The best kind of winter weekend is one full of sunshine and unexpected adventure. Add in spectacular sights, art, and dining – that was my recent weekend getaway to San Juan Island.
Discovering at the eleventh hour that Tom no longer had to work the weekend, we quickly devised a new plan. We’d both been eager to visit the San Juan Islands, and while February’s cooler temps make it one of the quietest months for tourism, the ferry terminal that connects the islands with mainland Washington is just a few minutes’ drive from our house.
It didn’t take much convincing. Within just a few minutes, I’d booked a night’s accommodation at Friday Harbor and reserved ferry tickets.
Our goal: to explore as much of San Juan Island as possible, sans summer crowds.
San Juan Island
San Juan Island is one of the most popular destinations within the ‘San Juan Islands’ group. The archipelago lies off the coast of Washington, and is made up of more than 172 named islands and reefs.
However, just four of the islands are served by public ferry – San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island – which means these are the most populated, and host the vast majority of the tourism in the area.
Voted as one of the world’s best islands to visit in your lifetime, the San Juan Islands are renowned for amazing wild landscapes, quaint historic towns and unique marine life. An abundance of orcas, gray, minke and humpback whales during migratory season makes whale watching one of the most popular activities in the area.
Ferry ride has to be one of my favourite commutes.
At just 55 square miles in size, San Juan Island can easily be circumnavigated in a day’s drive. But with so much to see and do, visitors should allow two days minimum to explore. It’s the perfect weekend adventure!
The brochures claim visitors will discover something new around every bend, and as I recap the trip I can’t help but agree. As we drove around the island, we stumbled across some beautiful ocean views, protected nature parks, iconic lighthouses, farms and alpaca ranches, and total Americana houses built alongside the rugged coastline.
Lime Kiln Point State Park
After disembarking the ferry at Friday Harbor, we drove to the western side of the island for our first stop of the day: Lime Kiln Point State Park.
Lime Kiln Point is one of the most popular whale watching viewpoints on the island, as it sits right on Haro Strait. While no whales were spotted this time (February is not migration season) we enjoyed a quiet picnic morning tea in the sun by the lighthouse.
The views made me wish I could stay there all day. With such clear skies we could see the entire way across the water to Vancouver Island! There are also plenty of great walking trails within the park that I’ll have to explore next time.
San Juan County Park
As the views are just that good, we made another quick stop just a few minutes up the road at San Juan County Park. The 12-acre park is a perfect spot for launching kayaks, and has campsites available too.
Could you not just sit on that red bench forever?
Known nowadays as English Camp, this historical site on Garrison Bay was occupied by the British Marines during the Pig War Crisis of 1859-1872. The English eventually vacated the area, but the barracks, gardens and officer’s quarters all remain here today on the protected parklands.
We were also greeted by half a dozen American bald eagles that were circulating above the trees.
The American Camp is located on the southeast peninsula of San Juan Island. While I didn’t get a chance on this visit, I’ll be sure to make my way there next time.
On the northwest tip of the island sits the resort town of Roche Harbor: home to the historic Hotel De Haro (built in 1886), a few waterside dining spots, and one very picturesque marina. I can only imagine this place would be pumping in the height of summer.
We enjoyed a stroll around the harbor before a quick stop at Lime Kiln Café for clam chowder, ice tea and their famous freshly baked salted caramel donuts.
Westcott Bay Cider & San Juan Island Distillery
As we were leaving Roche Harbor, we came across a sign that firmly grabbed our attention: ‘Cider & Gin Tasting’. We followed the signs along a quiet road, and soon came across a small but promising roadside shed. Destination found!
Operated by a small local team, Westcott Bay Cider is the second oldest ciderworks in Washington. The cidery was established first, and then later they began experimenting with distilling spirits from the apple.
I’m a big fan of hard apple cider, but one of my pet peeves is how sweet many brands can be. You can imagine my sheer happiness when I discovered that Westcott Bay Cider specialises in small batch traditional dry cider.
In fact, the three samples on offer when we visited were ‘Very Dry’ ‘Dry’ and ‘Semi Dry’. Richard is clearly very passionate about his product as he talked us through the fermentation process, the apples he uses (grown on the island – we drove past the orchards right after our tasting), and ideal food pairings with each cider.
Next we journeyed the few metres to San Juan Island Distillery – literally just steps out the door! We watched some apple brandy in its distilling process, and sampled several of the micro-batch gins on offer – made with foraged San Juan Island botanicals. These spirits aren’t currently sold outside the San Juan Islands, so it’s a totally local experience.
Tastings are free but be warned – you’ll definitely want to buy a few bottles to take home as it’s freakin’ delicious. We walked away with both the Very Dry and Dry ciders, a bottle of Spy Hop gin plus a Cardamom & Saffron bitters for home cocktail making.
San Juan Island Sculpture Park is a 20 acre outdoor gallery featuring over 150 works of art. Beautifully combining art and nature, artworks are rotated as space becomes available or pieces are sold – so there’s always something new to see.
It was a great break after a few more indulgent pit-stops, and we spent lots of time wandering the different sculpture-filled trails in the park.
The park is open daily from dawn to dusk. A $5 per adult entry donation is appreciated as the park is run by volunteers.
San Juan Vineyards
On the drive back to Friday Harbor, we happened to drive past San Juan Vineyards. Not one to pass up an opportunity, we ducked inside the historical schoolhouse tasting room to investigate.
The sacrifices I make in the name of research, right?
Keen to sample as much of the award-winning wines as possible, Tom and I shared tastings of three whites and three reds. Some of the grapes (primarily whites) are grown on the vines on premises, while much is sourced from vineyards in Washington’s East which has a better climate for grape production.
I don’t think I’ve ever left a wine tasting without purchasing something for myself. It’s becoming an expensive habit. San Juan Vineyards was no exception, and I left with the 2014 Madeleine Angevine (an estate wine), a 2011 Merlot and a 2011 Cabernet Merlot.
Before you leave, say hello to the winery’s neighbour, Mona the camel.
Tastings are $10pp for three samples, and the fee is waived for those who spend $40 or more on wine to take home. So basically, you’re making money by buying it… right?
Friday Harbor: dining, bars and galleries
With our island road trip now completed, it was time to check into our accommodation (Discovery Inn) and explore Friday Harbor: the largest town on San Juan Island.
Friday Harbor offers fantastic and varied dining options from waterfront dining to small cafes, all with a keen focus on fresh seafood and local produce. There are bookshops and boutiques, a seasonal farmers market, and a huge marina to discover. It’s also the jump off point for most summer tours including whale watching cruises, sea kayaking and zip lining adventures.
During our afternoon, we wandered into art galleries, grabbed coffee, and wiled away a few hours over red wine at Mike’s Wine Bar. With our appetites now sufficiently prepared for dinner, Cask & Schooner for upscale ‘pub food’ with a pacific northwest twist.
After the previous day’s busy exploration, Sunday took a much-welcomed sleepier pace. We brunched, and indulged (yet again) on some freshly baked pastries for the trip home.
With time to spare before the ferry departure back to Anacortes, we squeezed in a last scenic drive out to nearby Turn Point and Pear Point, and to Jackson Beach.
I’m a sucker for a driftwood beach. So Washington! I love how you can see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains from the beach too.
I look forward to returning to San Juan Island later this year. I’ve still got plenty more galleries and restaurants to visit in Friday Harbor, and I want to try out the kayaking and hiking around the island.
With so much to see, do and eat (and drink!) San Juan Island is the perfect weekend getaway for those living in the Greater Seattle area, Bellingham, or even Vancouver.
The Washington State Ferry Service connects the communities of the San Juan Islands via a base in Anacortes all year round. In summer, passenger ferries to the island also depart from downtown Seattle, Bellingham and Port Townsend.
TIP: If you’re planning to stick to Friday Harbor, leave your car behind as it’s totally walkable (and will save you money on the ferry). To explore the rest of San Juan Island a car is preferable.
Would you take a weekend getaway to San Juan Island? For more and holiday inspiration visit the San Juan Island website.
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