I’d had a love-hate relationship with San Juan Island since I was a teenager. I spent a good chunk of my youth living in Friday Harbor, a place where 40 minutes is the longest drive you can take (without ending up back were you started). And, like many a 16-year-old living there, I wanted nothing more than to get out. And I did, for nearly 10 years.
Distance must truly make the heart grow fonder, because when I returned for a visit last year, the island was more beautiful than ever. I found the blissed-out summer vibe—one that draws crowds that make it impossible to get across town—charming. Perhaps what had really changed was my perspective: I was seeing the island for the first time as a visitor. I suddenly understood why my mom chose to start each morning with a quiet walk through the woods, why millions of tourists head to the San Juans to paddle around the archipelago, and why residents are forever proud to call the island home.
As a former resident—with a relationship that’s now mostly love—here’s a little advice for an unforgettable trip to San Juan Island.
If the small size of the island has you worried about entertainment, fret not. What San Juan lacks in size it more than makes up for in things to do. If it’s a nice day, spend as much of it outside as possible. In the summer months, hiking, kayaking, and bicycling are a must. Or devote an entire day to trekking around San Juan Island National Historic Park: Begin with a walk through Jakle’s Lagoon, check out American Camp (British camp is across the island) where U.S. troops lived while the two nations settled their boundary dispute, swim at Eagle Cove, and end with a barbecue on South Beach.
At dusk, the sun goes down over Vancouver Island, which looks just a swim—albeit a very long swim—away. The sunset view a mile or so down the road, at Lime Kiln Point, is a close second. Depending on the time of year, it’s likely that you’ll spot a pod of resident orcas passing by (the J, K, and L pods frequent the area).
Find time in your trip to check out the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park in Roche Harbor, Westcott Bay Shellfish Co., and Pelindaba Lavender Farm. During July 16-17, Pelindaba is hosting the Lavender Festival & Summer Arts, where you can stroll through the purple fields while sipping lavender lemonade or snacking on lavender cookies. Lastly, wake up early one morning and hike to the top of Mt. Young, where you can look out over parts of the San Juan archipelago.
If you are a camper, San Juan Island is a dream. If you’ve never been into roughing it in the woods, this is a good place to test it out. There are no bears, mountain lions, or large snakes—the biggest creature you will come across is a deer, or maybe a fox. San Juan County Park on the west side has great camping (it’s also semi-famous as one of the locations where the 1998 movie Practical Magic was filmed) as does Lakedale Resort.
If camping is not your thing, there’s no shortage of holiday rentals, resorts, or hotels on the island. Friday Harbor House is a lovely stay within Friday Harbor, and the charming Juniper Lane Guest House is a few miles from the center of town.
Honestly, you don’t really have a choice here. There are no large chain restaurants on the island, so don’t bother looking for a McDonald’s or Subway. The Golden Triangle Thai restaurant, Market Chef, Hungry Clam, and Backdoor Kitchen are island favorites. Catch a game and grab a drink at Haley’s Sports Bar and Grill, or go all out at Duck Soup Inn, a noted restaurant that uses locally sourced ingredients.
An important tip
Millions of people visit the San Juan Islands in the summertime, so beware of the ferry lines! When you are headed to or from the mainland, make sure you leave plenty of time to get your car in line. Stay informed with the Washington State Ferry; otherwise you’ll end up missing your boat.
>>Next: Destination Spotlight: Marrakesh