Part of my recent trip to Seattle included two nights and a day and a half San Juan Island, one of the islands about halfway between Vancouver and Seattle, and once were part of the disputed Great Britain/United States border. I had been told that the islands were so beautiful that they were a MUST-DO during my trip to Seattle.
The islands are part of a chain that includes San Juan Island (the biggest and with the largest population), Orcas Island, Lopez Island and more. I figured it made sense just to see one island this time around since we were only in Seattle for a week, and booked a cabin right in the middle of San Juan Island.
The islands are only accessible by ferry or plane. To get to the island, we drove about two hours from Seattle to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal. I had reserved a space for our rental car in advance, to guarantee a spot. We arrived early, and then found out the ferry was arriving about 30 minutes late. This gave us time to explore a serene walking path right by the parking lot, where we saw crab, birds, and little bugs as well as tall beach grasses and fragrant flowers.
If you are planning a trip, I suggest also reserving a spot in advance, especially if you have a vehicle and arrive an early to get in line. The staff at the booth will collect your fare and then direct you to a specific lane in the parking lot. This guarantees that load in and load out of vehicles on the ferry is smooth. Pack a little bag with an extra layer, snacks, water and some entertainment such as a book or cards for the ferry ride so you can grab it and go once you park on the vessel.
The ferry ride takes about an hour and was probably one of the highlights of the trip. Floating through the calm waters to get to the harbor was picturesque and there was something interesting to see at every turn (a small house on top of a mountain looking over the water! a bay with swimmers and boats docked! a gorgeous mountain range in the distance!) The ferry also had a cafe with a good selection of pre-packaged and hot fast foods to choose from, but we munched on some goodies from Trader Joe’s.
We drove off the ferry easily and went right to our cabin. While internet can be spotty on the island between the two of us, someone had service. We were still a bit jet lagged so we ate some of the groceries and went to sleep.
The next morning, I realized I hadn’t planned anything, and we had the whole day ahead of us. I quickly searched online and found a blog that seemed to be written for us: 7 Sensational Things to do on San Juan Island! We then decided to follow the itinerary as much as possible so we colud see everthing.
Pelindaba Lavender Farm
We ate breakfast in the cabin, and then made our way to the nearby Pelindaba Lavender Farm to arrive when it opened. Nestled off the road across from a serene lake, the lavender farm has a few acres of fragrant plants with a few metal sculptures. There is also a visitor’s center and gift shop. The staff was very knowledgeable and showed us the outdoor area where you can learn about the harvesting and processing of lavender.
Next stop was American Camp, part of San Juan Island National Historical Park. We chatted with the Parks guard at the visitor’s center, and watched a video which explained why and how there was a dispute over borders between the territory of the United States and Great Britain. Both countries set up camps on either side of the island until ‘ownership’ of the island was decided. While American Camp had beautiful water views, life there was rough and full of boring routine. A few buildings still remain and there are plenty of walking trails to get to the water.
Friday Harbor Lunch
After our exciting morning, we were hungry so went into town for food. As the staff at the lavender farm told us, there were restaurants only at Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor, otherwise you’d have to fend for yourself. We chose Hermosa Mexican Restaurant, which opened on the island earlier this year, and were pleasantly surprised – I got the vegetable quesadilla and my husband got the tamales. I was only able to eat half of the massive quesadilla so saved half for later.
After a rest break at our cabin, we headed to the north part of the island. After hearing at American Camp how fun life was at English Camp, we drove up to the northwest part of the island to see what all the fuss was about. The visitor center was opening for the season later that month, so we parked and walked directly down the path to the camp. There were a few buildings still standing but apparently a lot of the structures had been taken apart for use in a farm. We walked along some of the trails to sit on a small dock and take in the sights.
After leaving English Camp, we made a wrong turn and ended up passing by Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm. We popped in the gift shop but were more enamored by the adorable alpacas munching on the grass!
Roche Harbor Sculpture Park
We continued north to Roche Harbor, where we took a walk around the grounds of the Sculpture Park. Sculpture filled every corner of the park, which also had a few trails in the woods, marked with poetry on small signs. My favorite was the rejected sculpture area, where sculptures by artists whose work was not accepted to the park could stay in an enclosed area.
While I still had a few more places to check off on the itinerary, it was time for dinner and we headed to the northern Roche Harbor for dinner. We ate at Madrona Bar and Grill, where my husband got some ribs and fries, and I had a salad (and his fries).
Since the sun was going to set in a few short hours, I wanted to hit the road again to see some whales. On our drive to a park known for its sunsets and whale watching, we passed by some roadside sculptures, including a yellow submarine, and also a pineapple house accompanied by none other than a stuffed Spongebob Squarepants!
We also passed by San Juan County Park which arguably was the most beautiful park with gorgeous views over the water. Campers were getting settled in their tents for the night.
Lime Kiln Point State Park
Finally we arrived at the final destination of the evening – Lime Kiln Point State Park. This park is known for whale watching and orca sightings. We didn’t see any, and since we had been on the road for about 10 hours we decided to head back to the cabin before it got too dark. If we had more time and energy perhaps we would have hiked up to the Lime Kiln!
Having accomplished everything on the list (we even stopped by Duck Soup restaurant, which was supposed to be one of the best on the island, which wasn’t open for diners at that moment), we were proud and very tired.
The following day I had reserved for exploring Friday Harbor, the largest/only town on the island. We had some tasty treats and coffees at Cafe Demeter, but then were very underwhelmed by the dining options elsewhere in town. We didn’t want to shell out too much at the ‘fancier’ restaurants, and nothing else really struck our fancy nor met our dietary needs. Since we were overwhelmed from the prior day where we attempted to see everything on the island, we had little interest in checking out the museums. If we had spent a week there I think they would be worth a visit, since there are a handful:
After a disappointing lunch featuring the greasiest, most likely re-fried french fries and greasy cod at the Hungry Clam (do not recommend!), we opted to catch an earlier ferry. We still had a two hour drive back to Seattle.
Overall, while the itinerary was incredible and we definitely saw everything, we were so exhausted by the end of the day. If you only have one day on San Juan Island, I would suggest choosing 4 of the top things and spending more time at each one. Perhaps bring a picnic to American Camp or to Lime Kiln Point State Park and try one of the little hikes. Really enjoy the slow pace of island life and take in the sights.
Have you been to the San Juan Islands? What would be your must see sights?