I’m going to go on record, right now, and say that 48 hours is, most definitely, not enough time to experience San Juan Island. If you can, plan on staying a week – or more.
But if you only have two days to visit this namesake of Puget Sound’s magical archipelago, here are eight things you can look forward to. And don’t forget to book a return trip that allows you to truly savor all that this oasis offers.
# 1. The Ferry Ride
The gentle rocking of the boat. The hum of the engine. The magnificent vistas of forested islands and graceful sail boats. The shimmering blue water. It all adds up to a transformative experience. By the time you make it to Friday Harbor (the port – and only – village on San Juan Island) you have pretty much made the transition from Bad-Word-Seattle-Traffic-Mindset to …
# 2. Island Time
It’s what the locals (and most anybody, anywhere, living on an island) call the laid back tempo of life here. Urban Dictionary, the online emporium of bizarre definitions, gives this colorful example: Q: “What did you do today?” A: “Well after my second nap, I sat around, looked out the window and had a cocktail. I am on island time.”
Honestly, the ferry ride and the zeitgeist of Island Time is enough for me to want to spend a week (or a lifetime!) here. But there’s much more.
# 3. The Harbor Front
The ferry will, conveniently, deposit you in the center of Friday Harbor’s delightful harbor front where you should hang out for a bit while your body adjusts to Island Time. There are numerous benches and tables available for loitering. Find a spot to sit, gaze, breathe. Repeat as needed.
When the queue for the Friday Harbor Ice Cream Company becomes reasonable – hop in line (cash only!). Then head back to your bench oasis, double scoop cone in hand, for more people-watching and lollygagging. Heavenly!
# 4. Taking in the Beauty of the Island
The ferry ride over is replete with beautiful views of San Juan and myriad other islands. But you’ll want to explore the island and see its natural treasures as well.
Biking is very popular – and will get you everywhere you want to go, with a bit of elbow grease. There’s also the Friday Harbor Jolly Trolley which circles the small island and offers a “hop on, hop off” fare of $20 for a full day.
My husband and I opted for a car, tooling around the island, taking in bucolic vistas and the absence of certain mainland attractions: No strip malls! No chain restaurants! No ticky tacky subdivisions! We commented on the whimsically named streets – Misty Isle Drive, Lonesome Cove Lane, Starlight Way, Sunrise Ridge Road. Everything about the island seems geared to help you unwind and be in the moment.
# 5. Whale Watching
I highly recommend scheduling a whale watch tour while visiting, although I didn’t have time to do so on this trip. But 20 years ago – with two grade school boys in tow – my husband and I went out with about a dozen other folks on a clear day in June. We hit the jackpot, finding the “superpod” (all three pods of the San Juan’s resident orcas together). It was nothing short of a magical experience. Do it!
If you decide to schedule a whale watching tour, consider a stop at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor for a thorough background on the whales that you might encounter.
If a whale watch boating experience isn’t in the cards, take time to visit Lime Kiln Point State Park. There have been so many whale sightings at this location that it’s been dubbed Whale Watch Park.
# 6. History
With all that nature has to offer here, one would not expect to obtain a history lesson as well. But the island has some fascinating stories to tell. Check out the San Juan Historical Museum in Friday Harbor for a thorough look at the island’s past.
You should also visit the English and American Camps of the San Juan Island National Historical Park to learn about the Pig War of 1859. Here’s what happened in a nutshell: Both American and English settlers lived on the island in 1859 when an American farmer shot an English (!) pig that was rooting around in his potato patch. The two nations were on the brink of war over this incident.
But cooler heads prevailed. The islands were under joint military (but peaceful) occupation until 1872 when they were awarded to America. The only casualty was that pig. (Cool frugal note here: Both parks offer free admission. A living history weekend each July is also absolutely free.)
# 7. Activities Abound
You will not want for things to do on San Juan Island. Here’s a partial list of activities that you can take enjoy on the island: biking, kayaking, sailing, fishing, paddleboards, golf, horseback riding, scooters and mopeds, and even ziplines.
# 8. Island Art
Islands and art go together like, er, gin and tonic. So it is with San Juan Island.
Along with an art museum, there are several galleries and art studios in Friday Harbor and around the island. If you’re visiting in June, make sure you check out the self-guided Artists’ Studio Tour. The town’s Farmers Market (every Saturday through October) has a healthy number of artist booths as well.
There’s also a sculpture park near Roche Harbor with more than 150 creations. A fun spot for art appreciation and a picnic.
I’m sure that there is much more that I’ve missed. And I’ve covered but one of the three major islands that make up the San Juans. Orcas and Lopez islands await exploration in the near future.
If You Go:
During our San Juan Island vacations, we’ve stayed everywhere from San Juan County Park to luxurious Roche Harbor. For a frugal and unique experience, consider Juniper Lane Guest House. Rates at this quaint and adorable five-room inn start at $70 during the off-season, $90 during the busy summer months.
Visit the official travel site for the San Juan Islands for more information.
Marie Sherlock is an award-winning, Portland-based travel writer. Follow her on twitter @SherlockTravels.