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Our San Juan Island Highlights

I've been watching traffic on our website increase steadily as I added photos that we've taken on San Juan Island; already, the pictures part of our website is generating more traffic than all the other pages combined. So, I figured that people who visit those pages may want more information on the San Juan Islands so I thought that I'd add some links to thinks that we enjoy doing around the island. This is not intended to be a tourist guide (click here for one) but it does demonstrate things that we and our occasional guests enjoy doing. These notes are weighted towards San Juan Island where we spend 95% of our time but we do occasionally get to other islands too.

This picture shows part of the natural coastline on the southwest side of San Juan Island.


History - The Pig War

In 1859, San Juan Island was the location of the last military standoff between England and the United States; a dispute that finally settled the question of the most western border between the US and Canada. In the so-called Pig War, the only casualty inflicted by the military was a pig yet the two armed camps remained on opposite ends of the island for twelve years until the matter was resolved in arbitration by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. (Historical web pages on this are linked here and here.) The two camps remain as parks: English Camp with a formal garden at the north end of the island and American Camp at the south end. For history buffs, there are a few interesting books available that highlight the subject:

bullet The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay; Michael P. Vouri
bullet The Pig War and Other Experiences of William Peck - Soldier 1858-1862 - US Army Corps of Engineers: A Journal of William A. Peck, Jr.; Willam A. Peck, Jr. and C. Brewster Coulter (Editor)


Killer Whale Watching

For years, three orca whale pods consisting of between 75-95 whales have made the San Juan Islands their home. With this resident population, whale watching (see our pictures) has become fairly popular. The prime whale watching area is along the west side of San Juan island where the whales will go up and down several times per day in the summer as they pass through their feeding grounds; many people will picnic at Limekiln State Park and wait for the whales to go by. There are whale watching boats for tourists but I wouldn't recommend them as I think that they are intrusive -- there are sometimes 40-60 boats leap-frogging a single pod of whales as they travel along the west side of San Juan Island. Moreover, partial blame for the recent drop in the whales population is attributed increasingly to the whale watching boats who get too close and, consequently, generate enough noise to disrupt the whale's ability to locate their primary source of food: salmon. For more information on what can be done to keep Orca whales from becoming an endangered species in the San Juan Islands, check out the pages of the Orca Relief Citizen's Alliance.


Other Islands

San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island are the three main islands that visitors can easily get to in the San Juans. There are, however, another 20-30 islands that are habitable but can only be reached by plane or private boat. Some of these are residential vacation getaways but others have some year-round residents that live a fairly relaxed lifestyle. Some of these islands and their claim to fame include:

bulletWaldron Island:  Has Washington State's smallest one-room schoolhouse with something like seven kids currently in K-8 grades.



Western Washington is not often thought of as a winemaking region but the Puget Sound AVA (American Viticultural Area) was established several years ago to highlight wines that are made from grapes in this region. With a different climate from Eastern Washington, these wineries have specialized in producing wines made from varieties that grow best in the area such as Madeline Angevine, Siegerrebe and Muller Thurgau; white wines that generally go well with the seafood native to the area. At least two wineries in the Puget Sound AVA are located in the San Juan Islands and they both make wines from locally grown grapes:

bulletSan Juan Vineyards
bullet Lopez Island Vineyards


San Juan Island Farmer's Market

Every Saturday morning from late spring into the fall. the islands farmers sell their home-grown goods in the parking lot between the Courthouse and the San Juan Community Theatre. Together with the occasional baked goods or other treats, this truly is the farmer's market. Our favorite for produce is Blue Moon farms from Waldron Island and my wife goes nuts over the granola she finds here. It's a fairly small market with 15-20 booths but fun to visit.


Getting There: Ferry versus Air

Getting to the San Juans is not easy. The Washington State Ferries are fine in the fall, winter and spring but, from May 1 to September 30, the wait can stretch to 3-8 hours in line depending on time of travel, the number of operable ferries and the wily ways of the state's ferry scheduling wizards in Olympia. (Recent budget cuts have sharpened the debate.) In the summer, you can either walk on the ferry and rely on the island taxi or you can fly via the mosquito air fleet of West Isle Air. Although the planes are small, you can get from Anacortes to your destination in less than 15 minutes. You'll still need to arrange your own transportation on the islands but at least you'll get there without the wait. The tradeoff: from the ferries, you will spend up to 90 minutes winding your way through the scenic islands while, from the air, you have a bird's eye view of all of the islands.


Hotels and Lodging

We can't make many recommendations but there are a wide variety of places to spend a night on San Juan Island ranging from hotel/resorts to bed and breakfasts. Here are some pointers to get more info:

bulletSan Juan Island: Roche Harbor Resort, Friday Harbor House, Bed and Breakfast association
bulletOrcas Island: Rosario Resort
bulletLopez Island:



Although many of the restaurants are either kitschy or oriented towards basic foods, there are a few on San Juan Island that stand out that we go to time and again. Some of these restaurants that we enjoy on San Juan Island include:

bulletDuck Soup Inn
bulletRoche Harbor Resort, McMillin's Dining Room or Madrona Grill
bullet The Place Next to the San Juan Ferry



Although you may not go to the islands to play golf, each of the three main islands (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez) has their own golf course with their own unique challenges.  These are all 9-hole courses; there are alternate tee placements for at least the San Juan course which gives some variation. These courses tend to dry out in the summer; with scorched grass, your drives can carry a long way.  Of course, the tall summer grass places a penalty on errant shots.


Other Stuff To Think About

In addition to the photography books that are listed on our photography pages, there are some other books that provide some different perspectives on the San Juans. One fascinating book, The Light on the Island by Helene Glidden provides a historical perspective on what it was like in the San Juans at the turn of the century. She tells her childhood story of growing up on Patos Island as one of thirteen children when her father was the lighthouse keeper. Other visitor-oriented books include:

bullet Pig War Islands: The San Juans of Northwest Washington; David Blair Richardson
bullet Exploring the San Juan and Gulf Islands: Cruising Paradise of the Pacific Northwest; Don Douglass, Reanne Hemingway-Douglass
bullet Essential San Juan Islands Guide; Marge Mueller, Ted Mueller
bullet Best Places Destinations: San Juan & Gulf Islands (San Juan and Gulf Islands); Jan Halliday (Editor)
bullet Touring the Islands: Bicycling in the San Juan, Gulf, and Vancouver Islands; Peter Powers, Renee Travis, Melissa Carlson


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