Nov. 13, 2008 -- If you're looking to explore the best of the Pacific Northwest over a long weekend, check out the San Juan Islands, an off-the-beaten-path archipelago about an hour off the coast of Washington state.
Among the draws, the San Juan Islands boast more temperate and sunnier weather than most other places in the Pacific Northwest, though it can still be unpredictable, with rain showers one minute and sunshine the next. The peak season is May to October, but if you go in the off-season, you can find big discounts, especially on lodging.
Orcas Island, the largest of the four islands that make up the San Juans, has the most diverse geography and range of activities, from whale watching to hiking to golfing.
The island resembles a horseshoe and is divided into the west side, which is popular with boaters, and east side, home to the highest point on the San Juan Islands, 2,409-foot Mt. Constitution, located within Moran State Park.
The park is 5,252 acres of mostly forest with five freshwater lakes, a waterfall, 30 miles of hiking trails and plenty of campsites. The often-challenging hike up Mt. Constitution is worth the pain, not only for the incredible view from the top of the stone observation tower, but also for the journey through the quiet, lush forest.
Villages and hamlets dot the island, along with art and pottery galleries, restaurants and eclectic inns, B and Bs and resorts. The largest town, Eastsound, is the cultural hub of the island, with a performing arts center, first-run movie theater, a children's discovery center called the Funhouse, and a skate park.
Though a popular destination, Orcas Island has yet to develop into a major tourist mecca. With only about 5,000 year-round residents, the island has a decidedly mellow, neighborly vibe. It's not uncommon to see hitchhikers along the winding roads, as well as plenty of bikers. Biking on many of the main roads, where a car can suddenly materialize after a hairpin turn or the crest of a hill, is not for the faint of heart.
Eastern Orcas Island
Where to Stay:
Doe Bay Resort and Retreat: If you're ready to mellow out in hippie paradise, Doe Bay Resort and Retreat is the place for you. Doe Bay offers a range of accommodations for all budgets, from well-equipped three-bedroom cabins to rustic yurts -- a circular, one-room dwelling that's a step up from a tent but with no water or electricity.
The Sweet Spot yurt at Doe Bay. The yurt is a simple portable structure most often used by nomads in Central Asia. Photo by Kathryn Brady
You can join an early-morning yoga session and then make your way to the clothing-optional hot tub. There's a communal kitchen, reading room, bathrooms and fire pit, so there are plenty of opportunities to get to know your neighbors, if that's your thing. The Doe Bay Café, which gets most of its produce from the on-site organic garden, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as wine and beer.
This is the kind of place visitors return to again and again -– many weddings are performed on the bluff overlooking the bay, and the current owner, who bought the property in 2003 and has done a great deal of work getting the resort back into shape, used to visit with his family in the 1970s.
Buck Bay Inn and Lavender Fields: Though it offers more conventional bed and breakfast-type accommodations than Doe Bay, the Buck Bay Inn and Lavender Fields is another opportunity to free your inner nature child. For $5, you can grab a basket and a pair of scissors and gather bunches of lavender in the fields right outside the inn.
You can gather your own lavender at the Buck Bay Inn. Photo by Kathryn Brady
During the high season, Buck Bay's six guest rooms range in price from $159 to $109 a night, and less during winter months. Weddings and other events are popular here, so the rooms fill up fast, according to the affable owner Brick Barrick (no, he's not a former soap opera star.) For those experiencing withdrawal from the modern world, the inn has DirecTV and laptops for guests' use, along with wireless, high-speed Internet service.
Café Olga, located in the tiny hamlet of Olga, is about a mile and a half from Moran State Park. The restaurant, part of what was once a strawberry packing plant, is also small but worth the wait for a table. You'll pay reasonable prices for simple delicious food, much of it made with local ingredients. The fresh scallops and other seafood dishes are excellent, as well as their famous blackberry cobbler. The restaurant shares space with Orcas Island Artworks, which sells the work of 60 local artists and artisans, including pottery, jewelry, sculpture, prints and more.
The town of Eastsound is where you'll find most of the island's restaurants. Rose's comes highly recommended for an inexpensive lunch of stone-oven baked pizza or tasty soups. The restaurant is connected to a gourmet food shop and bakery.
Vern's Bayside is about the only place open later than 10 p.m. in Eastsound. Vern's hews closely to the classic seafarer theme, with ship steering wheels, oars and bronzed fish decorating the distressed wood-paneled dining room. Dinner was mediocre and rather overpriced, but the clam chowder was good. For desert, the waitress recommended a piece of chocolate cake that turned out to be nearly as big as a human head and ridiculously chocolatey.
The most interesting part of Vern's was the small barroom tucked away downstairs. The dimly-lit bar looked like it was filled with locals smoking cigarettes, drinking cheap beer and playing pinball. Compared to the rest of the island, it was like stepping into another world.
Find out more about Orcas Island and the other San Juan Islands at www.guidetosanjuans.com.