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The San Juan Islands

Go island-hopping—and keep an eye out for orcas

In the northwest corner of Washington State, the waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca mingle, forming the Salish Sea, home to the forested, rock-faced San Juan Islands, whose landscapes range from tightly folded mountain peaks to rolling moors and farmland. Although the San Juan archipelago contains more than 750 islands scattered across 10,000 square miles of Pacific waters, only 170 are named, only about 40 are inhabited and only four are served by Washington State Ferries.

Despite their proximity to Seattle, the islands have significantly better weather (due to the Olympic Mountains’ rain shadow) and have remained relatively undeveloped, retaining their bucolic charm. Three have plentiful resorts and facilities, and each has its own distinct character. Lopez is the most rural, with fields and pastures stretching across its central plateau. With few hills and friendly drivers—it’s one of those places where everyone waves hello to one another—Lopez is a great island to explore on two wheels.

Many consider Orcas Island the most beautiful. It is the rockiest and most mountainous, nearly divided into halves by the intruding waters of East Sound. From the top of 2,409-foot Mount Constitution in rugged Moran State Park, the views stretch from Mount Rainier in the south to Mount Baker and north to Vancouver in British Columbia. Relish the view from the waterside deck at Christina’s, the most sophisticated dining room in the San Juans, with creative Northwest cuisine. Stay at the historic Rosario Resort and Spa, whose centrepiece is the 1906 waterfront mansion built by a one-time Seattle mayor, or spend the night in a yurt and sun yourself au naturel on the private, clothing-optional beaches of Doe Bay Village Resort.

If your sweet spot is somewhere in between, Turtleback Farm Inn strikes the balance between refinement and rural charm. The inn is a working farm set on 80 acres of meadows, woods and duck ponds, with lodging in both the beautifully restored green clapboard farmhouse, dating back to the late 19th century, and in the new Orchard House, which overlooks apple trees and the crest of Mount Wollard. Your fondest memory may be of breakfast, thanks to prizewinning dishes that are featured regularly in food magazines.

San Juan Island is the largest of the islands, the most distant from the mainland, and the only one boasting an incorporated town, Friday Harbor. A bustling port, with ferries, sailboats and cruisers toing and froing, it’s also the centre for kayak trips—the San Juans are noted worldwide for excellent sea kayaking—and for whale-watching. Three resident pods of orcas, one of the highest concentrations anywhere, call these chilly waters home—Free Willy was filmed in the San Juans—as do seals and porpoises. Learn more about the San Juan marine ecosystem at the Whale Museum, a unique facility that helps support local whale research. Friday Harbor’s nicest spot for a memorable getaway is Friday Harbor House, a contemporary boutique hotel with spacious, art-filled rooms, sweeping views of the marina and an excellent dining room with—naturally enough—a menu focused on seafood.

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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