San Juans offer scenery, shopping and outdoor fun

  • Fri Jul 27th, 2012 4:41pm
  • Life

Stories and photos by Andy Rathbun Herald Writer

It’s our archipelago — but it wasn’t always.

Named after St. John the Baptist, the San Juan Islands were first discovered by the Spanish in 1791, the year the founding fathers ratified the Bill of Rights and months before British Capt. George Vancouver started sticking names everywhere in the Northwest.

In time, we Americans crept west, but, awkwardly, the British hadn’t left. The islands waved both the Union Jack and Old Glory during a decadeslong dispute. It wasn’t until 1872 that the emperor of Germany stepped in and, as a neutral party, drew a line in the water, giving them to us for good.

So what did we get? Roughly 400 little emeralds spread across the rolling gray-blue blanket of the Salish Sea.

There are far too many to visit — 172 named islands and reefs alone — so instead, here, we look at four of the brightest gems.

Sucia Island

Ferry accessible? No

Docks available? Yes

Camping or shopping? Camping

Home to Sucia Island State Park, this island is one of the San Juan’s most popular sites, deemed the “crown jewel” of Washington’s marine park system by the state itself.

Why? For one thing, the island’s boomerang shape provides a sheltered harbor. From above, the island looks like a giant alligator with its mouth open. Anchoring a boat inside its jaws provides a scenic shelter, where boaters can view squat sandstone cliffs that have been carved into round, twisted shapes by wind and water.

If anchoring sounds too risky, you can dock at Fossil Bay, near a rocky beach. Lucky visitors may even find a fossil, although you’re not allowed to take those with you.

Stuart Island

Ferry accessible? No

Docks available? Yes

Camping or shopping? Camping

Sometimes even a boater needs to take a walk.

Stuart Island, also in the state’s marine park system, boasts a six-mile round-trip hike from its two harbors, Reid and Prevost, to its lighthouse. Along the way, you pass by an old school, an island museum and a T-shirt stand that operates on the honor system: Take a shirt, leave money behind.

If you’re not the hiking type, the harbors offer diverting beaches, scenic campsites and communal grills.

San Juan Island

Ferry accessible? Yes

Docks available? Yes

Camping or shopping? Shopping

San Juan Island claims two of the archipelago’s most developed spots: Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor.

The two towns are connected by a 10-mile road that can be part of the fun. Boaters docked in Roche Harbor, for instance, can rent a moped and shoot across the island to shop in Friday Harbor, the larger of the towns.

If shopping isn’t your thing, you can lounge in Roche Harbor. There, a short walk from the dock will take you to the Afterglow Vista Mausoleum, an eerie memorial built in the woods by one of the city’s early moneyed families, the McMillins.

Too grim? Then wander through the Hotel de Haro’s finely manicured garden before visiting the Lime Kiln Cafe.

On a busy day, the eatery turns out 3,000 old-fashioned cake doughnuts. Claim a dozen for your crew and watch the boats come in.

Orcas Island

Ferry accessible? Yes

Docks available? Yes

Camping or shopping? Shopping

Not surprising, the archipelago’s biggest island offers the most diverse activities: long hikes, plenty of shopping and leisurely waterfront strolls.

If you plan to dock, try Deer Harbor, a sleepy spot with a dockside art gallery. The harbor is a jumping off point for the rest of the island thanks to San Juan Island Transit, which operates Fridays through Mondays, or the Orcas Island Shuttle, a rental car service.

Among the must-see spots: the fire lookout and observation tower on top of Mount Constitution, the island’s highest peak. Built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the tower is a 52-foot-high stone behemoth.

Or, if that sounds like too much history, visit the small hamlet of Olga, known for its tiny cafes and quaint boutiques.

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3479: