photo via wonderofcreation.org
With Labor Day around the corner, people are trying to get their last licks of summer in before the days get shorter and the temperatures get cooler. The San Juan Islands, in Washington, provide a destination close to a big city that still feel worlds away. The Islands are located in the northwest corner of the state, and are actually an archipelago of 172 named islands, but the Washington State Ferry serves only Orcas, San Juan, Lopez and Shaw. Although the northwest is known for its rain, the islands are in the rain shadow of the Olympics and Vancouver Islands, so you can hop on a ferry and still soak up some sun before summer ends.
The point of departure for the islands is Anacortes. Anacortes is about an hour and a half drive from Seattle, but you can also take an airporter shuttle to Anacortes from downtown Seattle (four times a day) or Seatac airport (about once an hour). Once you arrive at the ferry terminal in Anacortes, the ferries run fairly frequently. You can take a ferry to any of the four islands, but San Juan and Orcas have the most amenities. During the summer, the line of cars waiting for a ferry can be several hours long, but if you only take a bicycle or walk on, you can board a ferry without a wait or hassle. The roundtrip fare is about $17. Getting to the islands feels like a vacation in and of itself, with the ride offering lovely views of other islands along the Strait of San Juan. The ferry ride also allows you to slowly sink into island time.
Once you get to San Juan or Orcas, the islands are relatively small and the roads are scenic and ideal for biking. San Juan island is flatter and much easier to bike, unless you want to go mountain biking. You can rent bicycles of either sort at Island Bicycles in Friday Harbor. Or if renting a bike isn't your thing, you can also rent a moped from Susie's mopeds. Most of the places on the islands are easily accessible by bicycle. On San Juan Island there are two main towns: Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor. Both have galleries, shops, restaurants and bakeries. Outside of the towns you can explore vineyards, farms and parks.
If you decide to go to Orcas Island, the main draw is Mount Constitution and hiking in the surrounding Moran State Park. The tower on Mount Constitution offers gorgeous views of the region. There is also idyllic camping in Moran State Park along Cascade Lake.
Most of the restaurants use produce from the islands and everything else is usually sourced within the state. There is a farmers market every Saturday in both Eastsound on Orcas Island and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. But one of the best ways to taste and buy local produce is to visit one of the local farms. Once in a Blue Moon Farm offers daily tours at 11am and 4pm. Once in a Blue Moon Farm is an organic farm lovingly run by Shana Lefton and her kids. For a real treat you can even stay at the farm and help with feeding the animals and picking fruit.
Whichever island you stay at, make sure to take the intraisland ferry to explore another island. This ferry is free after you purchased your initial round trip ticket so you can hop on and off as many times as you like. You may even see an orca whale or harbor seal along the way. But the best way to see orca whales is to hire a boat to visit the resident whale pods who feed along Haro Strait near San Juan Island. Seeing a whale breach is a breathtaking experience. If you still can not get enough of whales or marine life, you can visit the Center for Whale Research on Friday Harbor. You still can't take an orca whale home with you, but you can adopt one.
More on the San Juan Islands
Biodiesel Boat Tours on the San Juan Islands
Green Net-Zero Energy Housing by Mithun Shows How It's Done
Screaming to be Heard Over Ship Noise is Taking it Out of Killer Whales