As the San Juan Clipper slices through the glistening waters of the Salish Sea, a looming land mass appears in the distance. With a click, the vessel’s overhead sound system springs to life as the captain announces the vessel’s approach to San Juan Island. This hidden gem of an island was once the top of a mountain, long ago submerged in the sea. There is literally something for everyone here, a smorgasbord of activities ranging from kayaking the sparkling waters of the Haro Strait to hiking through dense forest to the Afterglow Mausoleum. Best of all, this unexplored paradise is located right in Seattle’s backyard.

Discover the San Juans

After a day spent whale watching with the “real locals,” it’s time to cruise into the biggest and busiest marina on the island, Friday Harbor. As you step off the San Juan Clipper onto the wooden docks of Friday Harbor, you immediately experience a mellow vibe inviting you to forget the hustle and bustle of city life. Stroll along the docks, passing a forest of tall sailboat masts, and take in the collection of impressive boats, ranging from multi-sailed schooners to giant mega-yachts. Follow Spring Street up the slowly sloping hill leading up to the historic town of Friday Harbor.

 A sun-soaked day in Friday Harbor. Photo: Scott Meis
A sun-soaked day in Friday Harbor. Photo: Scott Meis

Settle into the slower pace of island life and spend your two hours in town exploring the picturesque streets of Friday Harbor. Pop into an array of friendly shops, art galleries and antique stores. To get a taste of the town’s history or to learn about whales, check out the several excellent museums scattered around Friday Harbor.

Brimming with a fascinating collection of exhibits, a map of whale sightings, artwork, models, artifacts, real whale skeletons and a family tree of Resident orca, the ever-popular Whale Museum, is a must-visit. With a special focus on the orcas of J, K and L pods, the museum offers a one-of-a-kind of experience to discover more about the magnificent mammals you’ve just witnessed splashing and playing in our local waters.

A grinning orca skull greets you at the Whale Museum. Photo: Scott Meis
A grinning orca skull greets you at the Whale Museum. Photo: Scott Meis

Barbara Marrett, Communications and Stewardship Manager at the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, recommends also visiting the San Juan Historical Museum’s new Museum of History and Industry. She says, “There are cool things at the museum, like the old county jail, rudder from the wreck schooner America, a restored farm house.” It is like stepping into a time machine, experiencing the island when it was just a farming community.

By early evening, it is time to get back on the boat to return to Seattle. Unless you are lucky enough to be staying overnight on San Juan Island, in which case be sure to dine at the exceptional restaurant, Backdoor Kitchen, a beloved favorite of ours.

One of the best kept secrets on the island, finding the restaurant’s entrance requires a bit of hunting. Make your way around to the backside of the industrial looking building, follow the blue stone path and you’ll find your way in the backdoor. Of course, when in doubt, you can always ask a local and they will happily point you in the right direction.

Once inside, you’ll find a cozy, little bar brimming with an array of exotic specialty cocktails… However, that is just the beginning of the culinary magic. Pull up a chair in the artwork-filled dining room or on the tranquil patio and browse a seasonally influenced menu inspired by dishes from all over globe. Whether you feast on delicious pan seared sea scallops or a Vietnamese duck and prawn platter, any one of these choices is sure to make your mouth melt.

The serene landscape surrounding the San Juans makes for spectacular sunsets. Photo: Bureau of Land Management
The serene landscape surrounding the San Juans makes for spectacular sunsets. Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Before calling it a day, Amy Nesler, Communications Assistant at the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, suggests paying a visit to the Westside Preserve to soak in one of the most stunning sunsets around. Perched high above the Haro Strait on the rocky bluff, you have a great vantage point to watch for marine life and the golden, rosy glow of the sun the as it disappears beyond the horizon.

As puffy, white clouds glide across a clear blue sky the following morning, wander over to the San Juan Island Farmers Market and kick start your day by grabbing a delicious late breakfast. Walk through the colorful stalls and pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables, warm baked goods, artisan cheese or jam and jellies for snacking or a mid-day picnic. Or, simply sit down, chat with friends and tap your toes along to the tunes of the market band.

After a satisfying breakfast, it is time to explore the rest of the island. While San Juan Island is second-largest in the archipelago, it’s relatively small size makes it possible to easily travel to local hot spots around the island. We recommend trying an excursion of the island by using two or three-wheeled transportation.

Stop by Susie’s Mopeds and rent a bright red moped. If you want a vehicle built for two, a scoot coupe, which looks like a mini-car but has three wheels like a tricycle, fits the bill. The alternative is to power your own adventure. Bicycling is also a great way to get around San Juan Island. Head to Island Bicycles to pick up a rental and pedal down the island’s attractive and inviting roads.

“Be sure to walk out into the middle of the fields. Being surrounded by 20,000 blooming lavender plants is quite an experience for the senses.”

Speed across the center of the island to the breathtakingly beautiful Pelindaba Lavender Farm, where you can find an impressive 50 varieties of the aromatic plant. Wander through the tiers of the delicate purple flowers, and breathe in the sweet, floral scent that fills the air. According to Amelia Powell Baggett, Director of Marketing & Sales for Pelindaba Lavender Farm, this is one of the best times to visit, as the blooms are at their peak during the mid-summer.

Rows of fragrant lavender stretch nearly as far as the eye can see. Photo: Pelindaba Lavender Farm
Rows of fragrant lavender stretch nearly as far as the eye can see. Photo: Pelindaba Lavender Farm

Powell Baggett says, “Be sure to walk out into the middle of the fields. Being surrounded by 20,000 blooming lavender plants is quite an experience for the senses.” The 25-acre grounds also offer perfect spot to snack on the treats you picked up at the farmer’s market. Powell Baggett suggests, “Enjoy your picnic in our Demonstration Garden. There is a picnic table tucked up under a tree right in the middle of the garden that has beautiful views of the fields and lake.”

If you did not pack a picnic lunch and your stomach is starting to growl, quickly head for Roche Harbor. The seaside town is the perfect locale to stop for lunch and watch the world glide by. Relax over the water at Madrona Bar and Grill, sip on creatively crafted cocktails and chow down on their tasty sandwiches or finger-licking good BBQ ribs. For dessert, treat yourself to a refreshing scoop, or two, of locally-crafted ice cream at Beechtree restaurant, which is packed with a range of creative and classic flavors.

Continue your journey by hitting up the quaint turn-of-the-century style chapel of San Juan Vineyards, which rises above the farmlands, beckoning you to sample the fruits of the land.

Sunlit vineyards offer the perfect locale for sipping local wines. Photo: Scott Meis
Sunlit vineyards offer the perfect locale for sipping local wines. Photo: Scott Meis

Venture inside the historic building and wander over the original hardwood floors of the renovated one-room schoolhouse, to the well-stocked barrel storage areas and tasting rooms. Sip from a line-up of award-winning wines, including an estate grown Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir and Madeleine Angevine.

Stroll out on to the deck and gaze out on the rolling green vineyards, soaking in the ambiance. If you look closely, you may even catch sight of the vineyard’s camel, lazily munching on tender shoots of grass. Yes, we did say camel. Her name is Mona and there even has been a white wine blend named after her.

After a relaxing a break at the vineyard, get back on your wheels and head over to Lime Kiln for another chance to see our cherished orca whales. Often called “Whale Watch Park,” this is the perfect spot to also catch sight of minke whales, porpoises, sea lions and harbor seals, as they cruise along the coastline.

“If [you] continue for five more minutes [you’ll] come to an overlook where [you] can peer down at the restored lime kiln or [you] can walk a bit further to descend the long flight of stairs to get an up close view of the Lime Kiln. There is also a picnic table down there.”

Follow the meandering walking path down to the historic Lime Kiln lighthouse, and check out the information board to discover when whales were last spotted. Listen to the high-pitched orca vocalizations as two hydrophones stream live sounds of the mammals. Climb up the steep steps to the top of still functional lighthouse and look all the way to out to the Olympic Mountain Range and Vancouver Island. However, be sure not to end your exploration here, or you will miss out on more fantastic views.

The views from the scenic Lime Kiln Point State Park can’t be beat. Photo: Scott Meis
The views from the scenic Lime Kiln Point State Park can’t be beat. Photo: Scott Meis

Marrett says, “If [you] continue for five more minutes [you’ll] come to an overlook where [you] can peer down at the restored lime kiln or [you] can walk a bit further to descend the long flight of stairs to get an up close view of the Lime Kiln. There is also a picnic table down there.” In our opinion, this is a great location to while away the long, lazy hours of a summer afternoon. Listen to the tranquil sound of the waves crashing against the shore accompanied by the occasional soft splash of kayak as they paddle through the waters in search of local wildlife.

With endless trails waiting to be explored, you’d be remiss if you do not spend part of your time on the island scaling one of its spectacular peaks. Lace up your hiking boots and travel north to English Camp and tackle the 650-foot summit of Mount Young.

Before you make your way up the path, Marrett suggests stopping by the spotting scope set up outside the barracks, which provides a good view of the resident osprey in its nest. While the steep one mile trail up the mountain is tough, you will be rewarded with peaceful forests of evergreens, madronas and oaks as well as unparalleled panoramic vistas of the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island and the rest of the San Juan Islands.

A quiet winding road leads you past tall grasses on the way to Cattle Point. Photo: Christian Roberts-Olsen / Shutterstock.com
A quiet winding road leads you past tall grasses on the way to Cattle Point. Photo: Christian Roberts-Olsen / Shutterstock.com

For a trek that is a little less strenuous, ride down the coast to Cattle Point, the island’s other iconic lighthouse. Follow the short trail through the windswept grassy dunes, down to the lighthouse itself, now a San Juan National Monument. Look for an array of wildlife, ranging from timid deer to playful sea lions. The area is also home to a pair of golden eagles, so be sure to keep your eyes trained skyward for chance to spot them riding the thermals or nesting in the trees.

The San Juan Clipper heads for the bustling city of Seattle. Photo: Scott Meis
The San Juan Clipper heads for the bustling city of Seattle. Photo: Scott Meis

After a wonderful day or extended stay full of awe-inspiring sights and sounds, sadly, it is time to say goodbye to Friday Harbor and start your voyage back to Seattle. As you return to Elliot Bay, the buildings of the city, the Great Wheel and the sports stadiums begin to light up, helping welcome you back to pier and adding one more amazing memory to a fantastic trip.

Clipper Recommends:

  • See San Juan Island from a different perspective on Sea Kayaking Adventure from Roche Harbor and enjoy expansive views the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, giant kelp forests and the opportunity to catch sight of resident orca whale pods and other wildlife.
  • Uncover all of the other wonderful places around the San Juans, from Orcas to Lopez to Shaw with the San Juans Insider App and experience the unique personality of each locale.

 

Book Your San Juans Trip Now

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