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San Juan Island: Washington State's island destination

Passengers lean against the ferry rail and revel in the crisp air and sunny skies, as sailboats glide on the deep blue Salish Sea. The ferryboat is on a journey to the beautiful San Juan Islands in Washington State's picturesque archipelago.

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Nestled between the cities of Seattle, Vancouver B.C. and Victoria B.C., the San Juan Islands consist of 172 named islands. Just three of the islands, Orcas, Lopez and San Juan, offer accommodations, attractions and services for visitors. However, these three islands are home to amazing biological diversity with cedar forests, wetlands, marine life, migratory birds and watchable wildlife. And, with outdoor attractions from biking and hiking to kayaking and birding, the San Juans are a magnificent Pacific Northwest paradise.

If you have time to see only one of the islands and wish a larger choice of accommodations, restaurants, shops and services, San Juan Island is your best option. Most of the shops and restaurants, as well as the ferry terminal, seaplane landing and airport are situated in the incorporated town of Friday Harbor, located on the east side of the island. The town is easily walkable and the harbor setting is lovely, especially at sunrise and sunset.

Shop Friday Harbor on the island of San Juan

While in Friday Harbor, take a stroll up Spring Street and peruse the multitude of fabulous boutiques, art galleries and shops, such as the Gourmet Gallery. Foodies should be prepared for an adventure in international specialty items, kitchen cookware and accoutrements. Every square inch of this marvelous shop is filled with alluring foods, aromatic spices, superb teas, coffees and chocolates from various countries. Once you've stocked your grocery bag, walk two doors up on the same side of the street to the San Juan Vineyards Piano and Wine Bar. This below-street level, wine barrel motif tasting room is a comfy place to relax and taste the vineyard's award-winning wines. Try the Pinot Noir 2009 - very fruity, nicely dry with a great bouquet; it won a silver medal in the Seattle Wine Awards for 2012. Or, visit the San Juan Vineyards (they grow several varieties of wine grapes on the island), located three miles north of Friday Harbor on Roche Harbor Road.

Do you like to browse antique stores? Head to Funk and Junk, located on Nichols Street. Don't let the name mislead you; this is one of the best antique shops in the northwest! From its humble, rustic exterior, this shop looks like they would only sell stuff fit for a rural barnyard. But, look inside and cast your eyes on the lovely vintage instruments, captivating estate jewelry, Native American art, Sterling Hollowware, coveted artwork and much, much more. If, however, you need something really funky, say a snarling squirrel to spiff your office desk or a suit of armor for your next joust, Funk and Junk has you covered.

Lavender's use in cosmetics, perfume, sachets and aromatherapy is well-known but there are many more applications for this aromatic flowering plant, such as easing nasal congestion (when brewed as tea) and as an affective cleaner. Pelindaba Lavender, located on First Street, grows their organic lavender right on San Juan Island. Their Friday Harbor shop is a purple haven of products that range from heavenly scented lotions, oils and bath salts to culinary lavender and skin toner. If you happen to be visiting the island during the summer months, visit Pelindaba's farm, located a few miles west of Friday Harbor. A stroll through the vast fields of purple flowers is a tranquil way to spend an afternoon and is perfect for photography.

Pig War and More History

San Juan Island's history is intriguing, from the 1859 Pig War between the United States and the British Empire, to rural life a century ago on this isolated island. The San Juan Historical Museum, located on Price Street, provides a fascinating glimpse into the early town of Friday Harbor through exhibits and living history. The museum's complex consists of numerous historical buildings, such as the first county jail, an 1890's log cabin, barn, carriage house, root cellar and a milk house. In addition, there is also a resource center and gift shop, as well as activities scheduled throughout the year.

Each year, about 85 Orca Whales make their home in the San Juans. Visitors come from across the globe to watch these majestic mammals from boats and on shore, during the months of May through September. If you are interested in whales and whale watching, visit the famous Whale Museum, located on First Street in Friday Harbor. The two-story museum educates about whale-watching guidelines and the island's resident whales with in-depth exhibits, programs, lectures and guided museum tours.

Exploring the Island by Moped, Kayak, Hiking, and Biking

While visiting San Juan Island, you may want to leave your car parked at your hotel, or even at home and use an alternative method of exploring the island. Drop by Susie's mopeds, located on Nichols Street and take a look at the fun and easy-to-drive three-wheeled Scootcoup. These little red gas-powered coups hold two people and are similar in their controls to a moped; it even has a small trunk to pack a lunch or camera gear. The coups are a blast to run about the island sightseeing; during the warmer months, you will see visitors driving them all over the island. If you prefer to rent a moped, electric bike or to rent a car, Susie's offers an excellent selection.

If you enjoy kayaking, San Juan Island is a perfect destination. Small bays are located all over the island and are suited to avid kayakers. A popular launch site for kayaking is San Juan County Park, located on the west side of the island (day fee for launch). Many kayakers like to whale watch from this area but make sure you learn the important guidelines for kayaking with the whales. You must stay 200 yards away and out of the whales' path! If you go, please read the guidelines in the following link,

For beginner kayakers, both Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor are excellent sites to hone your skills. Moreover, if you wish guided kayak and whale tours in Friday Harbor visit Crystal Seas Kayaking. For Roche Harbor, visit San Juan Outfitters

There are many wonderful hiking and biking trails to explore around the island. From Roche Harbor, to the picturesque shores of Limekiln State Park, the trails offer varied landscapes and diverse vegetation and wildlife to experience, such as red fox, migratory birds, whales, sea lions, seals, porpoises and of course, abundant deer. For comprehensive trail maps of the island, visit San Juan Island Trails

Roche Harbor: Beyond Friday Harbor

Roche Harbor is located on the north side of the island and is an historic resort and village with a lovely marina. The resort's main attraction is the famous Hotel de Haro. The hotel was originally built in 1887 as a log bunkhouse and then remodeled to provide 20 guest rooms for John S. McMillin, who founded the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company. The hotel has seen many famous guests, such as actor John Wayne. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the hotel in room 2A; he later returned for a second visit in 1907. Today, the white Victorian hotel looks much as it did a century ago, as there have been no major renovations to mar the design and charm of this period building. In addition, there is an excellent self-guided walking tour of historic Roche Harbor that includes the hotel; make sure to ask for the walking guide booklet when you visit. If you prefer more modern accommodations, the resort offers a variety of hotels and cottages to suit almost any guest.

The Roche Harbor Village offers several interesting shops to peruse, a sumptuous spa and several restaurants. In fact, one of the best spots to sit, relax and enjoy a meal is the Madrona Grill outdoor patio, located in front of the marina. Watch the kayakers out in the harbor, as you sip a cool berry-mint mojito and dine on delicious hand-battered fish and chips.

San Juan is truly a beautiful Island and there are changing views at every corner of the road. Take the time to drive around the island's entirety to experience the bucolic quality that draws visitors year after year to this enchanted paradise.

The Island Inn 123 West

One of the newest and best luxury places to stay on the island is The Island Inn 123 West, located on Front Street, just a few steps from the ferry terminal. This superb Silver Leed Certified inn has done a fantastic job of creating chic, modern architecture and comfortable rooms. Their soft microfiber sheets and organic waffle weave towels are even recyclable. Aside from the inn's laudable emphasis on eco ethos, their open-air decks, Sweets (suites), Euros (solo suites) and penthouses are exquisite! The Sweets, Euros and Penthouses feature a light and airy minimalist design, yet they are highly functional and possess everything you desire to be comfortable. The amenities are excellent as well, from the Malin and Goetz soaps and shampoos, to the custom roasted island coffee; every aspect of the room appointments is scrupulous in detail.

The Island Inn 123 West has had an auspicious opening and was voted the BEST Luxury Hotel in the Pacific Northwest in Evening Magazine's annual BEST Northwest Escapes contest. The Inn has been named Best of the San Juans and has received the prestigious TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in its first year of operation as well.

Getting to San Juan Islands

There are numerous ways of getting to San Juan Island. Take the ferry from Anacortes Washington, arrive by boat, fly from Lake Union by seaplane, fly from Seattle SeaTac Airport, or take the Victoria Clipper during the summer months. For additional information on getting to the island, attractions and activities, visit

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Patrice Rapleeis an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel and is a regular guest on Travel radio talk shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure. Photos courtesy of Patrice Raplee.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016
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