument for the historic sites and rare habitat -- and with just half the rainfall of nearby Seattle -- the San Juan Islands make a perfect weekend escape for nature lovers.
As the archipelago’s largest island, San Juan offers the widest range of activities. Boats depart Friday Harbor to Lime Kiln State Park, the world’s only park devoted to whale watching, and offer prime views of the three types of orcas that frequent the shore from May through September. Take a tour of the rocky coastline by kayak at sunset with Discovery Sea Kayaks, or get up close and personal with more than 70 alpacas at Krystal Acres Farm. For a piece of Provence in the Northwest, visit the 20-acre Pelindaba Lavender Farm, which produces more than 200 fragrant household, personal, and culinary products.
Shellfish is king in the Pacific Northwest. Get local oysters, mussels, and Dungeness crab at The Bay Café on Lopez Island; The Restaurant at Friday Harbor House, which sits atop a bluff on San Juan; or Cask & Schooner, a casual pub with maritime decor, also on the harbor. Alternatively, you can buy fresh seafood at Westcott Bay Shellfish Farm on San Juan to host your own barbecue, or -- for a more hands-on experience -- shuck oysters at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm on Orcas Island.
Grab an outdoor table at Vita’s, a deli in a clapboard house on Lopez Island that hosts paella dinners and Friday night wine tastings. The islands also have a number of cideries, distilleries, and wineries that are worth a visit, and don’t miss annual Cider & Mead Festival in late July on Orcas, where you can taste offerings from California to Canada.
The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor educates visitors about marine mammals in the Salish Sea through interactive exhibits. Artist studios abound on the islands: Lopez Village’s only street is home to Chimera Gallery, an artists’ co-op that offers paintings, glass, ceramics, and metalwork from 20 artists. The month-long Savor the San Juans festival in October features walking tours of the islands’ farms, photo exhibits, and film festivals, as well as dinners, wine tastings, and sheepdog and sheep-shearing demonstrations.
In Friday Harbor, Friday Harbor Grand is a B&B in an 1880s house with seven spacious rooms and an innkeeper who cooks gourmet multi-course breakfasts and serenades guests with evening concerts on his grand piano. The rooms, which range from $195 to $325 from June through mid-October, offer private decks and harbor views and most have kitchenettes. On Lopez Island, Eden Wild offers nine rooms, including a garden cottage, that run $89 to $220 night; all have sea or garden views and some have brick fireplaces.
Washington State Ferries operates transportation between islands and from each island to the mainland. From the port at Anacortes, Washington (90 miles north of Seattle or south of Vancouver on Interstate 5), it is two hours to San Juan Island, 45 minutes to Lopez, and an hour and a half to Orcas; but plan to arrive at least an hour early if you’re visiting in summer. Alternatively, you can take a half-hour flight from Seattle to San Juan Island on Kenmore Air.