Published March/April 2014

San Juan Island

Off the coast of Washington, this island offers 55 square miles of museums, wildlife, history, and outdoor activities

BYJill Schildhouse
When I stepped out on to the tarmac at Boeing Field, I was immediately thankful I’d given a very honest answer at the airline counter when asked how much I weigh. While I’d just flown into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from Phoenix on an airplane with about 150 seats, I would be continuing my journey to San Juan Island’s historic seaport of Friday Harbor on a tiny Cessna Caravan wheel plane.
 
As I settled in for the 30-minute flight on this rainy late-May day, I focused my attention on some of the 172 named islands and reefs below us, off the coast of Washington in the Salish Sea. Several months earlier, while I was compiling my itinerary of can’t-miss attractions for this five-day trip, most everyone mistakenly thought that San Juan Island was in the Caribbean (perhaps Puerto Rico?). No, there was nothing tropical about the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest my desert-dwelling eyes were feasting on now.
 
After landing in Friday Harbor, on the eastern coast of San Juan Island, and checking into my room at the European-style Island Inn-123 West, I immediately walked 20 steps across the street to the Port of Friday Harbor’s Spring Street Landing. The sun had come out, and so I bought an ice cream cone and settled on a bench to watch floatplanes take off and land, the ferryboats come in and out, and people walk up and down the streets of this quaint town. After a while, I made my way along the water’s edge to Fairweather Park, another scenic lookout point along the port. Here, you’ll find two sculptures:  “Interaction,” a sculpture by Native artist Susan Point that honors the enduring presence of the Coast Salish people in the area, and “Popeye,” by local artist Matthew Gray Palmer, a replica of the resident harbor seal (named for her one glazed-over eye) who has lived in the area for at least 18 years.
 
A Memorable Day 
The next morning, I declined the hotel-provided electric bike and, instead, walked a few blocks to Rocky Bay Cafe for breakfast. In the midst of my omelet and hash browns, I heard the unmistakable sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” outside — the town’s small, but well-attended Memorial Day parade was making its way to Memorial Park at the intersection of Front and Spring streets. Here, a granite memorial, erected in 1921, commemorates the island’s nine servicemen who lost their lives in World War I. After breakfast, I meandered in and out of the art galleries and antique shops lining the block on my way back to the hotel.
 
That afternoon, I drove to the west side of the island to Snug Harbor Marina in Mitchell Bay to set out on a whale-watching expedition. Capt. Jim Maya, of Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters, took us out on his six-passenger, 30-foot catamaran, the Peregrine. For the next several hours, Captain Jim, an enthusiastic naturalist who has been leading tours in these waters since 1988, regaled us with stories of the area’s orca pods, and answered every question thrown at him with ease. As he used his experienced eyes to scan the waters for wildlife, he took us to all his favorite (read: whale-rich) spots, and kept in close radio contact with other area tour groups to see where the whales were surfacing that day. Although none of the 80 southern resident orcas who make their home among these islands were cooperating (his morning tour was luckier), we did see a humpback whale’s tail several times, along with my first-ever bald eagle (what a patriotic sight on Memorial Day!), a peregrine falcon, and seals.
 
Before returning to the hotel, I stopped at Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, where a herd of 70 Huacaya alpacas roam the fenced pastures. The on-site Country Store sells warm and fuzzy alpaca sweaters, coats, pillows, purses, socks, knitting yarn, and even finger puppets.
An orca breaching off the coast
An orca breaching off the coast
Coho Restaurant uses ingredients from surrounding islands
Coho Restaurant uses ingredients from surrounding islands
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