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FRIDAY HARBOR — Before bed on the night I arrived in the San Juan Islands, I decided, as any reasonable person would, not to set an alarm clock.
The water. The shore trees. The floating home I had rented for three nights. They would conspire to wake me when seeing fit. This wild, peaceful corner of the United States would be my alarm clock.
Sure enough, as orange light sliced through the blinds the next morning, the alarm rang: the squawk of a seagull outside my loft bedroom.
As I stepped out into the marina the air was impossibly bright and clean, and I breathed it deeply as I strolled past bobbing boats with names like Just Right, Sea Hunter and Si Horse.
All was quiet. On the boat next to my floating home sat a woman who turned out to be my landlord.
Wendy Beckler told me about life on the islands.
She said that she and her husband, Rick Thompson, head to their camper deep in the island when they find a tenant for their housboat. The land is so densely tree filled, she said, you'd never know you're on an island.
"It's like you could be in America," Wendy said.
"Wait. This isn't America?" I asked, because surely it was. Canada sat a couple of miles across the water.
"No," she said and laughed her raspy laugh. "This is home."
I saw her point. The San Juan Islands don't quite feel quite like the America I had left behind. Life moves slowly, and people are friendly in the San Juans.
There are few, if any, chain stores. Most important, as a visitor, you're beholden to the ferries. Nothing happens without them.
Getting to the San Juans most often begins with a slow ride on one of those ferries from Anacortes.
The San Juans are comprised of 172 named islands, about 30 of which are inhabited. Four are served by the ferries.
I was headed for the two largest in the chain: Orcas and San Juan. I would be exploring both, but staying at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island for one simple reason: that floating home.
At 55 square miles, San Juan Island is small and manageable. I saw Douglas fir forest; lush, rolling fields that could be rural Kentucky; the windswept grassy plains of American Camp; rocky shores; the tony town of Roche Harbor; state and national parks; and a lavender farm bright purple in summer.
There are hiking, biking, kayaking and whale watching (in season), and quality restaurants.
On clear days, the handsome, solitary, snow-capped Mount Baker emerges on the mainland to the east.
The next morning I was back on a ferry, headed to Orcas Island, when I spotted Mount Rainier, another snowy behemoth, in the distance.
I spent much of the day hiking to the highest point in the islands, Mount Constitution, which winds through a wonderful forest of mossy rocks and trees to a 2,400-foot summit that offers island view and, in the hazy distance, Vancouver, B.C.
My reward was a stop at Island Hoppin', a brewery packed with more people in their 20s than I expected to find on such a quiet island. Then the crowd headed over to The Lower Tavern, a Friday night karaoke spot.
Heading back on the midnight ferry to San Juan Island, the water stretched like a shimmering black canvas.
On the horizon, a purple-orange haze glowed — lights, presumably, coming from America.
If you go
The most common route to the San Juan Islands is driving to the car ferry in Anacortes (wsdot.com/ferries). The ferry price for a car and driver from Anacortes to Friday Harbor starts at $35.15 and to Orcas $29.65. Flights also are available from Seattle via Kenmore Air (kenmoreair.com).
Floating accommodations include Wharfside Bed and Breakfast (360-378-5661, thewharfside.com); and Rick Thompson and Wendy Beckler's floating home (360-317-5188, tinyurl.com/fridayharborboat), on San Juan Island.
Several companies offer overnight sailing charters, including Schooner's North (360-378-2224, sanjuansailcharter.com) in Friday Harbor and Emerald Isle (360-376-3472, emeraldislesailing.com); and Kruger Escapes (360-298-1023,krugerescapes.com) on Orcas Island.
More on the San Juans
Other things to see and do on the San Juan Islands:
- The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor
- Bicycling on Lopez Island
- Wineries on San Juan and Lopez islands
- Guided kayak tours
- Pottery shops and art galleries
- Doe Bay Hot Springs on Orcas Island
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