Orcas and eagles. Hiking and kayaking. Island grown wine and farm-to-table dining. And not a chain, whether it be a chain restaurant or store, in sight. This is the San Juan Islands.
The San Juans are an archipelago of 172 named islands and reefs located between Seattle and Vancouver. Stepping off the ferry and on to one of the four ferry-served San Juan Islands: Orcas Island, San Juan Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island, is like stepping back in time. You quickly forget that a mere three hours ago you left the chaos of bustling Seattle behind.
The San Juans were made for long weekends. A visit to these jaw-droppingly gorgeous islands is like taking a vacation out of the continental US…without actually leaving the continental US. Follow our San Juan Islands itinerary for a perfect weekend getaway filled with foodie adventures on San Juan Island and Orcas Island.
Day 1: Friday Harbor
The great thing about the San Juan Islands is that the main towns: Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor on San Juan Island and Eastsound on Orcas Island can be explored in 30 minutes or in a full day of hopping around from gallery to shop, and restaurant to bar.
It takes around 3.5 – 4 hours to reach Friday Harbor from Seattle Seatac Airport. But if you’re visiting the San Juans from April to October, the long days with around 16 hours of daylight are perfect for exploring.
San Juan Island and Friday Harbor have the largest population in the San Juan Islands, though it’s really still a small town. And you walk right off the ferry in to the heart of the incredibly charming town.
There’s no chains to be found here; just a smattering of art galleries, shops, restaurants and a market hall. Friday Harbor is easily walkable and an excellent base for exploring the entire island.
San Juan Island Distillery and Westcott Bay Cider
San Juan Island Distillery and Westcott Bay Cider aren’t the kind of place you just stumble upon on San Juan Island. Tucked away among the apple orchards, it’s a destination you need to seek out – and you absolutely should.
Rich Anderson, owner of Westcott Bay Cider, and Suzy and Hawk Pingree, owners of San Juan Island Distillery, are business partners. They work together to bring islanders and island visitors cider and spirits under one roof.
San Juan Island Distillery makes makes 12 different gins, a variety of liqueurs and flavored brandies. They also make an award-winning apple brandy in their copper still from Germany, and with Washington apples right from the Westcott Bay orchard on the island.
Try their unique Spy Hop Harvest Selecting N5 gin, which is made with distilled cider and botanicals hand foraged from right on San Juan Island.
Westcott Bay Cider makes traditional hard ciders from their Washington cider apple varieties grown in their orchard on San Juan Island. Like Orcas Island, San Juan Island has a long history of being a major fruit producer for Puget Sound and some of Westcott Bay’s original orchards date back to 1870.
Rich replanted the orchards in the 1990s and released his first cider in 1999. Just over a decade later, he teamed up with Suzy and Hawk to purchase the copper still. And nearly two decades later, they’re all producing their ciders and spirits together.
Westcott Bay Cider produces three different ciders: traditional very dry, traditional dry and traditional medium sweet.
Stop by on Saturday afternoons from 1pm – 4pm for a tasting of the ciders and spirits.
Stay: Friday Harbor House
Friday Harbor House is just a short two-block walk from the ferry and right in the heart of Friday Harbor. The boutique hotel is set atop a bluff with stunning views over the harbor.
The rooms are cozy and romantic, with their fireplaces and oversized jacuzzi bathtubs made for two. Some rooms, like ours, even have balconies that are perfect for sitting on with a glass of wine. And amenities like the kettle, tea and Chemex with freshly ground coffee make it so you never want to leave the room.
We promise you’re in for an excellent night’s sleep with the Dream Kit that’s left, with chamomile bath salts, lavender pillow spray, and an eye mask. There’s even a pillow menu that you can select goose down, organic buckwheat, and bamboo pillows from.
Breakfast is our favorite kind – a delicious a la carte menu with all your breakfast favorites on offer. We can never resist eggs benedict when available, though the burrito is another delicious choice.
The patio is a gorgeous place for a late summer evening dinner as the sun goes down. Make a meal of the tapas-style starters like the crab mac and cheese bites, crispy brussel sprouts and avocado toasts.
Be sure to try Friday Harbor House’s cocktails. Chef Jason Aldous combines a relaxed style approach to food with locally grown ingredients and pairs it all with craft cocktails. Not sure what to order? The bartenders will be happy to craft something up for your personal tastes.
Day 2: American Camp, San Juan Island Vineyards and Orcas Island
If the weather’s nice, the little red scoot coupes are a fun way to go touring around the island. Venture out to the south end of San Juan Island to the American Camp National Historical Park, look for whales and red fox, then pop by San Juan Island’s vineyard for a little wine tasting.
American Camp National Historical Park
While I’ve learned a lot of WWI and WWII history from our nine years living in Europe, I must confess that I really don’t know a whole lot of history of wars that took place right at home on US soil. History was really never my favorite subject.
Nonetheless, I got a bit of a history lesson while visiting the San Juan Islands. And I’d be willing to bet that despite my lack of interest in history, you haven’t heard of the Pig War either.
Apparently there was a dispute between the US and Britain over a boundary, and both nations agreed to a joint occupation of San Juan Island until it could be settled. But then someone had to go and shoot a pig.
An American farmer had moved to the San Juan Islands and found a huge black pig rooting around in his garden. He got quite aggravated that the pig continually turned up and ate his potato crop, so he shot the pig on June 15, 1889.
As it turned out, the pig belonged to an Irishman, Charles Griffin. The farmer offered to pay Griffin $10 for the pig, but Griffin demanded $100. The farmer refused, and it escalated to an all-out war when British authorities threatened to arrest the farmer.
First, the Americans sent troops. Then the British sent war ships. Not a single shot was ever fired, but this goading of both sides went on for over a decade. Yes, all over a pig.
Both the US and Britain signed The Treaty of Washington, and that essentially ended the 12-year long standoff. The British withdrew in 1872 and the Americans followed in 1874, but the division of the American Camp and English Camp remains to this day. Park rangers even raise and lower the Union Jack flag over the English Camp each day.
You can visit the parade grounds, officers quarters and laundress quarters of the American Camp National Historical Park.
Aside from the historical buildings, bald eagles inhabit San Juan Island. Stop by the ranger’s office to ask them to point out the nests of two pairs of breeding bald eagles. They’ve also set up a birdscope so that you can a good look at the nest, which was unfortunately empty of the eagles during our visit.
But you can wander down to the beach for the possibility to see orcas and the red fox hunting on the plains.
San Juan Islands Vineyards
San Juan Island isn’t just home to resident red fox, bald eagles and orcas; the island has a resident camel, too. Her name is Mona, and she lives across the road from San Juan Vineyards. Mona has even inspired the name of several wines by San Juan Vineyards.
The vineyard has been a part of San Juan Island since Yvonne Swanberg and her late husband, Steve, founded the winery in 1996. They fell in love with the 1895 school house on the property and built the rest of the estate to resemble the historic building.
The school house was remodeled and serves as San Juan Vineyard’s tasting room and boutique. There’s also a church, which has been the site of many island weddings.
Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe grapes, both white wine grape varietals, are grown on the estate to produce wines by the same name. Though San Juan Vineyards does produce a variety of other wines with grapes from other Washington vineyards. But it’s the Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe that are true locally produced wines from the island, and though we definitely prefer reds, both are incredibly nice and easy drinking wines.
Yvonne recently decided to retire and sell the entire estate. It re-opens this month under the new owners, Washington Vintners. We’ll all just have to stay tuned to see how San Juan Vineyards develops under the new owners.
Lunch at Cask & Schooner
Back in Friday Harbor, stop in to Cask & Schooner for lunch before hopping on the ferry to Orcas Island.
The English-style pub focuses on local and sustainable food from right in the San Juan Islands. We tried a variety of dishes from salads to sliders. Our favorites were the beet salad, which was a really fresh contrast to the other pub-style dishes, and the braised goat sliders with jalapeno aioli.
Be sure to have a walk around the entire restaurant. The owner personally collected the fireplace and memorabilia from around England and it’s all just another touch that makes the San Juans feel like a little slice of Europe right in the US.
Relax on the Ferry to Orcas Island
The ferry ride from Friday Harbor to Orcas Island through the Strait of Juan de Fuca is one of the most beautiful ferry rides we’ve ever been on. Sit back and relax while taking in views of Mount Baker and the Cascade range on the 50-minute ride.
Mount Baker is one of the snowiest places in the world. It’s also the second most thermally active crater in the Cascade range, after Mount Saint Helens. Cross your fingers for a clear day so you can admire it all.
Stay: Rosario Resort & Spa
If you’re ’80s child like I am, you grew up dancing with your girlfriends in the basement and wishing for a summer at Kellerman’s. And from the moment we pulled up to the Rosario Resort & Spa, I definitely felt like I’d pulled up to the iconic summer resort from Dirty Dancing.
The stone covered Kellerman’s main house is replaced with by a white mansion, but the differences pretty much end there. There’s the arches of the covered porch, the cabins set on the water away from the main house and at any moment it seems a game of croquet will break out on the lawn.
Rosario’s main house is actually the historic Moran Mansion. The mansion was built as a relaxing retreat by ship builder Robert Moran after a doctor told him that he only had one year to live. That was in 1905.
Moran actually went on to live in his retreat for many years, and he only put it up for sale after the death of his wife in 1932. The mansion was sold privately, but it was turned in to the Rosario Resort & Spa.
There’s no actual guest rooms inside the mansion, but it’s the centerpiece of the resort – much as the main house was the centerpiece of Kellerman’s. There’s a small museum in the mansion honoring Moran, and includes the original furnishings. And while there is no Johnny Castle, Rosario’s resident historian Christopher Peacock entertains guests with his musical stylings on the 1913 Aeolian pipe organ.
We stayed in the Harborside Rooms, which are the furthest from the mansion but located right on Rosario’s Cascade Bay. The views looking across the bay to the Moran Mansion are nothing short of spectacular, and it’s only a 10-minute walk or so to the mansion.
Back in the mansion, The Mansion Restaurant occupies the original waterfront veranda and seasonal cuisine is prepared by Rosario’s award-winning executive chef. Produce, meat, fish and seafood from local Orcas Island farms are featured on the menu, and local San Juan Islands wines and spirits are featured on the cocktail and wine list.
A relaxing meal at The Mansion Restaurant, then a stroll along Cascade Bay back toward the Harborside Rooms is a perfect way to end the day on Orcas Island. You might even like to stop and skip some stones on the bay, where you can observe bioluminescence.
Day 3: Moran State Park and Eastsound on Orcas Island
The 2409-foot Mount Constitution offers the best view over the San Juan Islands. It’s the highest point in all of the San Juan Islands and no trip to Orcas Island is complete without taking in the panorama from the top of the watchtower.
If you’re up for a challenge, hike Moran State Park’s 6.7-mile long Mount Constitution Loop trail. You’ll most definitely work off all the farm-to-table food you’ve been sampling with the over 2000 feet of elevation gain.
The Little Summit Trail is a shorter 2.2 mile hike, but is still challenging with ups and downs and a steep 389 feet of elevation gain.
If you’re short on time, you don’t have to miss out on this viewpoint. You can actually drive all the way to the top and then walk the short distance to the watchtower.
Unfortunately for us, the San Juans’ long drought finally came to an end and the morning of our visit to Mount Constitution was incredibly foggy. Even so, the forest is beautiful and it’s at least worth driving up to the top for a chance of one of the best views in the Pacific Northwest.
Before hopping on the ferry back to Anacortes, spend some time wandering the boutiques, galleries and artisan shops of Orcas Island’s historic settlement.
Just a 15-minute drive from the ferry landing, Eastsound is charming with its historic buildings and homes from the 1880s. But even better are some of the shops and cafes foodies simply can’t miss while visiting the San Juan Islands.
Brown Bear Baking
Our friend Linda lives on her boat part of the year in Anacortes and she and her husband sail the San Juan Islands often. She raved about Brown Bear Baking, though living in France has turned us in to skeptics when it comes to pastries.
The “bears” themselves, owners David Ellertsen and Lee Hilands Horswill, are behind the counter baking artisan breads and pastries daily. It was their life long dream to own a bakery and instead of taking vacations, they both used vacation time to attend pastry school while working at their former careers.
Sadly, the cinnamon rolls we’d heard they’re famous for were already sold out. But the pain au chocolat was perfectly flaky and the orange morning buns were just the right mix of soft and sugar-coated.
Brown Bear Baking also has made-to-order sandwiches on their own fresh-out-of-the-oven bread. Order a sandwich to go, which is perfect for enjoying as a late lunch on the ferry ride back to Anacortes.
Girl Meets Dirt
Orcas Island has a long history of orchard keeping. After the orchardist E. V. Von Gohren came to Orcas Island in 1879 and planted a huge Italian plum orchard, capitalists began funding islanders who followed suit. Soon there were apple, prune, pear and apricot orchards stretching from end to end on Orcas.
As you drive around Orcas, there’s so much fruit you can’t help but wonder what the locals possibly do with it all. Enter Audra Lawlor, founder of Girl Meets Dirt.
Audra is a former Wall Streeter turned entrepreneur. She sources fruit, much of which her company picks themselves, all from the San Juan Islands and turns it in to delicious jams and cutting preserves perfect for pairing with cheese.
You may have even tasted some of her products, which can be found at gourmet shops around the US. But she reserves her small batch preserves for her shop in Eastsound.
The Bartlett pears that are blended with aged balsamic for Girl Meets Dirt’s pear balsamic spoon preserves come from one of Orcas Island’s original orchards. The aforementioned Italian plums on Orcas get turned in to delicious jars of plum preserves or blended for unique tastes like plum lavender preserves. Audra even makes an Italian plum preserve blended with anise hyssop from her very own garden.
The shop/kitchen is open Monday – Friday from 9am – 5pm and even though it’s humming with sorting, chopping and jam making going on, they’re always happy to have visitors. A selection of Girl Meet Dirt’s products beckon to be tasted and the shelves are stocked for you to take a few jars home with you.
Kathryn Taylor Chocolates
We’ve never met a piece of chocolate we didn’t like, so a stop at Orcas Island’s artisan chocolatier is a must. Pick a few of the unique bonbons, order a coffee and relax at one of the few coveted tables at Kathryn Taylor Chocolates in Eastsound Square.
It’s a family run business and owners Ted and Susan were kind enough to take a few minutes to sit down with us. The chocolates are named for their daughter, Kathryn Taylor, who already helps out and has come to love the family business even though she’s just a teenager.
The bonbons are all handcrafted and topped with beautiful hand-painted geometric or floral motif tiles. The collection changes seasonally and local ingredients are sourced.
As we visited in late summer, we tasted lavender, douglas fir, blackberry and Vinsanto. They’re so beautifully crafted, you almost feel guilty biting in to the bonbon. Almost. Any guilt dissipates with the first bite.
We recommend them all. Luckily, they sell a 12-piece assortment that includes one of each flavor from their seasonal collections. The only problem is that the box of bonbons might not survive the ferry ride back to Anacortes.
Know Before You Go
There’s also seaplane flights to Friday Harbor and Orcas Island on Kenmore Air.
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