It’s 8:15 am on a crystal clear Seattle summer morning. Captain Jason Mihok, Clipper’s trusty captain of more than 20 years, observes the scene from his wheelhouse perch on the San Juan Clipper. Captain Mihok sounds the ship’s horn as he slowly backs his vessel into Elliott Bay, the starting point for a whale watching trip to the San Juan Islands. Despite having traveled this route since his first college job, there is something about the journey that never ceases to amaze the Clipper Captain:

“It’s drier, it smells different, it feels different, the geology is different. When you are looking around you see the Olympic Mountains to the south, you see Mt. Baker behind you and the San Juans and Vancouver Island in front of you. Everywhere you look it is just pristine and spectacular.”

The Ultimate Scenic Cruise

As the vessel departs, passengers scamper out on the wraparound outdoor deck for a 360-degree view on the city. The orange, dinosaur-esque Port of Seattle cranes to the south pop against the city’s waterfront. Further north, spectacular early morning light glints off the windows of the downtown skyscrapers. This is the Pacific Northwest in primetime.

Climb out on the back deck of the San Juan Clipper for stunning views of the city.
Climb out on the back deck of the San Juan Clipper for stunning views of the city.

Sea spray rooster tails as the San Juan Clipper skims across the water. The vessel picks up speed to 25 knots making way across the Salish Sea. Marvelous scenery begins right away as the vessel cruises north along the shoreline. A forest of masts appear at Shilshole Marina followed by the sandy beaches of Golden Gardens and ferries darting across Puget Sound.

Continuing along the eastern coast of Whidbey Island, the jagged peaks of the Cascade Range and the layered summits of the Olympic Range stand at attention. Soon enough, a completely foreign landscape appears. Mesmerizing vistas come into view as the steel, glass, brick and pavement of the city transition to pristine green forests and craggy coastline.

Nearing historic Deception Pass Bridge, passengers race to the top deck for a better look. Entering the narrow, swift-running waters, the impressive structure perched upon steep cliffs towers above us. The vessel slows upon approach to the bridge, offering up the perfect chance to snap a few photos.

A favorite for locals and visitors to the Northwest, Deception Pass is known for breathtaking views.
A favorite for locals and visitors to the Northwest, Deception Pass is known for breathtaking views.

Gliding under the massive girders of the bridge, the San Juan Clipper increases power to enter the churning, dramatic waters. Moments later, Clipper’s eagle-eyed onboard naturalist spots a group of seals lounging on the shoreline. Unable to resist their puppy dog eyes, passengers clamor to hang over the rail to snap another flurry of photos.

The vessel navigates into the 10-million-year-old San Juan Island archipelago, winding through the breathtaking channels alongside Blakely, Decatur, Shaw and Lopez Islands. Tall, peeling madrona trees stand on the rocky bluffs, set against the glistening sapphire waters of the Haro Strait. The massive outcroppings of the Olympic Peninsula and Canadian Islands hover in the background. The area is world-renowned for wildlife. The passengers keep their eyes peeled for glimpses of porpoises in the ship’s wake or the telltale dorsal fin of orcas breaking the surface of the water.

Once a mountain range, now an archipelago, the 10-million-year-old San Juan Islands feature some of the most spectacular scenery in the Northwest.
Once a mountain range, now an archipelago, the 10-million-year-old San Juan Islands feature some of the most spectacular scenery in the Northwest.

Life on Island Time

After the swift 3 ½ hour cruise from Seattle, the vessel docks in the quaint but bustling port of Friday Harbor. An impressive collection of boats ranging from multi-sailed schooners to giant mega-yachts, bob rhythmically and thump against their moorings.

Bright yellow and white Kenmore seaplanes swoop and buzz overhead like gigantic yellow jackets. Washington State Ferries chug by and Mt. Baker looms in the distance like a giant snow cone. Entranced by the relaxed, mellow vibe, the hustle and bustle of the city quickly become a distant memory.

The town’s main street leads up the sloping hill into the historic downtown. A block into town, visitors can duck into the small, blink-and-you-miss-it, Serendipity Books. A bibliophiles’ dream, hours can be spent browsing among the 40,000 titles stacked floor-to-ceiling in the cozy, house-like shop.

It’s a short stroll around the corner to Friday Harbor Chocolates. Offering a variety of delicious, handcrafted chocolates and flooding the senses, it may be impossible not to give in to a sweet tooth.

Visitors can also get a feel of the town’s history at the San Juan Historical Museum. The region’s past comes to life wandering through the old county jail, a restored farmhouse along with a rudder from the wrecked schooner America. It’s like stepping into a time machine, to experience the island when it was a turn-of-the-century farming community.

Heading back towards the harbor, it’s worthwhile to duck into the Whale Museum on First Street to dive deeper into the natural history of the region’s marine mammals. The Museum features real whale skeletons, a family tree of the Resident orcas, a map of whale sightings, artwork, models and artifacts.

There is also a special emphasis on educating people about the region’s local Southern Resident orcas. Visitors leave with a slew of facts about the behavioral patterns of the whales and a new appreciation of the role these magnificent mammals play in the Salish Sea ecosystem.

Local Sips at San Juan Island Brewing Co.

Those looking to soak in more local goodness with some delicious sips should be sure to stop by San Juan Island Brewing Co. The modern, industrial-style building was the brainchild of owners and brothers, Sean and Tim Aylward. Born and raised on the island, the passion they have for the place they call home is clearly evident in their unique brews.

A lot of thought and local pride have gone into creating San Juan Island Brewing Co. The only brewery on the island, Sean and Tim built the spot fueled by the desire to create a special gathering place for the community (kudos to their stepfather Verne Howard for his encouragement and support). Sean says:

“In preparation for our brewery, Tim and I took a trip down the coast through California to look at buildings. We toured 45 breweries on this trip, looking specifically at size, layout and functionality on both the restaurant and brewery side.”

Floor-to-ceiling windows allow natural light to pour in the building, brightening the open space on even the grayest of days. Windows behind the bar offer a peek inside the heart of the building – the brewery. Wood from the island comprises the building’s posts and beams. In fact, everything from the weathered shiplap on the walls, the long cut-wood tables, to the giant Connect Four in the kid’s play area, were locally sourced and built by a local craftsman. “The goal was to try and use as many local products as possible,” Sean says.

A sleek, stainless steel three vessel brew system dominates the brewery’s backroom. Sean states, “The brewery produces 12 different styles of beers. We create a lot of seasonal brews; pumpkin, fresh hop, rye lager, Hefeweizen, Belgium summer beer and more.” Tim goes on to explain:

“We source all the malt for the brews from Germany and England to create German-style lagers and English ales. We’re not crazy IPA fans, so we wanted to introduce beers not found in grocery stores.”

Roughly 500 gallons of each style are created when batches are brewed. The beer is stored in several serving tanks, with lines leading directly to the brewery’s taps for easy pouring. Beer doesn’t get any fresher than this.

When it’s time to get down to business, a tasting menu may be in order. With 10 schooners full of frothy suds, it’s hard to know which to grab first off the wooden, San Juan Island-shaped, tasting platter. Nice touch. The Lane 4 Vienna Lager comes highly recommended by the head brewers. Soft and smooth, the toasty brew is the perfect choice to sip after a day on the water or wandering through town. At the other end of the spectrum, the Black Boar Porter. A darker beer, which finishes with chocolate notes, it is the perfect after-dinner drink.

The stories behind the brew names even hold a local slant. According to Sean, “Our Quarry No. 9 Pale is named after one of my favorite swimming spots on the island, Quarry Number 9 on the Roche Isthmus.” The Lane 4 Vienna Lager is an homage to the old Washington State Ferry lane designed for Friday Harbor passengers. The Afterglow Golden Ale is named after the McMillan Mausoleum in Roche Harbor. And despite popular myths, the award-winning Bull Kelp ESB does not contain actual seaweed, but is named for the color of the beer.

The hum of conversation from the friendly regulars and the growing collection of mugs hanging from the wall as part of the brewery’s mug club (which now has a 50 person long waitlist) says everything. At just past their one year anniversary, the Aylward’s have succeeded in creating a space with an amazing communal vibe. With trivia nights, a band and live music on the lawn on Friday nights during the summer, it is the perfect gathering place.

Join San Juan Brewery Co.'s mug club and add your glass to the growing collection on the wall. Credit: Melissa Sitrin
Join San Juan Brewery Co.’s mug club and add your glass to the growing collection on the wall. Credit: Melissa Sitrin

Strolling away from the brewery, it’s hard not to feel Sean and Tim’s sense of pride in this island community. From glittering waters and windswept hillsides to sun-drenched patios and quaint boutiques, San Juan Island is the perfect opportunity to escape reality, even if for a day.

Heading back home on the San Juan Clipper, two scenic views appear as the vessel glides by the southeast tip of the island. The stately white Cattle Point Lighthouse rises above tall surrounding grasses. Passengers catch sight of a group of sea lions (including a huge male that looks more akin to a 2-ton boulder) content to soak in the last rays of sun for the day. It’s hard to not to begin counting the days down until the next trip to this magical island escape in Seattle’s backyard.

The sun sets on the San Juan Clipper in Friday Harbor. Credit: Scott Meis
The sun sets on the San Juan Clipper in Friday Harbor. Credit: Scott Meis

 

Book Your San Juans Trip Now

 

Photo Credits: 1st photo block: Friday Harbor. Credit: Kris Schmidt / Shutterstock.com. Mt. Baker. Credit: Cpaulfell/Shutterstock.com.  San Juan Clipper, Credit: Scott Meis. Kenmore seaplane. Credit: Melissa Sitrin. 2nd photo block: All photos. Credit: Scott Meis. 3rd photo block: San Juan Island Brewery exterior. Credit: Scott Meis. San Juan Brewery interior and patio. Credit: Melissa Sitrin. 4th photo block: All photos. Credit: Melissa Sitrin.