TRAVEL: San Juan Islands Washington

Written in collaboration with San Juan Islands, Washington.

There are a few times a year when I like to feature a travel story. Memorable Spring Break trips are one of them. This year I wanted to to go somewhere on my bucket list, and decided on San Juan Islands. The islands are located off the coast of Washington State, and close to the Canadian border. I wanted to go there because I’ve never been to Seattle, and secondly because one of the islands is called “Orcas Islands.” Although it wasn’t high season to see Orcas, we went in hopes we would see them in transit. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to see some on a Whale Watching Trip. It was a site to see especially with a snow-capped volcano as a backdrop. Locals told us April is a great time to go, because of their spring Tulip Festival in the Skagit Valley (east of Anacortes on the mainland), and it does not get super crowded on the islands. Getting there required some pre-planning and time management. The whole experience felt adventurous and new. I still can’t get over how close the islands were to each other. They are all different and although we didn’t visit them all, there’s a lot of opportunity for exploration. We’ve already told ourselves we have to come back.

Washington State Ferry

As mentioned earlier, this trip required some pre-planning. We flew into Seattle Airport, rented a car, drove three hours to Anacortes (it would have been two hours if no traffic), then took the Washington State Ferry to Friday Harbor. We missed our ferry reservation initially, because of the traffic, but luckily we caught the last ferry of the day. We were amazed how many vehicles fit on the vessel and how smooth and relaxing the ferry ride was. If you’re only going there for a day, you can also park your cars at the landing and walk on as a passenger. They charge a round trip fare per vehicle as well as per passengers. The rates are discounted for seniors and children. Depending on which one you take, you might have to stop at other islands along the way. When you book your reservation, it will tell you which ones. They’re very efficient and the stops do not take a long time at all. It is a scenic ride with a lot of space to spread out including a lounging area with dining tables, so get out of your vehicles and enjoy it.

TIP: Download the ferry app before your trip. It includes ferry schedules getting to and leaving the islands.

TIP: Call your hotel if you miss your ferry. Some of them close early and will need to give you after-hours check-in instructions.

Friday Harbor

When we arrived to Friday Harbor, it was late in the evening, but it wasn’t completely dark. The landing, its surrounding buildings, and street lights were lit up. I think it is the most established of all the islands in regards to restaurants and accommodations. The maps came in handy when we explored the island. Getting from one end of the island was easy to do. There are traffic lights, the roads were paved, and we passed up several farms. Whale Watching can be enjoyed by boat as well as land. There are great viewing spots right off the shores. We were not in one spot long enough to observe them but summers are prime season. Other attractions include historic Roche Harbor village, a 19-acre sculpture park, Lime Kiln Point State Park, Pelindaba Lavender Farm, Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, and San Juan Island National Historical Park.

THE WHALE MUSEUM

The Whale Museum is the first museum in the world to promote the stewardship of whales through education and research. Their historic building features orcas, humpback whales, gray whales, minke whales, dolphins, porpoises, and more. The Salish Sea is home to over 37 species of marine mammals, 172 birds, 247 species of fish, and over 3,000 species of invertebrates. Many of them can be seen from San Juan Island. The Whale Museum is open year round. For more information, please visit their website at www.whalemuseum.org or call (360) 378-4710. Address: 62 First Street North, Friday Harbor, Washington.

Stewardship of the marine ecosystem is important out there to protect the animals and their environment. There are many different ways to enjoy whale watching. The least intrusive way is to see orcas from shore. There are six public areas on San Juan Island where they can be seen. Other ways are kayaking and boat tours. For boat tours, there are many companies to choose from in Downtown Friday Harbor. 

WHALE WATCHING

Although it wasn’t prime season to see orcas in their natural habitat, we were hopeful as we booked an excursion with San Juan Safaris. They’re located near the Friday Harbor landing on San Juan Island. Their Sea Lion vessel was built specifically for whale watching & wildlife viewing. There is a restroom and heated cabin with tables. The crew members were extremely helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable. We had a beautiful afternoon observing transient Killer Whales off San Juan Islands with snow capped volcanoes as a backdrop. Kayak rentals are also available. (Address: 10 Front St #102, Friday Harbor, Washington).

“The waters surrounding San Juan Island are the #1 place in North America to see wild orca whales.”

WHERE WE STAYED

We enjoyed our stay at the EarthBox Inn & Spa (Address: 410 Spring St, Friday Harbor, WA) which is conveniently located four blocks from Friday Harbor’s landing. The rooms have modern decor, and they include free WiFi, mini-kitchen appliances, and free parking. Amenities include a heated indoor pool, sauna, hot tub, a laundry room, fitness room and spa. Beach Cruiser Bikes are complimentary for hotel guests. There are about two dozen restaurants within walking distance.

As we missed our first ferry coming to Friday Harbor due to traffic, I got a courtesy call from the establishment while we were on the ferry asking us if we would get there before 9 pm. They were closing and needed to give me instructions how to check-in. I’m so glad they called me, because I forgot to call them. If you miss your ferry, be sure to call your hotel and let them know.

EarthBox Inn & Spa

DINING

The restaurants we tried were Downriggers Restaurant for dinner, and Rocky Bay Cafe for breakfast. They are very close to the ferry landing. Downriggers Restaurant had a nice view of the harbor. Rocky Bay Cafe didn’t have views but they offer a nice breakfast menu. Service was a little slow that day because they were busy, but we didn’t mind as we were not in a rush. The locals were very helpful with their recommendations. YELP was also a helpful guide.

Rocky Bay Cafe, Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands
Downriggers Restaurant, Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands
Downriggers Restaurant, Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands
Downriggers Restaurant, Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands

Orcas Island

Another island we got to visit was Orcas Island. It wasn’t as developed as Friday Harbor, it’s a bit more quiet, but they do have resorts, lots of hiking trails, camping sites, waterfalls, horseback riding and restaurants. The feels are slightly different than the San Juan Island. It is very green. One of the things you have to do when you’re on the island is visit the highest point, Mount Constitution in Moran State Park. It has the best views, and you will be amazed. You can drive there, bike or even hike up. It was a bit overcast the day we were there, and cold because of the elevation, but we were still very excited. If the stone tower is open, you’ll want to climb it to get that 360 degree view of the surrounding islands. It is an easy climb and safe. You’ll need to pay $10 to park or have a Discover pass. It is a daily fee so if you go to the other State Parks, you only have to pay once for the day. If you have more time, detour to see the Cascade waterfall.

TIP: Check the weather so you know what to pack. We loved visiting Mt. Constitution but would have stayed longer if we had our jackets.

Fun Fact: A common misconception is that Orcas Island is named for the black-and-white marine mammals when that’s actually just a coincidence. Orcas Island was named by a Spanish explorer after his expedition’s sponsor – the viceroy of Mexico, Juan Vicente de Guemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo. Orcas comes from “Horcasitas.” 

View from Mt. Constitution

DINING ON ORCAS ISLAND

If you’re looking for a place to eat with a view, we tried the Madrona Bar & Grill located in Downtown Eastsound and really liked it. It was a little on the pricier side, but we were celebrating birthdays so we didn’t mind. We loved the view too. Locals say during the summer, sometimes they can see Orcas in the bay. If you want more recommendations, ask a local.

Steamed Clams
Grilled Salmon
Not to scale. Their creme brulee dessert is delicious at Madrona Bar & Grill.

WHERE WE STAYED

Smuggler’s Villa Resort is located on the northshore of Orcas Island. They offer family-friendly villas with two bedrooms, full bathroom and full kitchen right by the water. The furniture seem dated but we had a very comfortable stay and had a lot of privacy. You can’t beat the prime location for sunsets and possible whale watching by shore. Amenities include free wifi, fireplace, laundry, and deck with BBQ. There’s also an outdoor pool, playground, and a pebble beach. Kayaking rentals and whale watching is offered next door. (Address: 54 Hunt Road, Eastsound, WA 98245)

MY TIPS

  • Order a free map from the San Juan Islands Convention and Visitors Bureau.
  • Make Ferry Reservations.
  • Arrive an hour early.
  • Plan for traffic.
  • Have a back up plan.
  • Download the Ferry App
  • Have a game plan. Once on the island, try to to visit as many points of interest as possible.
  • Great for hiking or bike riding.

We had a wonderful trip visiting San Juan Islands and can’t wait to go back! It is one of those trips we would like to go back every five years or so. My kids are young and are constantly changing. It is one of those trips we hope they will visit time and time again as well as remember our time together. I also felt that the photos do not do it justice. If they have fog or a marine layer, photos are not able to capture what is behind it. You will have to see it to appreciate it. For more information about San Juan Islands, please visit their website at www.visitsanjuans.com.

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