For anyone who is curious about taking a trip to the San Juan Islands, check out our guide below for details about what to do, tasty things to eat and places to stay.
The ferry from the mainland and surrounding Orca and Lopez islands stops here. This is your starting point, and the “hub” of San Juan Island proper. It’s quaint and small enough to be fully explored on foot in just a few short hours. The majority of the island’s bed & breakfasts are here, as well as shopping, restaurants and groceries.
Absolutely do not miss the recently opened San Juan Cheese Shop for delicious BLTs, Mac & Cheese and homemade soups. Also check out Herb’s for beer and pub-grub or Golden Triangle for Thai Food (much cheaper at lunch time.)
There are three pods of Orca whales that frequent the San Juan Island area. One of the pods is sometimes there year-round. The official whale watching season is from mid-April to early October, although they say your best bet is from late May to September. Sadly, we were there in early April and didn’t have any luck. You could tell the season hadn’t started yet, as all of the boat charters that will take you around the island looking for the whales were not yet running. This link will take you to the San Juan Island tourism website that lists many of the tour operators. If you bring your own car over from the mainland, you can also drive to Lime Kiln State Park on the western side of the island where the whales are typically spotted.
Cattle Point Lighthouse
Located on the southeastern tip of the island, the current lighthouse dates to 1935 when it replaced a simple brass lens lantern mounted on a post that was established in 1888. The lighthouse is solar powered and self-activated by a sensor that measures humidity in the air. The lighthouse still serves as an important role, helping ships navigate the Haro Straight between San Juan Island and Victoria, Canada.
After a very easy 5-10 minute walk from the parking lot you’ll come to a trail head just after driving past the lighthouse on your right. During our trip we were greeted by a beautiful bald eagle sitting atop the lighthouse, likely looking for a snack running about in the surrounding fields. We checked each other out for a few minutes before he spread his huge wings and flew off to a tree grove in the distance. From the lighthouse you get nearly a 270 degree view of the ocean, with Canada’s Victoria Island and the US mainland in the distance.
American & English Camps
There are currently remnants of both the United States (U.S.) and British army settlements on San Juan Island. Amazingly, these camps are left over from a 12-year dispute in the mid 1800’s that all started because of a pig! It all started when the Oregon Treaty between the Americans and the British did not clearly define rightful ownership of San Juan Island. As a result, settlers from both sides quarreled over rights to the land. In 1859, an American farmer shot a pig that was rooting around in his vegetable garden.
The problem was, the pig was owned by an Irishman who ran a sheep farm on the island for the British. From there tensions escalated and before long both sides had established a military presence on this tiny island. It wasn’t until 1872 that a commission finally resolved that the land ultimately belonged to the U.S.. Today you can visit the remains of both settlements. The English Camp is more preserved but the American Camp has a great visitor center.
The Bird Rock Hotel
Nestled in the heart of San Juan Island’s downtown is the Friday’s Historic Inn building. That’s where the Bird Rock Hotel lives, perfectly situated near the market and across the way from the ferry terminal that takes you to and from the mainland. It’s in the center of the walkable harbor district, close to the restaurants, shops and attractions. The structure is dramatically contradictory. Outside you see a warn-in, historic harbor town building. The moment you walk in the door you are greeted with a chic, urban boutique hotel.
We found the Bird Rock Hotel because it’s one of the top rated accommodations in Friday Harbor on Trip Advisor. There is a diverse offering of room types, ranging from deluxe suites with Jacuzzi tubs to European-style sleeping rooms with shared baths. Each room is named after one of the islands in the Puget Sound.The variety in rooms allows guests to have options to either splurge for a romantic weekend or have a reasonably-priced home base to explore the island. The property has been recently updated with beautiful cherrywood, posh furniture and lovely countertops.
We were pleasantly surprised to see the impressive spread offered at their “continental breakfast.” I got lost in the white chocolate, cranberry scones made in house by the Friday Harbor staff. In addition, we feasted on plentiful fresh-fruit including raspberries, strawberries, bananas, honeydew and grapes.
The eggs and yogurt kept us full all morning long and the fruit juice was fresh and pulpy (just the way we like it.) Not only are the pastries made in house but they also have an on-site artist that does the floral arrangements.The mattress and linens at the Bird Rock are very high-end and plush. We ended up sleeping-in much later then originally planned because we really didn’t want to get out of bed. The hotel provides lovely, indulgent lavender bath products from the local Pelindaba Lavender Farm.
Guests all have access to complimentary beach cruiser bicycles to go explore the town and island. If you wander into the lobby in the afternoon you’ll likely enjoy the scent of the baked treats they offer for afternoon snack, along with ice cold lemonade. The Bird Rock hotel has a sister property located just a few blocks away called the Earth Box Inn & Spa. They share facilities so guests of both can utilize the day spa and the swimming pool.
Rouche Harbor is located on the northwest side of the island, completely opposite Friday Harbor. Even so, it’s still no more than a 20 minute drive. The harbor is a great place to walk down to the docks and spot your dream boat. There were a few hundred vessels of all shapes, sizes and conditions when we visited. We couldn’t help but laugh at some of the creative names people come up with for their boat. Rouche Harbor is also a great place to stop for lunch. We had tasty bread bowl clam chowder and saw many young ones running around with ice cream cone in hand. There’s also a couple of bocce ball courts available if you’re in the mood.
The garden contains 19 acres of oddball sculptures spread out among a rolling pasture and a small lake. The iron ostrich, giant dragonfly and mirrored easel were some of our favorites. This was a great place to enjoy the warm sun, stretch your legs and appreciate that you’re on vacation with no agenda.
Wine Tasting and Mona the Camel
The San Juan Island has its own winery, producing both red and white wines using grapes grown on the island and the Washington mainland. San Juan Winery has been in operation since 2002 and has several awards to its credit. Although we weren’t able to stop in for a tasting on this trip, we did admire seeing the renovated old school house that now operates as the winery’s tasting room. If you do stop in at the winery, or even if you’re just driving by, be sure to look across the street to see the island’s most unique resident, Mona the Camel.
The story of how Mona ended up on San Juan Island can be found here, and she even has her own Facebook fan page here. Sadly, Mona was a bit shy (or lazy) when we saw her and she never quite got close enough for us to take a good picture.
Is it raining on the San Juan islands? We suggest you try bowling at Paradise Lanes, take in a movies at the Palace Theater, explore the Whale Museum (great TripAdvisor reviews) or discover the odds and ends at Funk and Junk Antiques.