Travel Destinations

Boating in the San Juan Islands

Courtesy San Juan Islands Fishing Charters

Take a week to cruise the San Juan Islands. It’s well worth it; you’ll have a whale of a time (pun intended). This Pacific Northwest archipelago is located some 70 nautical miles north of Seattle and nearly 60 miles south of Vancouver, Canada.

Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is the most popular first stop. This small town offers a soup-to-nuts of attractions to see plus a 500-slip full-service marina. Nine miles to the northeast is Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juans at 57 square miles. Less than five miles to the southeast is Lopez Island, half the size of Orcas.

Among these three, you can enjoy everything from a life-sized art scene to seafood dining and wineries, history, and nature. The Travel Channel named the San Juan Islands one of the top 10 places in North America for whale watching. Orcas love it here. You will too, especially if you visit these must-see places on the islands.

Courtesy San Juan Islands Sculpture Park

Take a Walk in the Art

Put on comfortable shoes, pack a picnic and visit the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park. Located next to the Roche Harbor Resort on the north side of the island, this 20-acre walking wonderland is landscaped with more than 150 pieces of art. See these on five short trails, ranging from a 10- to 30-minute walk, that meander through woodlands, meadows and the seaside.

The sculptures, fashioned by both famous and fledging sculptors, all reflect nature. There’s Large Marge, a 13-foot-tall mama grizzly bear made of bronze, while I’ve Been Kissed is a cute 2 1⁄2-foot-tall frog figure. Carving your name in the 30-foot- tall Friendship Totem is not only allowed but encouraged. Another interactive area is the starfish-shaped sandbox where kids can build sculptures with nearby materials like driftwood and shells.

In July and August on Saturdays and Sundays, the park offers free art activities for kids and adults. “There are covered tables and chairs, or bring a blanket and sit on one of the grassy hills to enjoy a leisurely picnic surrounded by artworks,” invites Marita Holdaway, curatorial director. Entry is free, but a $5 donation is welcome.  

Slurp Local Oysters

Sit at a table overlooking Westcott Bay on San Juan Island and eat freshly harvested shellfish at the Westcott Bay Shellfish Co’s Tide Tables restaurant. How fresh? You can watch crews farming the hand-raised Pacific and Olympia oysters, Manila clams, and Mediterranean mussels on the tidelands below while you eat at this family-owned and operated aquaculture farm.

“We have converted many a non-oyster eater to an oyster lover with our grilled oysters. These are grilled on our outside barbecue with a variety of compound butters like chipotle bourbon, lime cilantro and sriracha, and herb lemon and garlic,” says Andrea Anderson, owner. In addition to grilled oysters, try oysters on the half-shell, steamed clams or mussels, artisan salads, charcuterie boards, soups, and paninis. Be sure to make a reservation in advance during the Memorial Day to Labor Day season.

Wine the Time Away

A real find is Orcas Island Winery, the only one of its kind on the island. Opened in 2011, the vineyard now pours up to 10 locally produced and crafted reds, whites, roses and naturally sparkling wines. Set at the base of majestic Turtleback Mountain, sip wine outside in the ambiance of rolling green hills. Picnic baskets are available, packed with cheeses, crackers, other charcuterie and picnic blankets. Or soak in the view indoors through the farmhouse tasting room’s windows where wine flight experiences, glass pours and bottles are available.

In the summer, “We host events for the community and visitors alike such as welcoming chefs, winemakers, artists and musicians for concerts,” says Tera Andaya, who with her husband Wesley Landman, has owned the boutique family winery since 2019.  

Courtesy Village Cycles - Lopez Island

Bike Ride on the Wild Side

Lopez Island is flatter and more rural than the Orcas and San Juan Islands. This makes it ideal to rent a bike and pedal through forests, farmlands and along beach fronts. “As you pedal, be prepared for enchanting views of pristine blue water surrounding the island and the majestic Olympic Mountain Range in the distance. Cycling the entire island is not only possible but can be accomplished in just a few hours, making it a memorable journey of discovery,” says Aubrey Mai, owner of Village Cycles, with husband Kenny.

Key attractions to cycle to include the Fishermans Bay Spit Preserve and Shark Reef Sanctuary. Islanders wave at each passing car or bike, so don’t be surprised at a one-finger-wiggle or whole-hand- howdy. The company rents hybrid, drop bar performance and electric bikes by the day and offers bike delivery services with a day’s notice.  

Courtesy Lopez Island Historical Museum

Travel Back in Time

The Lopez Island Historical Museum, a mile north of the Lopez Islander Resort & Marina, is a small museum with a big museum attitude. “Covering archaeology, Coast Salish and settler history, birds of prey, plant communities, and children’s corner, we’ve got something to interest everyone. Outdoor exhibits include a historic gill netter fishing boat, Coast Salish racing canoe, farm equipment, photo murals and native plant gardens,” says Amy Frost, executive director of the Lopez Island Historical Society.

“If you are a real history buff, plan for an hour to 90-minute visit.” Afterward, stroll around the village, then head to the Lopez Island Creamery. Buy a pint of ice cream — try local Bow Hill Blueberry, Wild Blackberry or Skagit Strawberry — then walk down to watch seals and boats come in and out of Fisherman Bay.  

Go Fish

Courtesy San Juan Islands Fishing Charters Capt Andy Derksema

Dock your yacht and cast off on a salmon, light tackle or bottom fishing trip with San Juan Islands Fishing Charters. The outfit, headed by Capt. Andy Derksema, is based at the Spring Street Landing in Friday Harbor. “There are a variety of species (seasonably) available from halibut, salmon and lingcod to shellfish such as spot prawns and crab, as well as some of our smaller species, kelp greenling, sanddabs and flounder,” says Derksema.

“Our unique location surrounded by islands and mountains cuts down the swell, so seasickness doesn’t happen very often.” Trips range from three to five hours. Tackle and fishing licenses are provided onboard, so just pack snacks, sunscreen and ID.  

Watch for Whales

Tails Friday Harbor in San Juan Island is a gateway to the underwater world of Puget Sound and the wildlife that lives there, like whales. “We focus on seeing Bigg’s Killer Whales (orca whales), humpback whales, minke whales, grey whales, harbor porpoises, Dall’s porpoise, river otters, Pacific white-sided dolphins, seals, sea lions, mink, bald eagles, and sea birds,” says Angie Krieger, manager at San Juan Excursions Whale Watch and Wildlife Cruises.

May through September offers the best odds to encounter orca whales, Krieger adds. “If guests don’t see orca whales, they will get a free pass to come back again.” The company’s 85’ former Navy search and rescue vessel, Odyssey, boasts creature comforts such as a heated cabin, restrooms, snack bar and large wraparound outdoor decks for the best views during the three-to-four-hour tour.

Where to Dock

Friday Harbor Marina

San Juan Island  

The marina offers 500 slips/100 transient slips for vessels up to 70’ and amenities include power, water, fuel pier, fish-cleaning station, ice, showers, laundry and Wi-Fi.

Deer Harbor Marina

Orcas Island  

Boaters can expect to find 110 slips for vessels up to 100’ as well as power, water, fuel, restrooms, swimming pool access, grocery store and Wi-Fi.

Lopez Islander Resort & Marina

Lopez Island

This marina runs 64 slips for vessels up to 50’. Guests are welcome to power, water, fuel, dockside store, fish-cleaning station, crab boiling area, plus showers, laundry and a swimming pool.

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