Washington’s San Juan Islands: an Ideal Tour

The San Juan Islands and their neighbors in Washington State’s Salish Sea are a place out of time. Shane Mitchell boards the ferry to find the artists, chefs, and urban refugees who live within this archipelago, at a speed of their own choosing.

‘Great day for a boat ride,’ the deckhand tells me, squinting at the cornflower sky as the Elwha prepares to back out of its slip at Anacortes and head into the San Juan Islands. He inspects a van with a kayak on top and a license-plate frame that reads MY OTHER CAR IS A BIKE, then gives the all clear. Passengers stream from their vehicles to the upper deck, some with dogs in tow. In the main cabin, communal jigsaw puzzles await on dining tables. Some folks sit down to hunt for a matching piece, but most head outside to take in the scene and the sunshine. A bird-watcher trains her binoculars on an osprey while a man in a T-shirt that says ONE LESS CAR hangs onto the hoodies of excited twin boys peering over the railing at the ferry’s wake. The receding shoreline is rocky and evergreen. A light breeze ruffles the surface of the Salish Sea, carrying with it the scent of sea lettuce.

The indigenous Coast Salish paddled bidarka canoes through these waters millennia before Greek explorer Ioánnis Phokás, known to his Spanish patrons as Juan de Fuca, sailed into the strait that now bears his name, seeking a sea route linking the Pacific and Atlantic. Today, the primitive watercraft have been replaced by the lumbering giants of the Washington State Ferry System, which regularly service only four of the 172 islands in the San Juan archipelago—part of a greater island network that stretches from Olympia, Washington, to Vancouver, British Columbia.

As the cities of the Pacific Northwest mainland go mainstream, the offshore communities out here remain a counterculture stronghold, more hippie than hipster. The slow pace and cellular dead zones appeal to both nature-loving artists and reclusive tech billionaires, as well as to anyone who prefers to measure speed by knots rather than miles per hour. The San Juans have one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles in the Lower 48. Orcas sing in Haro Strait. Thanks to the rain shadow cast by the Olympic Mountains, the summers are gloriously bright and mild. During the wet winters, the ferry becomes a de facto social hub, filled with joyriders who compete in fierce inter-island mah-jongg tournaments. The constant proximity to water is the defining experience of any journey here. To be any closer would require fins and a tail.

For the ideal trip, start on Whidbey Island, just beyond Seattle’s northern suburbs. Then spend a few nights on San Juan, Orcas, or Lopez, taking day trips to the neighboring islands. Finish on Lummi, where you can order the finest meal the region has to offer.
Visit Travel + Leisure for the rest of the story.