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Washington’s Island Getaway: How to Do the San Juan Islands

by Staff

When thinking about a trip to the Pacific Northwest, islands aren’t the first thing that come to mind. Forests, mountains and lots of rain are more stereotypical. So while visitors might not be as familiar with the San Juan Islands, located just off the coast of Seattle, locals flock to this beloved archipelago every summer to take advantage of the rare sunny days in the region. Accessible only by ferry, private boat, or small local airlines if you prefer a scenic (but expensive) sea flight, anyone who’s spent part of their summer here will vouch that this remote haven is one of the most beautiful places in the world. 

Honestly, it’s a little bit of a hassle to get there, but completely worth the experience once you arrive. Technically, there are close to 200 islands in the archipelago, but visitors frequent four main islands: San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and, sparingly, Shaw Island. San Juan and Orcas are the largest by far, and receive the most visitors, particularly during the summer months. But if it’s your first time heading out to the San Juans, you’ll need some pointers, so here’s a complete rundown of exactly how to get there, which ones to spend the most time at and what to do once you get there.

First stop, Seattle

First stop, Seattle

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But First, Overnight in Seattle

No matter what your plans, getting to Seattle for a day or two first is a good idea. For one thing, the Anacortes Ferry Terminal is a two- to three-hour drive from the city. For another, most of the ferries leave early in the day and require arrival at least a half hour before departure. After a long flight, or even a short one, getting directly into a rental car and driving to the ferry makes for a pretty long travel day. Even if you’re trying to squeeze in a weekend trip, pad in an extra day (or two) to spend in the city as a buffer with the rest of your travel, preferably at one of these hotels. Sprinting toward a ferry as it departs is not a good feeling, as I may or may not have learned from firsthand experience. 

The Edgewater

Belltown

The Edgewater’s claim to fame is that it’s Seattle’s “only over-water hotel” — it’s literally built over Puget Sound and affords the kind of stunning waterfront views people will always pay top dollar for. The other rather wonderful claim to fame at this property is its connection to The Beatles — yes, the actual Fab Four stayed here during their first world tour in 1964. They rather infamously “fished” out their hotel room window, and allegedly even caught something. If you had any doubts about how close it is to the water, let that anecdote put them to rest. Grab dinner at their waterfront restaurant, Six Seven, and hang out in the cozy, cabin-like bar for a nightcap, or just have that drink on your own waterfront balcony. 

Thompson Seattle

Downtown

If you’re only here for a night or two, why waste time? Thompson Seattle is right in the thick of things. You can walk to Pike Place Market and the world’s oldest Starbucks, and stand in line to get…your regular coffee order, then stroll over to the Gum Wall to get a very gross but necessary selfie. Wander through Pike Place and either pick up some local snacks from the vendors or head off into one of the cafes for a bite to eat. If you can brave the lines, Pike Place Chowder will not disappoint. If you don’t end up eating at the market, the hotel’s own rooftop bar, The Nest, offers stunning views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, and the ground floor restaurant, Conversation, focuses on fresh, local seafood and farm-to-table sourcing.

Orcas in the San Juan islands

Orcas in the San Juan islands

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Getting to the San Juan Islands by ferry

Leave plenty of time to get to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal. If traffic is clear, it should only take two hours from Seattle, but with traffic it can be up to three. Once you get to the terminal, lines are likely, so plan to be there at least an hour before your allotted departure time. If you arrive at the check-in less than 30 minutes before departure, they will not let you board. No exceptions, so plan wisely! All four of the main islands are accessible by ferry from the terminal, and there’s also an airport shuttle to the terminal if you opt not to drive or stay over in Seattle. 

The islands themselves are fairly remote, so securing a car is highly recommended, especially for first-time visitors. By and large, most people get to the islands by ferry, and that’s partially because the islands are not walkable. Even the most populous one, Orcas, is made up of different enclaves that are all about a half hour away from each other. There are taxis and Ubers sparingly available, but for adventuring, exploring and general peace of mind, it’s best to have a vehicle. 

If you’re in a car, you will need to make a ferry reservation before arriving at the terminal via the Washington State Ferries website. Reservations for the summer through September, the high season, initially open up two months before the start of the season in late April. This is the best time to make a reservation, as more are released two months before every sailing date, and also two days before, but there are far fewer slots. If you can’t get a reservation, it is possible to travel standby, but space is never guaranteed this way. Reservations are free to make, and can be canceled without charge up to 24 hours before. Reservations should be made for both the westbound trip (toward the islands) and eastbound back to Anacortes.

Once you arrive at the ferry terminal, trade your reservation for a ticket, which is about $50 for a car and driver, plus $15 per passenger, so a round-trip ticket for two people is around $65. Since this is much cheaper than a flight, and the ferry ride itself is around an hour, which is about as long as the flight, the ferries reign supreme. And despite a little inevitable hassle and confusion, once you’re onboard, there’s food and drink, alcohol and plenty of views, like the occasional whales (orcas), dolphins, sea lions and more.

Pro tip: If you do cross the ferry without a car, there are rental cars available on the island right at the ferry terminal. Then again, current demand indicates these will be expensive and are likely to book up.

Sunrise off D'Arcy Island

Sunrise off D’Arcy Island

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Getting to the San Juan Islands by airplane

San Juan Airlines and Kenmore Air are the two carriers who regularly fly to the San Juan Islands. San Juan Airlines operate land planes and one-way tickets start at $114, but their terminal is located in Bellingham, so it’s still about an hour and a half drive from Seattle, and travelers are required to pay for parking for more than 36 hours. Kenmore Air operates both land and seaplanes, and departs from several small airports throughout Seattle, which means travelers can skip the drive. Both airlines have frequent flights to Eastsound on Orcas Island and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and they also offer private charters aside from scheduled flights. Rates fluctuate quite a bit based on season and booking time frame, so it’s best to connect with the airlines directly.

Orcas in Deer Harbor

Orcas in Deer Harbor

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Visiting Orcas Island

By far the most popular and bucolic of all four islands, Orcas is the perfect place for a first-timer or newbie to begin exploring. At 57 square miles, there are multiple settled areas throughout the island, but Eastsound is the central village closest to the ferry, and the Outlook Inn is hands down the best hotel in the area. A historic property built in 1876 by Charles W. Shattuck (a homesteader who’s affectionately referred to as “the founder of Eastsound”), the building changed hands many times before settling into its contemporary iteration in the 1970s when the current owners acquired it. Columbia Hospitality, who rep a number of boutique properties in the region, took over management and operations in 2022.

Sleek white and grey interiors make the Outlook Inn’s Water’s Edge and Bay View suites the most desirable rooms on the island, as do their proximity to the water. Water’s Edge suites are, as the name suggests, right on the shoreline and separated from the main building, and Bay View suites have private balconies and unobstructed waterfront views. The inn’s own New Leaf Cafe also has waterfront views and a hyper-seasonal menu highlighting Pacific Northwest farmers and purveyors. The hotel is just a block or two from the center of town, where freshly made pastries at Brown Bear Baking and oceanfront snacks at The White Horse Pub were highlights for casual dining. On the higher-end side of things, local tasting menus at Houlme or Matia Kitchen are available Thursday to Sunday. 

Outside of Eastsound, other parts of Orcas worth exploring include a drive out to Buck Bay Shellfish Farm, for caught-this-morning seafood of all kinds: oysters, shrimp, crab, halibut, salmon, clams and whatever else came in with the tide. Around another side of the island, Doe Bay Resort boasts clothing-optional hot springs and sauna, and down at Deer Harbor, sign up for a day of learning to sail with Captain Ward at Northwest Classic Daysailing. Ward has been sailing around the islands for the past two decades, and his classic 1948 wooden sloop Aura is available for booking May through October. When you’re out with him, the captain will let passengers actively sail the boat, so get ready to be put to work. He’s also incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the area.

Another recommended water activity is guided sea kayaking with Shearwater Kayak Tours, and while you’re on land, a relatively easy hike up Mt. Constitution affords views of the islands for miles. Down in Rosario, yet another Orcas community, touring the historic Moran Mansion (now a museum) is another must. Self-guided tours are available daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the high season. Once you’ve seen all there is to see on Orcas, it’s time to take a couple day trips to the other islands. 

San Juan Island

San Juan Island

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Visiting San Juan Island

Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor are the two central hubs on San Juan Island, although the ferry only lands at Friday Harbor. The commercial hub for the San Juan area, Friday Harbor isn’t quite as beautiful or remote as some of the other areas, but it does boast an incredibly scenic lavender farm. Visiting the Pelindaba Lavender Farm is free, and given its location right on the water, photos from this particular site are usually very epic. For the foodie side of things, make your way over to the other side of San Juan and visit Westcott Bay Shellfish Company in Roche Harbor. Their Tide Tables picnic area is literally at the water’s edge, and you can watch fishermen catch and shuck (and grill) the oysters that make their way to your table. Barbecued with various compound butters, these oysters are so good they’ve even been known to convert avowed oyster haters.

Lopez Island

Lopez Island

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Visiting Lopez Island

Lopez is great for a day trip, but there isn’t enough to do here to warrant an overnight stay. Much smaller than either Orcas or San Juan, one thing Lopez Island is known for is its food. In fact, ice cream from the Lopez Island Creamery is so popular that it’s exported to the other islands — you can find it all over the San Juan area. But since you’re there, why not go to the source? Pints, ice cream sandwiches and ice cream pies are all on offer, and they make most of their products with solar power, just another reason to support.

Other things to check out on “Slopez,” the most laidback island of the bunch, include the ramen, gyoza and udon at Setsunai Noodle Bar, local, plant-forward dishes at Ursa Minor, and don’t forget to grab a loaf of bread at Barn Owl Bakery, where they use wheat grown and milled on Lopez with machinery from the 1800s. 

Shaw Island

Shaw Island

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Visiting Shaw Island

Known as “the holy island,” most visitors drawn here are intrigued by the nuns who inhabit the isle, which is just 7.7 square miles. As the smallest of the four main islands, Shaw has a population of fewer than 200 people year-round. As such, there are no hotels or rentals available, but there is one grocery store, Shaw General Store, and one park and campground area

If you’re kayaking or hiking around the island, Shaw could be a good place to crash for the night, otherwise it’s good for an afternoon trip, and particularly good for boaters, who like the peace and quiet. Indian Cove is the perfect place to moor if you’re boating, as it’s also next to the 60-acre Shaw Island County Park, where pristine beaches and abundant tide pools make for an idyllic afternoon.

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