Experience Island Life in the San Juans

The San Juan Islands dotting Puget Sound offer sensuous inspiration, including gorgeous views, artistic endeavors, and fun festivals.


Photo courtesy San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

On the artsy, quirky, foodie San Juan Islands dotting Puget Sound, there’s lots of competition for the best views of sea, evergreens, hills, and sky.

There’s the sublime view in the garden behind Orcas Island Pottery, the Pacific Northwest’s oldest such business. There’s the view of an uninhabited islet from Outlook Inn, a charming hostelry dating back to 1888, but there’s also the panorama from Mount Constitution, the archipelago’s highest peak: Both are on Orcas. Yet there’s also the blue-on-blue view from Friday Harbor, the only incorporated town in the whole archipelago.

The fastest way to reach these islands is to fly nonstop from Oakland to Seattle, which takes under two hours, then take a half-hour flight by small plane or seaplane. A longer route entails taking the shuttle from Sea-Tac Airport to the Anacortes ferry terminal, then a Washington State Ferry. From May to September, a high-speed catamaran connects the San Juans to Seattle.

Despite the three main islands’ tiny populations — San Juan has 7,500 people; Orcas, the biggest island, about 5,000; and Lopez has just 2,400 — arts of all kinds abound. You’ll find an eclectic range from glass, sculpture, paintings, and jewelry to fiber arts at Orcas Island Artworks, a co-operative of 45 artists in a 1930s-era strawberry-packing plant. On San Juan, WaterWorks is the premiere gallery; on flat Lopez — so laid-back that it’s nicknamed “Slopez” — it’s Chimera Gallery. Artists’ studio tours take place in June on San Juan, in August on Orcas.

To hear the Pacific Northwest’s favorite emerging bands, book way in advance for the Doe Bay Festival, a four-day fest at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat, a beloved resort known for its seaside cabins, yurts, tents, and hot tubs. If you prefer jazz, you can hear its many subgenres at the Orcas Jazz Festival, held at the Orcas Center, a nonprofit arts center for theater, concerts, and dance.

Delightful farms await you. If it weren’t for its stunning view of the Olympic Mountains, you’d feel that you were in the fields of Provence at San Juan Island’s Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Also on San Juan, visitors can freely admire the adorability of 50-plus live animals at Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, whose shop sells the soft fleece of llamas’ cuddlier cousins.

On Orcas Island, book a chef-prepared dinner in the field for your group at Red Rabbit Farm, or feast on freshly shucked oysters and clams over seaside picnic tables at Buck Bay Shellfish.

Many farms are open for tours during Savor the San Juans, a two-month food and arts extravaganza whose many events include the Orcas Film Festival whose films are chosen by the curator of the Seattle Film Festival.

On these proudly locavore islands, taste local seafood, meats, and produce at restaurants such as Duck Soup, which occupies a romantic cabin in the San Juan woods, outfitted with a fieldstone fireplace. Remember Orcas Island’s historic and panoramic Outlook Inn? Its unpretentious New Leaf Café, specializing in seafood such as octopus carpaccio and halibut verjus, has an actual French chef.

Sip gin and brandy made from island apples, madrone bark, and seaweed at San Juan Island Distillery and unusual white wines made from island grapes in a tasting room at San Juan Vineyards that was originally a schoolhouse, built in 1895.


If You Go

Doe Bay Festival: 107 Doe Bay Road, Olga, Wash., 360-376-2291, DoeBay.com/music-activities/doe-bay-fest

Duck Soup: 50 Duck Soup Lane, Friday Harbor, Wash., 360-378-4878, DuckSoupSanJuans.com

Krystal Acres: 3501 W. Valley Road, Friday Harbor, Wash., 360-378-6125

Orcas Island Jazz Festival: 917 Mount Baker Road, Eastsound, Wash., 360-376-2281, OrcasIslandJazzFestival.org

Orcas Island Pottery: 338 Old Pottery Road, Eastsound, Wash., 360-376-2813, OrcasIslandPottery.com

Outlook Inn: 171 Main St., Eastsound, Wash., 360-376-2200

Pelindaba Lavender: 45 Hawthorne Lane, Friday Harbor, Wash., 866-819-1911, PelindabaLavender.com

Red Rabbit Farm: 216 Payton Lane, West Sound, Wash., 360-376-3208

San Juan Island Distillery: 12 Anderson Lane, Friday Harbor, Wash., 360-472-1532, SanJuanIslandDistillery.com

San Juans Tourism: 640 Mullis, Friday Harbor, Wash., 866-468-3701, VisitSanJuans.com

Savor the San Juans: VisitSanJuans.com/savorthesanjuans

Washington State Ferries: 2100 Ferry Terminal Road, Anacortes, Wash., 888-808-7977, WSDOT.wa.gov/ferries

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