A few miles west of Anacortes, Washington sits a tiny archipelago hundreds of amazing artists call home. It’s a haven where world-class chefs opt out of the rat race to serve meals full of ingredients they grew themselves. It’s a retreat where you can wake up to the sound of spouting whales outside your window. It’s a global destination where gleaming yachts share moorage with painstakingly restored wooden sailboats that never leave Puget Sound. It’s one of the most magical places in the Northwest – and the world. It’s the San Juan Islands.

Travelers have been coming to the San Juan Islands to renew for generations. Today, the islands’ ability to rejuvenate is more potent than ever. A vital artistic community and scrumptious culinary scene nourish the mind and body, while stunning natural beauty restores the soul.

So put down those international plane tickets, because you won’t need them for this great escape. A world apart from the bustle of the mainland, the islands are easily accessible by ferry, plane, or private yacht. For a weekend getaway – or a full week’s respite – the San Juan Islands can’t be beat.

Need a little inspiration? Read on for itineraries, plans, and can’t-miss recommendations for great vacations on our two favorite islands: San Juan Island and Orcas Island. 


Unless you’re taking a private boat or a floatplane, you’ll need to take a ferry to get to the San Juan Islands. Fortunately, the journey itself is a joy. Board the ferry in Anacortes and rumble off over the Salish Sea’s special kind of slate blue water, and time slows to the barest crawl. Onboard, passengers are doing their part to place a few pieces in the community jigsaw puzzles, completed sailing by sailing. One table is tucking in to an enviable lunch of Ivar’s clam chowder from the galley, Saltines, and a fat bag of plump Rainier cherries purchased from one of the Skagit Valley’s many roadside fruit stands.

As the housing developments of Anacortes recede, pristine beaches, tiny uninhabited islands, and huge, bright blue skies shaded with wispy stratus clouds unroll ahead. Cell reception flickers once or twice, then drains away, taking any lingering remnants of stress along with it.


The ferry to San Juan Island docks in downtown Friday Harbor, lively with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutiques, and hundreds of yachts and sailboats docked at several marinas. It’s the closest thing the islands have to a bustle; residents of slower-paced Lopez and Orcas Islands call it “Sin City.”

After disembarking, I spend some time getting to know the galleries of downtown Friday Harbor. The islands punch way above their weight when it comes to the arts. Drawn by a slower pace of life, abundant natural beauty, and a strong sense of community, hundreds of artists, including many with an international following, call the San Juan Islands home. Island Studios, www.islandstudios.com on Spring Street represents dozens of artists, including super saturated jewel-toned watercolors by Kristy Gjesme, www.kristygjesme.com and nautical etchings and engravings from Howard Rosenfeld www.howardrosenfeld.com.

Around the corner, Arctic Raven Gallery, www.arcticravengalleryfridayharbor.com displays incredible carvings and paintings from Native American artists in a museum-like setting. And you can’t miss the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, www.sjima.org, just near the top of Spring Street. Inside the stunning contemporary exterior of this recently constructed museum, you’ll find exhibits from major international luminaries; when I visited, a full show of Ansel Adams photography was on display.

All those gorgeous landscape paintings whet my appetite for outdoor adventures, so I make my way to American Camp, www.nps.gov/sajh part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park commemorating the Pig War, a bloodless conflict that pitted American settlers against British occupied Canada.

I walk past the historic Officers’ Quarters and the Laundress’ modest workshop to a coastal prairie sloping to hidden coves and windswept promontories where bald eagles float in the updraft. If I had nothing else on the agenda, I could have happily spent the rest of the evening watching the sunset over the Olympics as sailboats drifted by.

Instead, it’s time for dinner at Roche Harbor Resort, www.rocheharbor.com a rollicking marina and resort on the island’s north end. A heady mix of competitive sailors, celebrity yachts, and blissed-out spa vacationers makes for some outstanding people watching, particularly from the deck of the Madrona Bar and Grill. I enjoy a local lamb burger and shrimp salad paired with a glass of local Siegerrebe – an off-dry aromatic German white –as the sun slowly lowers over Roche Harbor.

The next morning, I wake at sunrise to drink coffee and watch the early ferries come and go from the balcony of my room at the Friday Harbor House, www.fridayharborhouse.com an extremely comfortable base for exploring the island. In-room gas fireplaces, Keurig coffeemakers, and jetted tubs make the idea of spending the day lounging indoors dangerously tempting – but adventure (and wine) beckons.

After a hearty breakfast at the Rocky Bay Café, a local favorite for morning classics like omelets, pancakes, and crispy hash browns, I visit the award-winning San Juan Vineyards, www.sanjuanvineyards.com. This estate winery grows two grape varietals, both aromatic whites: Siegerrebe from Germany, and Madeleine Angevine from the Loire Valley. Taste them, and several other expressions, in a charming garden-set tasting room adjacent to the gently sloping vineyard. It’s a great place to pick up a couple of bottles, some crackers, cheese, and other nibbles for a picnic, then head to Lime Kiln Point State Park, www.parks.state.wa.us/540/Lime-Kiln-Point. The San Juans are a haven for Orca Whales, playing host to three resident pods. Lime Kiln is the best place to watch whales from land. During my visit, the only wildlife I spot is a troop of circling seagulls, but the view is so spectacular I don’t mind one bit.


Orcas Island feels different than San Juan Island – more forested, more mountainous, and a bit slower paced. For more than a century, it’s been known as a retreat from the pressures of urban life– no wonder it’s now dotted with restful B&Bs, serene spas, and inspiring artists’ studios. 

On the east arm of the horseshoe - shaped island sits the Rosario Resort & Spa, www.rosarioresort.com the former mansion home of Robert Moran, Seattle shipwright and former Seattle mayor. In 1905, a doctor told him he had just one year to live thanks to a stress-induced heart condition. Dismayed, Robert left Seattle, moved to Orcas, and began building his legacy estate. Fortunately for Robert, he lived another 40 years, a testament to the inherent healing effect of Orcas Island.

Today, Rosario houses a luxurious resort hotel complete with an indoor pool and spa, excellent restaurant, bar, historical museum, and its crown jewel, a 1,972-pipe organ installed in the Morans’ restored Arts and Crafts style living room. I arrive just in time to catch a public concert on the organ by the resort’s general manager, accomplished pianist Christopher Peacock. It’s free, and happens every day but Tuesday – don’t miss it. Lush waves of sound are accompanied by a slideshow of hand-tinted photographs from Rosario’s heyday, including some taken by Robert himself, bringing history to vivid life.

On a recommendation, I have dinner at the Inn at Ship Bay, www.innatshipbay.com a farm-to-table restaurant just outside the community of Eastsound, the center of Orcas’ thriving arts scene. Don’t let the rural setting fool you; this is contemporary cuisine at its most comforting, the perfect combination of local ingredients and stylish execution. Sitting at the cozy bar, I enjoy astoundingly tender pork chops from Mangalitsa Pigs raised onsite, garnished with fava beans and nasturtiums grown just outside the door. Next to me, happy travelers and local couples tuck in to steaming dishes of mussels and ice-cold martinis made with local Spy Hop Gin from San Juan Island Distillery while watching awkward juvenile bald eagles test their wings on the beach outside.

In the morning, I watch a mother deer and fawn wend their way through the front meadow at my bed-and-breakfast, The Inn on Orcas Island, www.theinnonorcasisland.com. Owned by former fine art framers, this deeply restful inn is surrounded by lush gardens filled with roses and tree peonies, and brimming with paintings and antiques collected over a lifetime in the art world.

Speaking of art, many of Orcas Island’s artists welcome visitors right into their studios and galleries. Orcas Island Pottery, www.orcasislandpottery.com is a cooperative ceramics studio founded in 1945 that’s still home or host to dozens of working potters making functional and fine art wares. The Lambiel Museum, www.lambielmuseum.org is an appointment-only private museum showcasing more than 100 years of work made by Orcas Island artists, including a gallery devoted to Helen Loggie. In Eastsound, Crow Valley Pottery & Gallery, www.crowvalley.com is the largest cooperative gallery, representing some of Orcas Island’s most famous artists, including painter James Hardman (if you’re in love with his dreamy, ethereal style, visit his private gallery in Olga, south of Rosario). 

Getting There

The most common way to travel to the San Juan Islands is to take the Washington State Ferry, typically from Anacortes, about 80 miles north of Seattle. But you can also fly directly to the archipelago on a seaplane. Kenmore Air offers daily flights from Seattle’s Lake Union and Sea-Tac Airport.

San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, www.visitsanjuans.com

Kenmore Air, www.kenmoreair.com

Ferry Reservations Washington State, wsdot.wa.gov



Situated on the original veranda of the Moran Mansion, the Mansion Restaurant offers seasonal cuisine in a lovely waterfront setting. Executive Chef Raymond Southern sources ingredients from island farms such as Maple Rock Farms and Buck Bay Seafood. www.rosarioresort.com.

The New Leaf Café at the Outlook Inn offers a stunning view of Eastsound Bay, especially at sunset, and the menu is a celebration of local seafood and produce. Think Judd Cove oysters on the half shell and Jones Family Farm lamb sliders. www.outlookinn.com

On a historic farmstead overlooking Ship Bay, the Inn at Ship Bay Restaurant offers traditional fare, much of it sourced locally. The small restaurant is popular among foodies and wedding parties for its scenic setting, so reservations are a must. www.innatshipbay.com


Rosario Resort & Spa, part of the historic Moran Mansion on the shores of Cascade Bay, offers 107 guest rooms and suites spread among 30 waterfront acres.  No guest rooms are in the mansion itself, which instead houses the Mansion Restaurant and a full-service spa. www.rosarioresort.com

A short walk from Eastsound and just steps from the water, the Outlook Inn offers suites with bay views, private rooms in an east wing, and modest rooms with shared bathrooms in the historic main building. www.outlookinn.com

For adults-only getaways, try the Inn on Orcas Island in Deer Harbor. The grey shingled inn is on the island’s southwestern tip and includes a handful of suites and cottages all appointed in traditional bed and breakfast décor. www.theinnonorcasisland.com

Near Eastsound, with lovely views to the south, the Inn at Ship Bay is built around a historic farmhouse and orchard. The inn includes one suite, nine standard rooms and one handicapped-friendly room, all equipped with Franklin wood stoves for chilly evenings. www.innatshipbay.com

If you’d like to try camping, but don’t want to pitch a tent yourself, try glamping with Leanto inside Moran State Park. Rugged individuals with back country experience set up canvas tents on wooden platforms, then let you experience the great outdoors. www.stayleanto.com


Stretch your legs inside Moran State Park, with more than 30 miles of trails and five lakes to explore. Or simply drive to the top of Mt. Constitution, the highest point on Orcas Island, for an incredible view of the surrounding islands and the Cascades. www.parks.state.wa.us

With its protected coves and endless vistas, Orcas Island is ideal for sea kayaking. You can rent a boat for a few hours or schedule an overnight tour to a private cove. Try Orcas Outdoors or Outer Island Excursions. www.orcasoutdoors.com or www.outerislandx.com

Pottery enthusiasts will enjoy a visit to Orcas Island Pottery, the oldest pottery in the Pacific Northwest. The gallery is located in West Beach in an old growth forest overlooking President’s Channel. www.orcasislandpottery.com



Set in a Craftsman house, Coho Restaurant is an intimate eatery for fine dining. The emphasis is on island-grown food with a Mediterranean flair and the wine list is frequently awarded for its excellence by Wine Spectator. www.cohorestaurant.com

Receiving raves from Bon Appetit, Gourmet and Sunset magazines is no easy feat, but Duck Soup Inn can claim this fame. Chef Gretchen Allison creates notable and distinctly Northwest dishes such as baked halibut with nettle puree and friend chicken breast with Skagit red beans. www.ducksoupinn.com

McMillin’s is one of three restaurants on the waterfront at Roche Harbor Resort. The extensive menu includes both ingredients from island fields and waters, and its signature 40-day aged prime rib. Northwest wines are abundant on the wine list.  www.rocheharbor.com

Like many island restaurants, The Restaurant at Friday Harbor House emphasizes local and seasonal fare, and the menu changes frequently. Think San Juan Island Lamb and Westcott Bay Mussels. The dining room includes panoramic views. www.fridayharborhouse.com


The Island Inn at 123 West is a fun contemporary inn with incredicle harbor views. Guests can choose from three distinct types of rooms – four “Euros,” five “Sweets”, and six “Penthouses” with full kitchens. The inn is very close to the ferry landing, making it ideal for carless visitors. www.123west.com

Roche Harbor Resort offers a mix of 25 waterfront rooms, 29 historic cottages, and 19 rooms in the Hotel de Haro. There are also 45 multi-bedroom homes, which are ideal for families. Boaters can reserve a slip at the marina. www.rocheharbor.com

Just two blocks from the ferry terminal, Friday Harbor House is on a prominent bluff overlooking the harbor. Many of the inn’s 23 rooms have waterfront views.  Each room is carefully appointed with contemporary décor. www.fridayharborinn.com


Now 10 years old, San Juan Vineyards has become a destination winery complete with a renovated 1895 schoolhouse tasting room. Owner Yvonne Swanberg produces wines from vines grown on site as well as grapes brought in from Central and Eastern Washington. www.sanjuanvineyards.com

For a dose of culture, stop by the San Juan Islands Museum of Art. The museum offers 8-10 rotating exhibits per year in three different galleries. The museum is especially committed to promoting art from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest British Columbia. www.sjima.org

One of the best ways to appreciate the island is from a kayak. Hire a guide service to help you paddle island waters. We recommend the sunset sea kayak tour with Crystal Seas Kayaking. The route, on the west side of the island, is prime whale habitat. Don’t forget your camera. www.crystalseas.com

Orcas Island’s thriving art scene is centered in the village of Eastsound, but you can also find great art throughout the island. Each August, many artist’s studios open for visitors during the Orcas Island Artists’ Studio Tour. www.orcasartistsstudiotour.com