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Real Quick Get Away: San Juan Island, WA

Pictures taken at San Juan Island, WA

Sometimes you just need to get away and San Juan Island, the second largest island in the archipelago that makes up Washington’s San Juan Islands, makes a great getaway for a day, a weekend, or more. I only have 24 hours, but, on San Juan Island, it’s plenty of time for a refreshing break.

San Juan Island is easily accessible by ferry, boat, or float or wheeled plane. We choose the ferry and begin our journey at the terminal in Anacortes, Washington. The Washington State Ferry runs regular service from the mainland to San Juan Island and other islands like Orcas and Lopez. You can opt to take your car on the ferry (about $40 round trip) or walk on as a passenger (about $12 RT). If you take your car, you’ll want to get to the ferry at least an hour before sailing. Walk-on passengers can arrive closer to sailing without worry of missing the boat.

Downtown at San Juan Island, WA

Friday Harbor features a walkable, historic, and friendly downtown.

For me, traveling via Washington State Ferries is a treat. They almost always run on time and, unless the weather is unusually rough, the ride is quick and smooth. Large ferries like the one that run to San Juan Island’s Friday Harbor offer cafeterias, coffee shops, TVs, and gift shops. Best of all, they have comfortable chairs and big windows and outside viewing decks with drop dead gorgeous views of coastal waterways, forested islands, and sometimes even resident orca whales.

As we silently motor away from Anacortes, I head out to the upper viewing deck. The August air is warm and the sun sparkles off the water. I snap photos of small sail boats racing around thickly forested islands. While I don’t spot any whales, I’m thrilled when an eagle swoops down and plucks a fish from the water just a few yards from where I’m standing.

Happening Friday Harbor

San Juan Island, WA Welcome Structure

The Friday Harbor community raised $60,000 to pay for the welcome sculpture overlooking the harbor.

A short hour later, the ferry pulls into the dock at Friday Harbor, a small town that climbs up the hill from the water. My friend, one of the town’s 2,000 year round residents, is there to greet me.

Friday Harbor is the island’s largest town and the only incorporated city in the San Juan Islands. Originally a fish canning station for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the town incorporated in 1909 and the majority of its buildings and many of the homes date from the turn-of –the-century. In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Friday Harbor as a town of distinction.

The city’s quaint dock is filled with sail and power boats and the harbor side park features an impressive totem sculpture called Portals of Welcome by noted Native Indian carver Susan Point. The waterfront is also home to the Friday Harbor Marine Center where visitors can rent boats or arrange for harbor tours or whale watching trips.

Humpback Whale Skeleton

Orca, gray, minke, and humpback whales ply the waters around San Juan Island and the Whale Museum can tell you all about them.

It’s nearly noon and my stomach is grumbling so we stop at the Market Chef, a pleasant little café on A Street just a block or so from the ferry. The restaurant offers a sunny outdoor deck and serves sandwiches and several hot dishes to eat in our take out. I order the crab cake with a chunky tomato- basil-mozzarella salad, and the sour cream and chive mashed potatoes. I’m not disappointed. The fist-sized crab cake is a crunchy mound of crab, celery, and red pepper with spicy red pepper roulade.

After lunch, it’s time for a little exploring. Friday Harbor is a walkable village with plenty of coffee shops, boutiques, and museums. A must-see is the Whale Museum housed in the 1892 Oddfellow’s Building.

The waters around San Juan Island are whale central and home three “pods” or family groups of orca (killer) whales known as the Southern Resident orcas. There are also gray, minke, and humpback whales as well as Dall’s and harbor porpoises in the area. The Whale Museum can help you learn about their biology, genealogy, and natural history. Especially impressive is the full-sized skeleton of a grey whale suspended from the ceiling and the skulls that graphically illustrate the orca’s three-inch, razor sharp, teeth.

While you’re visiting the Whale Museum, you may even be lucky enough to get a glimpse of Robert Straub, the building’s resident ghost. Straub, an island resident, was hanged in 1897 for killing his neighbor. Some claim they’ve seen his tall, lanky frame or heard his footsteps on the museum’s second floor.

On Spring Street, just a few steps from the museum, we stop at the Hot Shop & Flavor Emporium, an entire store dedicated to culinary heat. This fun and funky shop features a mind boggling array of salsa, peppers, rubs, jerks, BBQ and hot sauces from around the world – and you can sample all of them.

Sculptures and Art

Island Studios is an artist co=op that features more than 200 artists’ work.

The San Juan Islands are home to many talented artists and the artist co-op Island Studios showcases the work of more than 200 of them. The big, bright shop offers a wonderful selection of paintings, jewelry, photography, glasswork, handmade clothing, toiletries, and more. Especially fun is their patio with water features, pots, sculptures, and other garden art. I’ll need to come back to Friday Harbor the first weekend of October for Artstock, a celebration of local art with tours of studios and galleries, food, and music.

When we pop into Pelindaba Lavender on Hawthorne Lane, we’re surrounded by the heavenly smell of lavender. The shop is filled with products made from organic lavender grown on Pelindaba Lavender Farm right on the island. They make lavender personal care items like shampoo, lotion, and soap; therapy products like antiseptics and analgesics; culinary products like lavender honey, mustard, and lavender-flavored chocolate; home and floral products; lavender-themed jewelry. They even carry lavender products for your pets. May through October, visitors can also tour the farm.

Reliving History

Friday Harbor is fascinating for visitors interested in history. We head a short distance from downtown to the San Juan Historical Museum, an old farm house built in 1894, filled with antique furniture and other household goods. While we’ve come too late to tour the house, there’s plenty to see on the museum’s grounds, including an old stone building, the farm’s original root cellar, a weathered barn filled with antique weaving equipment, and Scribner cabin, which was built in 1891.

San Juan Island is the site of the famous (or infamous) “Pig War,” a skirmish that nearly broke out between American and Canadian troops when someone killed a farmer’s pig. Wanting to learn more, we drive over to the American Camp Southern Unit of the San Juan Island National Historical Park, 1,225 acres of saltwater shoreline, prairie and forest, and historic structures. At the Visitors Center, the park ranger is giving a presentation about the island’s military history and we check out displays of old bottles, pottery, buttons, military uniforms, and Native American tools and arrowheads. Visitors can also take a self-guided 2.5 bluff walk or explore the Pig War farther on a 1.25 mile trail. Just a half mile stroll from the Visitor’s Center is Grandma’s Cove, one of the best beaches on the island and a great place for a picnic.

Terrific View at Market Chef

The Market Chef’s outdoor patio offers terrific view of the ferry terminal and harbor.

At Lime Kiln Point State Park, we walk a short distance down to the historic Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse. From June through September, the cove here is a favorite spot for orca whales that come very close to shore here because of the area’s kelp forest. No orcas today, so we head 20 minutes down the road to another historic place, Roche Harbor.

In 1886, John McMillin transformed Roche Harbor, a former Hudson Bay camp, into a full-fledged lime works and company town with a population of more than 800. In the 1950s, the old company town buildings and marina were restored and Roche Harbor became the resort town it is today. However, worker cabins, some company buildings, and parts of the old lime works still exist. We scramble out to read the display boards and take photos of the old kilns.

Visitors can also tour the town’s 19-acre sculpture park with more than 100 sculptures. During the summer, they hold outdoor concerts amidst the artwork. We vow the next time we visit, we’ll rent a hotel room, condo, or cabin here in Roche Harbor so we can more thoroughly explore this area’s delights and maybe even rent a horse at the nearbystable. However, tonight we’ve got reservations in Friday Harbor at the Tucker House Inn and at one of the city’s best restaurants.

Good Night’s Sleep, Full Tummy

My room at the Tucker House Inn and Harrison Street Suites is a cozy attic room called Secret Passage. The room, which has a low ceiling and wainscot walls, is aptly named and feels like a great place to hide away with a good book. Across the hallway is Dove, a larger room filled with light that overlooks the street. (See our full review of Tucker House.)

The Place Barr and Grille

The Place Barr and Grille has drop-dead gorgeous water views and first-rate food.

For dinner, my friend recommends The Place Bar and Grille, a harborside restaurant with plenty of big windows overlooking boats and water. Happily, The Place’s food matches its million dollar view. We start with a few appetizers: briny, mid-sized Puget Sound oysters on the half shell and a few baked in rich hazelnut butter; crab and shrimp pot stickers served on a bed of crispy sesame coleslaw; and small, tender Westcott Bay Manila clams sautéed in white wine and lightened with diced fresh tomatoes.

My house salad comes with very fresh greens, cukes, shredded carrots, radishes, cherry tomatoes, candied walnuts, and tangy Maytag blue cheese dressed in a light vinaigrette. For an entrée, I select five moist and chewy scallops served with terrific al dente linguini with kalamata olives and tomatoes and zucchini, and crisp wax and green beans. A light lemon boudino, a puddling-like cake served warm and topped with whipped cream and shreds of white chocolate and an espresso makes a satisfying end to my meal.

San Juan Historical Museum

The 1894 farmhouse at the San Juan Historical Museum gives a glimpse of early island life.

After that wonderful dinner, you’d think I wouldn’t have room the next morning for Tucker Inn’s signature multi-course breakfast. I do.

Tucker House proprietors, Anna Maria de Freitas and David Pass, also run Friday Harbor’s celebrated Coho Restaurant so I know I’m in good hands. I enjoy their housemade granola with Greek style yogurt, juice and coffee, fresh nectarines and berries, and an entrée that includes a poached egg served with grits. Most surprising and delicious was the tiny breakfast dessert – a mini cheesecake with blackberry sauce.

After breakfast ,I meet my friend and we walk a few blocks to Friday Harbor’s shopping core. As we stroll along the many shops and boutiques, we admire the murals painted on the hardware store. We also pass Susie’s Mopeds where you can rent mopeds or scootcars, little two-seater open-air mini-cars powered by a scooter engine. I tell my friend the next time I visit, that’s how we’re going to explore the island.

Friday Harbor House's Bluff Restaurant

Friday Harbor House’s Bluff Restaurant offers sweeping views of the harbor.

After a few hours of prowling through shops and buying a few treasures to take back home, it’s nearly time to for me to leave. My friend insists we have one last meal at The Bluff Restaurant inside the Friday Harbor House. The restaurant is aptly named because it sits on a high bluff overlooking the harbor. We order some light fare – a delicious crab cake and veggie salad for me; a crispy flatbread topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, and onions and a chicken salad for her. The food is almost as good as the views.

Too soon, we spot the ferry churning into the harbor and hustle down to the terminal. I’ve been on San Juan just 24 hours, but I’m amazingly refreshed and renewed. I know I’ve just scratched the surface of what this beautiful place has to offer. I’ll be back and, next time, I’m staying longer.

If you go:

San Juan Island Tourist Information

Washington State Ferries

Tucker House Inn

The Place Bar and Grille

The Bluff Restaurant (Friday Harbor House)

By Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor


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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at