Of the four ferry-served islands in the archipelago, San Juan Island is the most populated and tourist-friendly. It’s the only one that is truly easy to reach by ferry without your car–the ferry drops you off smack-dab in the middle of the town of Friday Harbor, which is the county seat, and offers dozens of varied restaurants, good hotels, parks, shops and views. Bring your car along to see more of the island. I’m an explorer by nature, so I usually pay the extra ferry fare for the luxury of having a car to explore the island’s unique rural beauty, lavender farms, coastal parks, and quieter corners. Allow your senses to be wide open when you visit this special place. Views from some of the islands rural roads are unparalleled–we’re talking million-dollar views. Art is everywhere, in various forms–blown glass, beautifully-designed gardens, unique pottery, and more. Cuisine is fresh and local and delicious. And the local folks are friendly and welcoming. Summer is stunning here, but will have you waiting in long ferry lines and paying more for lodging. Spring, summer and fall are wonderful seasons to visit San Juan Island on a budget, and it’s “rain shadow” geography may even provide you some sunshine in the depths of the Northwest’s grey winters.
WHAT TO DO
Every visitor to the San Juans wants to see a killer whale, right? Orcas are simply amazing–I remember each and every time I have seen one, and each siting was incredibly exciting and moving. A lucky few will see orcas from the ferry (I have!) but don’t count on it. You’ll pay around $75 per person for a whale-watching boat tour on San Juan Island. Several outfits run daily out of Friday Harbor. If you go this route, be sure to ask when you book your reservation about their ethics and philosophy around observing whales from an acceptable distance without disturbing them.The Whale Museum 62 First Street, N. Friday Harbor, WA (360) 378-4710 / www.whalemuseum.org
Make the Whale Museum your first stop in Friday Harbor and learn all about the amazing Orcas. Pick up maps of the best places to spot whales from shore, get a referral for a responsible whale watching boat operator, and learn about viewing ethics and guidelines. Admission is $6 for adults, and children under 5 are free.Lime Kiln State Park
36-acre day-use park set on the west side of San Juan Island (360) 378-2044 / website
See passing orca whale pods for free from your picnic spot at this stunning state park, right in the middle of the west coast of San Juan Island. This is one of the most reliable spots for whale watching from shore. Don’t forget the binoculars!
I adore the rural farms of San Juan Island, and one of my favorites is Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Stroll through the fragrant fields for free (just close the gate behind you!) and experience San Juan Island-style de-stressing through the most powerful of your senses! In the adjacent store you’ll find everything from lotions to sachets.
Check it out for local honey, fresh flowers, arts and craft, live music, the freshest produce in-season, and some really great food!
(360)378-8420 / website
Imagine sleeping with the best view on the island for just $32 night! Reserve your campsites as early as you can for the best spots.
__________________________________________________________________________States Inn Ranch B&B 2687 West Valley Road Friday Harbor, WA (360) 378-6240 / www.statesinn.com
Stay off the beaten path at this charming working ranch bed and breakfast on the northwest side of the island. Free pickup and drop-off service from the ferry, too! A terrific deal for San Juan Island.
See our review of States Inn Ranch B&B.
WHERE TO EATPablito’s Taqueria 140A First St (360) 378-3317 / www.pablitostaqueria.com
Fresh, handmade, local, inspired cuisine. We had chipotle red snapper tacos, kale and cheese empanadas, delicious black beans and rice… and loved every last bite. You will, too. Terrific and affordable for lunch or dinner.Sweet Retreat & Espresso 264 Spring Street Friday Harbor, WA (360) 378-1957 /www.sweetretreatandespresso.com
There’s little doubt this little walk-up shop has the best ice cream on the island, but they may very well boast the best cheeseburgers, too. Try their shaved ice on a hot day (the watermelon flavor was particularly refreshing) and be prepared to mingle with locals while you wait (possibly awhile) for your order!__________________________________________________________________________
WHERE TO SHOP
Top boutique brands like Michael Stars mingle with Louis Vuitton wallets and barely-worn Dansko shoes – all at fab prices.Friday Harbor Drug 210 Spring St W Friday Harbor, WA (360) 378-4421
You’ll come in for some soap or a prescription, but soon get happily lost in the array of funky items for sale here, like model sailboats, great art supplies, and yarn.Griffin Bay Bookstore 40 1st St Friday Harbor, WA (360) 378-5511 / www.griffinbaybook.com
Grab a few books and settle in with a latte at the adjoining cafe. Ask if you need help picking out a great vacation read – the knowledgeable staff really know their books.
Of the three major San Juan Islands that are accessible by ferry (the other two being Orcas and Lopez), San Juan is the easiest to visit car-free because the ferry drops you off in the middle of Friday Harbor. (You’ll save a bundle by leaving your car in Anacortes and walking on the ferry). If bicycles or mopeds are your thing, you can see San Juan Island’s rural beauty and waterfront state parks that way – there are a few places in Friday Harbor that rent them. Mopeds are pricey on the hour ($30 – $60) but a better value for the whole day ($70 – $140) and the higher-priced option can seat two people. The cheapest option for getting around the island car-free is San Juan Transit, where an all-day pass will cost you $15.00 ($5.00 for 12 & under).
MORE TRAVEL TIPS
- Leave your high heels and neckties at home. Island life is casual, and you’ll be more comfortable here in knits, wool and fleece!
- San Juan Island has a medical clinic in Friday Harbor, open Monday-Friday. There is an on-call doctor for after-hours needs.
- Plan your ferry commute to the island with Washington State Ferries.
- More information: San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau.