The view from my room at The Cannery Inn, just a few blocks from the ferry landing in Friday Harbor, was like a postcard come to life. After settling into my Salish suite, so-named for the sea that encompasses the Puget Sound and other regional inland waterways, I relaxed on the Inn’s private deck, taking in the sights and sounds of my new surroundings.
Along with two travel companions, I’d have around 48 hours to explore San Juan Island’s 55 square miles. It’s the second largest of the San Juan Islands group, an archipelago in the northwest corner of the contiguous United States between the U.S. mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Of the four main islands, including Orcas, Lopez and Shaw, it’s the most populous, relatively speaking, with around 7,000 residents.
Gastronomic Delights at Duck Soup
After a short stroll to capture some shots of the harbor and orient ourselves to the town of Friday Harbor, county seat of the San Juan Islands and setting for the 1998 film Practical Magic, we were whisked away by our Visit San Juans host to the interior of the island. Passing through picturesque countryside, we arrived at the vine-covered Duck Soup restaurant in an idyllic lakeside setting. No, duck soup isn’t on the menu. But locally-sourced seafood like Westcott Bay clams and oysters, seasonal delicacies like morel mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns, local wines, ciders and handcrafted cocktails make Duck Soup a must-do for any visitor desiring an unforgettable culinary experience.
Starting the Day Off Right
Our first full day on the island began with breakfast at Cynthia’s Bistro, a favorite with “townies” and tourists alike. Open for brunch until 2 p.m. and again for dinner during the spring/summer season, Cynthia’s is the perfect place to make the morning memorable with scrumptious egg, pancake and French toast dishes. Then meander through the Farmers Market (so glad we were there on Saturday!) in nearby Brickworks Plaza to take in the sights, sounds and smells of local food, crafts and music.
A Place of Great Gatherings
I love lavender… the color, the scent, and the many ways this lovely plant can be used to craft products ranging from soaps, lotion, essential oils and body mists to lavender tea, cookies, and so much more. A major takeaway from our visit to the 20-acre Pelindaba Lavender Farm, the first stop on our tour of San Juan Island, is “lavender has more uses than any other plant known in the Western world, and a longer history of such uses.”
Pelindaba, a Zulu word meaning “place of great gatherings,” was chosen by owner/founder Stephen Robins as the name for the farm, reflecting his South African roots. Never is that more true than on the third weekend on July when the annual Lavender Festival is held at there at the height of the blooming season drawing hundreds of visitors.
Upon arriving at the San Juan Island Distillery, next on our agenda, we were welcomed by owners Hawk and Suzy Pingree. Along with business partner Rich Anderson, they create 12 micro-batch gins, small-batch ciders, several liqueurs and flavored brandies, including an award-winning apple brandy made from (what else?) Washington apples. Its location, less than a mile from Roche Harbor, makes it an ideal diversion for boaters and Roche Harbor Resort guests, our next stop.
Heavenly Harbor, Haunted Hotel?
Once the site of the largest lime and cement company west of the Mississippi, this sheltered harbor on the northwest side of the island includes a 377-slip marina, several restaurants and multiple waterfront accommodations including the Hotel de Haro, Washington state’s oldest continually operating hotel since 1886. As we walked through the historic 20-room resort, we were regaled with tales of its famous visitors, which included actor John Wayne and President Theodore Roosevelt. The hotel is also said to be home to a female ghost who walks the hallways.
Orcas, Grays and Humpbacks, Oh My!
One of San Juan Island’s top draws has nothing to do with the island’s considerable gustatory delights. While sipping local wines and enjoying the bounty from land and the surrounding seas is reason enough to visit, whale watching captivates visitors from vantage points on land and sea.
It was mid-afternoon when we reached Lime Kiln Point State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park, on the island’s western coast. A gorgeous blue sky followed us throughout our tour of San Juan Island and as we walked toward the 1919-vintage Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse, visitors were enjoying lunch on picnic tables above the surrounding sea cliffs.
Lime Kiln Point is considered to be one of the best whale-watching spots on earth. Orcas, as well as gray, humpback and Minke whales and porpoises, can be seen passing through from May through September. Visit the Interpretive Center to increase your whale knowledge, listen for whales on the Lime Kiln hydrophone network and then walk through the woods to see the long-abandoned lime kilns that were constructed in the 1860s.
Time for Shuckin’
After sniffing lavender products, sipping spirits and making an attempt at sighting spouting whales, it was time to do some shuckin’! When we pulled into Wescott Bay Shellfish Company, we were greeted by Erik and Andrea Anderson. As the owners of this working shellfish farm since 2013, they are in the business of cultivating Manila clams, Pacific oysters and Mediterranean mussels in the tidelands of Westcott Bay.
Shellfish farming requires patience, as we learned from the Andersons. Like land crops, the shellfish “seeds” are planted and take from 18 months to three years to be ready for harvesting. Mussels are fastest-growing; oysters are next, requiring two years to reach maturity, while clams are hand-harvested after three years, making me appreciate even more the Westcott Bay Clams Vindaloo dish we devoured at Duck Soup the night before, prepared in a rich broth of tomatoes, coconut milk and fresh herbs.
Andrea demonstrated the technique of oyster shucking and then allowed us to try it for ourselves, before we settled into slurping the succulent bounty in the freshest way possible, washed down with a 2013 Estate Grown Siegerrebe, a white wine from San Juan Vineyards.
More Sipping and Savoring
Our final evening meal on San Juan Island was at Coho Restaurant, located in an historic home just a few blocks from the ferry landing in downtown Friday Harbor. Named for one of several species of Pacific wild salmon, Coho specializes in island-grown cuisine served with local and regional wines that have earned the restaurant the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for the past five years. Diners can choose from a four-course Chef’s Tasting menu featuring an item from each category — starter, pasta, entrée and dessert, or individual courses for the lighter appetite. The restaurant’s website also includes a selection of recipes. Can’t wait to try the sesame-crusted salmon with Mirin sauce.
A Whale of a Museum
I couldn’t leave Friday Harbor without checking out the Whale Museum, which opened to the public in 1979 as the first museum in the U.S. devoted to a species living in the wild — the Southern Resident Community of Orcas, which take up residence in the waters of Puget Sound from May through September each year.
I was surprised to learn the endangered population of three pods or family groups of orcas, sometimes known as “killer whales,” has dropped to an alarming 75, the lowest number on record. Main floor exhibits include a recent sightings map, while upstairs are whale skeletons, research findings and a family tree board that is updated as orcas are born and die. I learned that resident orcas stay with their mothers throughout their lives, so if one is no longer seen with its family, it is presumed to have died.
Most astonishing to me was the story of Granny, its matriarch. While whales can live to be 80 to 90 years old, Granny is considered to have lived the longest life of all at 105! You can choose to Adopt an Orca to support orca education and research.
Planning to book a whale-watching excursion? Be sure to check out the Be Whale Wise Guidelines, regulations designed to protect all killer whales in inland waters of Washington.
Farewell, Friday Harbor!
Our farewell lunch before we boarded the Washington State ferry was at Downriggers, a family-owned eatery overlooking the harbor. We shared several dishes representative of the Pacific Northwest —Wescott Bay oysters, baked with brie, bacon and spinach; mussels steamed with leeks, garlic, cream and sherry; and innovative salads using shaved Brussels sprouts and beets. If only there’d been time to stay for dinner and enjoy one of the scratch-made cocktails…but we could see the ferry approaching the dock signaling our time on Friday Harbor was, regrettably, ending. One last sip and we were on our way to the next phase of our Washington state sojourn on Whidbey Island for the International Food, Wine and Travel Writer’s Association conference.
Getting To San Juan Island
Many visitors book the Bellair Airporter Shuttle to catch the Washington State Ferry (206-464-6400) from Anacortes, about 80 miles north of Seattle. You can also choose to fly there via a regional wheeled flight from Seattle’s Boeing Field or seaplane, or take a two-hour boat ride from Seattle on the San Juan Clipper. For more details, check out the Visit San Juans Transportation page.
Thank you to Visit San Juans for hosting us and to all the island establishments who provided assistance to make our time on San Juan Island so special. For more info about the islands, including where to stay and what to do: Visit San Juans