With a mix of outdoor fun, cultural activities and plenty of laid-back island charm, Washington’s San Juan Island makes a perfect West Coast weekend escape. Located midway between Seattle and Vancouver, this 55-square-mile island is prime territory for whale watching — you can often spot orcas just offshore — while art lovers will be excited to encounter both a notable modern art museum and a unique outdoor sculpture park. We’ve rounded up our favorite things to see and do on a short San Juan Island holiday, so book your ferry reservation and head offshore.
From Anacortes, Washington, 90 miles north of Seattle, catch a morning ferry to San Juan Island. It’s just over an hour’s cruise to Friday Harbor, the island’s main town.
When you get off the ferry, park your car and take a walk around the harbor. Browse in the local art galleries, including WaterWorks Gallery, which shows contemporary art, sculpture and jewelry; the Arctic Raven Gallery, where carvings, sculptures and other pieces by Arctic and Northwest Coast Native artists are on display; and the Island Studios Art Gallery, where you can check out pieces from other creative locals.
When you want a break, stop into Café Demeter, a popular bakery in a cozy cottage, for coffee, a sweet or savory pastry, or a slice of pie.
Your next stop is the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, in a modern glass-walled building that opened in 2015. Through April 11, the gallery is showing Ai Weiwei: Fault Line, works by the Chinese dissident artist about the devastating 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. Next up, Fragile Waters (April 23 to September 5, 2016) will feature images by photographers and environmentalists Ansel Adams, Ernest H. Brooks II and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly.
After perusing the photos and paintings, it’ll be time to go exploring. Drive north out of Friday Harbor to the island’s only winery San Juan Vineyards, and hit up the tasting room set in an 1895 schoolhouse.
Continue to Roche Harbor at the northern tip of the island for another unique art experience. The San Juan Islands Sculpture Park showcases more than 150 works of Pacific Northwest artists. Some pieces are set in the gardens, while others are in the forest; you can follow any of the five walking trails around the 20-acre grounds.
When you finish there, it’ll be time to check into your lodgings and relax before dinner. Our favorite place to stay on San Juan Island is in a cozy modern cabin at Snug Harbor Resort, a collection of 17 cottages and three suites overlooking the waterfront at Mitchell Bay. All the pine-paneled units, newly built over the past few years, have either one or two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen with granite countertops and cherry cabinets, and creature comforts that include flat-screen TVs, gas fireplaces and complimentary Wi-Fi. Once you’ve settled, go for a leisurely paddle around the bay in one of the resort’s kayaks, or simply relax on the grounds overlooking the shore.
Starting April 21, you’ll be able to book a table at Duck Soup Inn, a rustic restaurant in the woods on the island’s northeast side that offers a surprisingly upscale dining experience. From a menu rich with foraged ingredients and regional products, you might choose locally raised pork paired with nettle dumplings, roasted duck confit with lingonberries or pan-seared halibut with smoked beets and sea lettuce crisps.
Have your coffee and a light breakfast at Snug Harbor’s Mitchell Bay Coffee, the resort’s small café that overlooks the waterfront.
Once you finish your hot cocoa, head off on a whale-watching tour. Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching has boats departing directly from the resort’s marina to scout for orcas, humpbacks, minke and gray whales; you’ll often spot porpoises, seals, sea lions and numerous birds as well. If you’d rather combine whale watching with a sailing adventure, book a cruise with All Aboard Sailing, which sets sail from Friday Harbor on a 42-foot sloop.
You can often see whales directly from shore, too. On the island’s west side, a short drive from Snug Harbor Resort, Lime Kiln Point State Park is known locally as “whale watch park” for its frequent orca sightings. While whale season runs between May and September, you’ll have the best chance of spotting whales here in June and July. Hike through the woods and along the shoreline to the 1919 lighthouse, a scenic photo-opp site out on a rocky point.
You have time for one more meal before catching the ferry, so join the locals in Friday Harbor at casual Market Chef. The freshly made sandwiches, soups and salads feature ingredients from local farms, and a seat on the patio gives you views of the waterfront. Buy an extra cookie or two to snack on aboard the ferry back to the mainland.
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