If you live around Seattle, chances are you’re well aware of the San Juan Islands. If you’re not or live elsewhere, it’s a collection of islands off the Washington coast, north of Seattle and south of Vancouver, Canada.
There are mountains, state parks, whales, yachts, bald eagles, farms, ferns, oysters, orchards, honor-system farm stands, and evergreens as far as the eye can see. And did I mention whales?
An out-of-town friend recently saw my posts about it on Facebook and requested I feature some travel tips for families. And so …
Know before you go
Getting there is the worst part, even from Seattle. Like everyone else, you’ll likely want to go when the weather is warm, in which case, the Anacortes ferries (your best bet) are sporadic and very crowded. Timewise, it’ll reqiure a 2-hour drive from Seattle (in the summer, including traffic), 2 hours of waiting in line for a ferry, and 50-90 minutes on the ferry itself. In case math isn’t your strong suit, that’s at least 5 hours by land and by sea.
Keep in mind, this assumes you’re bringing your car on the ferry ($60 round trip), but if you walk or bike on it will be cheaper, and you won’t have that brutal car wait of 2 hours or more.
Getting there from the Seattle area
Although a quick Friday-to-Monday trip is doable, I’m assuming someone in your bunch will want to squeeze in a half day of work on Friday (they usually do), and that’s a lot of travel for only one full day on the islands. If it’s your first trip out, I’d say that’s not enough time to get the full experience. Plan to either leave Friday morning or return Monday … or better yet both.
Of course, there’s always the even more picturesque option of taking a sea plane from Lake Union, but it’s more expensive (about $300 round trip per person), and then you won’t have a car once you get to the island.
There’s also the Victoria Clipper option during the summer months, but you can only walk or bike on (not drive), and it only goes to Friday Harbor on the island of San Juan. Who knows though? Maybe that’s all you need, in which case, it’s a great option.
Getting there from elsewhere
If you’re flying in from out of town, you can:
- Bookend your trip with nights in Seattle. Then choose one of the options listed above.
- Get a puddle jumper flight to the islands from Boeing Field. There’s a free shuttle from SeaTac Airport.
- Take a cab or the light rail to the Seattle waterfront downtown, and then take the Victoria Clipper. This one only works if you (a) aren’t hauling too much stuff, (b) are cool with not having a car while you’re on the island, and (c) are going to the island of San Juan.
If you don’t want to fly, apparently Amtrak provides a shuttle to the Anacortes ferry terminal from their Mount Vernon and Bellingham stops. That sounds like a lot of travel to me, but maybe you’re cool with that. In which case, you have that option as well.
Getting around on the island
Some islands are more populated than others. Orcas, Lopez, Shaw, and San Juan all offer well-maintained roads for those who want to drive or bike. Orcas and San Juan have the option of cabs and water taxis, too (less so on Lopez or Shaw). You can also rent kayaks to literally get “around” the islands.
Where to stay
Part of the great of allure of the San Juan islands is their remoteness and the quiet feeling of community you get while you’re there. In my opinion, the best way to experience this is to head out of the quaint village centers and rent a house as your “home” during your stay. Check VRBO for an expansive list of options. Of course, there are plenty of cute little hotels and B&Bs, too, which would be understandably convenient if you’re not bringing a car. Camping is an option as well.
For more info, check out the lodgings page on the Visitor’s Bureau site.
What to do
Whale watching, obviously, should be high on your list. Just be careful which company you pick for the excursion. Some are more respectful of the whales and the environment, and we should support those that are.
The island farmers’ markets are fantastic, too. You can mingle with the locals and pick up incredible artisan foods and crafts. The island parks often have great hikes and great views, particularly Moran on Orcas.
Check the islands’ event calendars for local festivals, too. I happened to catch a mead tasting in May that was phenomenal.
Ideally, pick a thing or two you want to do, but be open to going where the island takes you—whether it be an oyster farm, an alpaca pasture, a sculpture park, a mom-and-pop distillery, or any one of the many untold treasures dotting the fields, coasts, and harbors of these alluring isles.
If you have more questions, feel free to ask, and I’ll do my best to answer.
If you have your own recommendations to add, by all means, leave your note in the comments!