A serene sojourn on San Juan Island
I sat motionless in my kayak, quietly gazing at the subdued land and seascape. The sky was grey, the water was flat, the wind was absent. Heaven.
The heavy skies and occasional drizzle didn’t bother me. It was all just part of the moody ambience of the Pacific Northwest.
I was midway through a three-day visit to San Juan Island in Washington State. The San Juan Islands — which include San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Islands, among others — are an archipelago just an hour and half drive plus an hour’s ferry ride from Seattle.
There are few destinations where getting there is part of the attraction. You drive onto the ferry, leave your car, walk up to one of the decks and plop down on a plush banquette to watch the scenery glide by as the ferry wends its way among tree-covered islands to your destination.
If you are particularly hardy, you can stand on a wind-swept outer deck, immersed in the slowly changing scenery flowing through your field of vision, fully experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the San Juan Islands.
My wife, Katherine, and I were traveling with another couple, long-time friends from Oregon. The cloudy, drizzly weather wasn’t anything new for them, but for Southern Californians like us, it took a bit of getting used to.
The weather was unseasonal for early May, when the climate begins shifting toward the warmer, sunnier weather of summer. As several locals lamented, “We’re getting April weather in May.”
No matter. The muffled hush encouraged me to take it easy. Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza didn’t have to shout “Serenity now!” for me to get into the appropriate mood.
Whale watching and sightseeing
The two-hour kayak tour, conducted by San Juan Islands Outfitters (sanjuanislandoutfitters.com), was the highlight of the trip for me.
My second favorite experience was a morning visit to Lime Kiln Point State Park (parks.state.wa.us/540/Lime-Kiln-Point), also known as Whale Watch Park.
Located on the western shore of the island, the park overlooks Haro Strait, which runs between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island and serves as a highway for whales commuting between the Gulf of Alaska and the Baja Peninsula. It must have been a whale holiday since we didn’t see anyone commuting, but the scenery was well worth the visit.
With its 180-degree-plus view, it was great place to just sit and gaze across the water to Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, whales or not. Aside from the sounds of the waves lapping on shore and the occasional murmur from other whale watchers, it was quiet and peaceful.
I think views across water to distant lands are especially comforting to what remains of our primeval minds, offering as they do the promise of new lands and a new life.
The Pacific Northwest is also known for its fresh seafood, vegetables and fruit — especially berries, my favorite. I indulged as often as possible, most notably at Downriggers restaurant (downriggerssanjuan.com) in Friday Harbor, the only town on the island.
On two visits to the restaurant, I ate mussels, clams, oysters, salmon, and their outrageously excellent mixed berry crisp with vanilla ice cream — twice.
Two other notable places to eat were the Limekiln Café and the Madrona Bar and Grill (rocheharbor.com/dining) in historic Roche Harbor — a resort and residential development on the water at the opposite end of the island from Friday Harbor, less than a 10-mile drive away.
There I was able to supplement my culinary tour of the best of the Pacific Northwest with clam chowder, fish and chips, and more steamed mussels and clams.
Perhaps the most surprising culinary highlights were served at our bed and breakfast, the Inn to the Woods (inntothewoods.com), a charming, rustic inn tucked, as you might guess from its Broadway-inspired name, back in the woods.
The breakfasts were excellent, including such delights as Dutch baby pancakes with chicken sausage, lemon blueberry pancakes, and quiche.
We also visited a used bookstore bursting at the seams with books of all kinds and genres, a beautifully landscaped sculpture park near Roche Harbor (sjisculpturepark.com), an excellent whale museum (whalemuseum.org), and the San Juan Island Brewery, with a wide selection of locally-brewed craft beers and ales (sanjuanbrew.com).
All of these attractions are embedded in a countryside of lush green fields, tall forests and crystal-clear ponds and lakes surrounded on all sides by a great expanse of water.
Weather or not
Despite — or perhaps because of — the unseasonable weather, by the time we left the island, I was as relaxed as I’d been in months.
If you insist on sunny, warm weather for your vacations, come in late spring or summer, but expect crowds, traffic and hard-to-get reservations.
However, if you are like me and need every now and then to head to someplace moody and quiet to slow down and think, San Juan Island is for you.
It’s also the perfect place to not think at all. You can do little more than paddle leisurely through a hushed seascape, browse languorously through musty, dog-eared books, and indulge your yearnings for steamed bivalves and mixed berry crisp with vanilla ice cream.
For more information, see the website of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, which hosted the author’s trip, at visitsanjuans.com. To read more stories from Don, go to adventuretransformations.com and click on “Articles.”