Orcas Island off the Washington coast is a hidden treasure

The largest of Washington’s San Juan Islands, Orcas offers natural beauty and adventure

Special to The TribuneAugust 18, 2013 


    Weather can be unpredictable, so bring layers of clothing. On average, there are 247 days of sunshine a year on the island and half the rain of Seattle and Portland. With a moderate climate, expect about 70 degrees in the summer and 40 degrees in the winter. During the summer months, the sun sets much later in the Northwest allowing for more daylight activities.

Lost in the wilderness among peaceful waters and pristine mountains is a place called Orcas Island — known by locals as the “emerald isle.”

It is the largest of the four San Juan Islands that are accessible by ferry off the coast of Washington state. Shaped like a horseshoe, Orcas Island is 57 square miles with a year-round population of 4,450. It is less populated than neighboring San Juan Island, which houses the county seat, Friday Harbor.

Our journey to Orcas Island in June started with a leisurely one-hour ferry ride from Anacortes, north of Seattle. Passing several remote islands along the way, the scenic boat trip gave us a chance to unwind. Once we reached our destination, time became meaningless and the magical pull of Orcas Island began.

Departing the ferry in our rental car, we were greeted by a lush green countryside, narrow winding roads and open fields. The concept of traffic disappeared; the island even lacks traffic lights. We were immediately struck with a sense of calm and serenity.

Our first stop was Eastsound, the island’s biggest village, located at the top of the horseshoe. This quaint, rustic town on the water boasts only a few shops, restaurants, a grocery store, historical museum and park. We instantly felt welcomed by the friendly townspeople. It was this area of the island that would be our home base for a most memorable family vacation.

What to do

Orcas Island, best known for its natural beauty, offers opportunities for any level of adventure seeker — including hiking, fishing, and boating. Some in our group took a challenging hike to Mount Constitution with a 2,409-foot summit — the highest point in the San Juans — while others took a less strenuous but spectacular hike to Cascade Falls. Both are located in the 5,252-acre Moran State Park with 38 miles of trails and five freshwater lakes. At the summit of Mount Constitution is a stone tower with a stunning view of the San Juan Islands, Mount Rainer, and Vancouver Island.

Orcas Island is also a great place for kayaking. Our enthusiastic guide, Cory, with Shearwater Adventures, led a three-hour kayaking and wildlife tour from Doe Bay. During the trip, we saw bald eagles, harbor seals and starfish. Did you know that harbor seals can hold their breath underwater for 25 minutes?

One of the highlights of our visit was a whale-watching trip with Outer Island Expeditions on a high speed 38-foot catamaran. We took the three-hour sunset cruise out of Smugglers Villa Resort with Captain Paul and naturalist guide Demi. Both were very informative and eagerly entertaining. The most incredible thrill was seeing a humpback whale up close and following this amazing creature for 45 minutes out to sea.

Island artworks

A haven for artists and crafters, Orcas Island is famous for its pottery studios scattered throughout the island. A wealth of galleries showcase distinctive local crafts such as jewelry, ceramics, and hand-blown glass art. Enjoy a relaxing afternoon peeking in shops or driving to a pottery studio. Our favorite was the Orcas Island Artworks Co-op in Olga about 10 miles from Eastsound. A historic strawberry packing plant, it now features more than 45 Orcas Island artists and craftspeople. To our delight, it also houses Café Olga featuring an eclectic menu with local produce, meats, seafood and homemade desserts. We stayed for lunch, and the charming ambience of dining among the artwork tantalized both our visual and taste senses.

Farm to table dining

Surprisingly, there are many restaurant choices on the island. Most places provide menu items using food from local farmers and fisherman. We enjoyed a hometown breakfast at the Island Skillet, which features outdoor seating, large portions and great service. The organic coffee was locally roasted creating a special blend just for the restaurant. Our last evening, we ate dinner at the Doe Bay Café at the Doe Bay Resort. The restaurant offers worldclass cuisine, waterfront views, and organic food from its on-site garden. If you visit the island, don’t miss this dining experience. Our best time, however, was buying local food and cooking fabulous dinners at our vacation home. One afternoon we stopped at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm and bought clams, salmon and crab fresh from the local waters.

Where to stay

Orcas Island offers a variety of lodging options, from campgrounds, cabins, and yurts to hotels, resorts and vacation homes. We stayed at Timber Lodge, a log-style vacation home located in the Orcas Highlands near Moran State Park. Its address on Tranquility Way describes our experience perfectly. Nestled in the woods, its wrap-around porch offered spectacular views of the water and surrounding mountains. The interior was cozy and comfortable featuring a variety of amenities that you would find in any boutique hotel.

Orcas Island will seep into your soul and leave a powerful longing to return again. The island offers so much for the adventure enthusiast, nature lover or solitude seeker. Either way, you will come home refreshed, relaxed and more appreciative of having spent precious moments with family and nature.

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