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A San Juan Islands Primer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you don’t want to charter a schooner? An even larger and more imposing vessel awaits to take you to the popular San Juan Islands of Washington: The ferry, the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

The easy way, yes. But these days, when getting places is not always part of the fun, the comfortable, scenic ferry ride is reason enough to journey through these green, sheltered islands.

In fact, for some first-time visitors, the ferry is the very best part of a trip to the islands, whose huge tourist appeal has in some cases outstripped local visitor facilities.

In the four years I’ve lived in Seattle and the 20 years I’ve been coming to the San Juans, I’ve learned that a simple way to make a lasting impression on visitors is with nothing more complex or expensive than the one- to two-hour ferry from Anacortes, Wash., to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and a lively jaunt ashore.

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In summer, that can mean anything from renting a kayak and paddling out with the seals, or taking a drive to the site of one of the strangest military battles in U.S. history--the little-known “Pig War” with Britain. Easy park and shoreline hikes in ocean-scrubbed fresh air, whale-watching cruises and family bicycling on two-lane roads also draw enthusiasts.

The San Juans are composed of more than 400 islands lying in sheltered ocean waters north of Seattle, between Washington state and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. About 60 islands are inhabited and four primary islands are served by state ferries. Three of them--San Juan, Orcas and Lopez--have visitor services and accommodations.

The busiest island is San Juan, with its village of Friday Harbor. Shaw has very limited facilities.

Locals will tell you the San Juans are the closest you can get to a banana belt in the high latitudes. In the rain shadow of Vancouver Island, the islands receive only half the rainfall of Seattle, and the high-season months of July, August and early September offer more sun than just about anywhere this far north near ocean water.

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Locals also will tell you that peak-season tourism has ballooned to the point that unwary, happy-go-lucky travelers often go away feeling neither happy nor lucky. Parking, water shortages and crowded approaches to ferries and tourist attractions can be frustrating.

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A day trip promises the fewest pitfalls for newcomers.

Ferries depart for the San Juans from Anacortes, about a 1 1/2- to two-hour drive north from Seattle. A pleasant stop en route is the community of La Conner, an old fishing village and trading post that has given itself over to waterfront tourism--small shops and plenty of cafes and a good, old-fashioned ambience. And, of course, summer crowds.

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Ferry sailings from Anacortes begin before dawn and run until just past midnight in summers--a total of 18 sailings per day. Food and beverages are available aboard, and sightseeing is splendid from either the open sun-deck or the enclosed passenger lounges.

Sometimes ferries leave just a few minutes apart and sometimes there is more than an hour between sailings. That’s because some boats go directly to Friday Harbor, a one-hour sail, and others stop en route at the other islands, which can extend the one-way trip to two hours.

The ferry approaches can be congested and intimidating at first. But press ahead, this is not like trying to ride the subway in a strange city--the ticket sellers are accustomed to wide-eyed tourists and the staging process actually goes quite smoothly.

Tickets are sold only for westbound sailings; returns are free. The exceptions are two daily sailings that continue past Friday Harbor to Sidney, B.C., north of Victoria. On those trips, fares are collected in both directions.

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But anyone contemplating a summertime ferry trip faces a crucial choice before getting in line: take the car or walk on the ferry without it?

Joyce Myhr of the San Juan Islands Visitors Information Service cautions you to consider carefully: “You have to ask yourself, how do you want to spend your time? In the car ferry line? Or worrying how you are going to get around once you’re there?” According to Myhr, for a day trip in the middle of the season, it makes little sense to drive your car.

The principal islands are big enough, and the parks and sights spread out for miles, that many sightseers choose to drive anyway, at least for their first visit. But they must pay the price: Weekend ferry lines for motorists can stretch for three hours, or sometimes more.

(Ferry toll for car and driver from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, $20.30. No reservations. Schedule information: (206) 464-6400. Tip: If you want to see more than one island, start on San Juan, at the far west, and work your way back free of charge.)

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Particularly crowded are holiday weekends and July 29-31, the dates of the Dixieland Jazz Festival in Friday Harbor (three-day pass, $40; daily, $10 to $25; tel. 206- 378-5509). During the festival, even parking can be a chore.

Walk-on ferry passengers, by contrast, never wait for the next boat. But parking at the Anacortes terminal is limited. (The toll from Anacortes to Friday Harbor is $4.95.) And upon your arrival in Friday Harbor, public transportation is limited to a half-dozen cabs island-wide.

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There are plenty of things to occupy active walk-ons, however. Friday Harbor in summer is alive with bicycle and scooter rentals. (Island Bicycles has been established for some time. Rates $25 per day for a mountain bike, with weekly prices available; tel. 206-378-4941.) Bicycles also are available for rental at the Orcas Island ferry landing.

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For the most part, the tempo of the islands is easygoing. Bicyclists enjoy respect on the two-lane roads, if for no other reason than there are so many of them. There are no bike paths or shoulders.

A typical cycling itinerary for vacationers would begin in Friday Harbor, with two days spent on San Juan Island, traversing mixed landscapes of rolling pastures, moist forests, wind-blown prairie and driftwood beaches.

The town of Friday Harbor is a mix of come-on tourism and rural seashore trading post, pleasant enough for meals and quick browsing but light on night life. For some visitors, the community is too “touristy,” while others, perhaps remembering East Coast island resorts, find themselves wishing for more and better shops.

The small downtown Whale Museum, which provides public access to long-standing research efforts in the region, offers static displays and explanations of whale lore. (Admission $3; tel. 206-378-4710.)

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The harbor is colorful and active; a bustle of boats, big and small, as well as seaplanes and, of course, the ferry. Dock-walking can be pleasant. At least three local companies in Friday Harbor and two on Orcas Island offer whale watching cruises (Western Prince Cruises, Friday Harbor, has been in business nine years. A four-hour afternoon trip in search of orca or Minke whales, $43, or $31 for children; tel. 800-757-6722.) Cyclists can walk their bikes onto the ferry from one island and visit the other islands--Lopez being the flattest and Orcas the hilliest.

Bicycle camping is particularly inviting on Lopez after a 30-mile loop ride around this drowsy, friendly island. On Orcas, it is a steep climb but worth it to reach the top of 2,400-foot Mt. Constitution, where on a clear day one can see from British Columbia to the volcanoes of the Cascades.

Bicycle outfitters can direct you to private campgrounds on the islands, which usually have room. State campgrounds, on the other hand, fill up faster. Shaw Island is the smallest, most private of those served by the ferries--and has only a few camping spaces.

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Overnighters who come to Lopez, Orcas and San Juan islands by car or foot will find 50 different resorts, inns, motels and B & B’s, some of them secluded and worth the hunt. But together, they offer only about 800 rooms. On busy weekends, thousands of tourists flock to the islands, making advance reservations mandatory. (Recommended guidebook: Northwest Best Places, $18.95, Sasquatch Books, which also covers Portland to British Columbia. A list of island accommodations and a trip planning guide is available from the county Visitor Information Service, P.O. Box 65, Lopez Island, Wash. 98261; tel. 206-468-3663. But the two-person staff is sometimes overwhelmed.)

A timely note on accommodations: A Hollywood production company has now taken most of the rooms on Lopez Island and some on San Juan, and is expected to be in the islands well into June.

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Venturing from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, cyclists and motorists both are attracted to Lime Kiln Point State Park, which overlooks Haro Strait on the far western shore of the island and offers your best chance of seeing a passing pod of orca, or killer whales. Roche Harbor, a favorite with yachters, is a pleasant way-stop resort at the northern end.

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National historic parks are maintained at the separate American and British camps, remnants of the disputed 19th-Century occupation of the island. Tension between the two sides led to the “Pig War” of 1860, so-named because its single casualty was a pig.

Throughout the islands, bald eagles, seals, ducks and sea birds are abundant. Tide pools are plentiful, and there are cliffs and hilltops with smashing views into the ink-blue waters below and to the neighboring islands in the distance.

If you want to get closer to the water, here is your chance to find out why everyone is so crazy about ocean kayaking. In these lightweight boats, even an easy pull of the paddle sends you shooting across the water.

(Kayak rentals at Emerald Seas International, Friday Harbor; tel. 206-378-2772. Rates $15 per person for two hours, $25 for four hours. Proprietor Tom Hemphill drives you to Griffin Bay, where you launch in ultra-calm water. The shop also offers twice-a-day dive charters for $55 and diving instruction. Other island outfitters lead longer, guided kayak trips for the more adventuresome.)

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Boaters know the San Juans as a cruisers paradise, and there is little doubt that the most pleasant way to experience the San Juans is afloat.

Bareboat charters are abundant. (In Anacortes, Anacortes Yacht Charters has long boasted the biggest fleet of charter yachts in the United States--more than 100 sail and power boats; tel. 800-233-3004. Penmar Marine Co. in Anacortes has a fleet of 60 craft; tel. 800-828-7337. Both companies can arrange skippers for your cruise.)

Tidal currents require boaters, particularly sailers, to plan their itinerary carefully. Summer winds are fickle, and the usual rule in the area is that the better the weather, the lighter the wind. Also, popular anchorages can be very crowded and will test your skill.

On the upside, there is no bothersome ocean swell, so seasickness is uncommon. And navigation by line-of-sight is quite easy, except in fog, when it’s foolish to venture forth.

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Season by season, week by week, local sail and powerboat owners on San Juan and Lopez islands offer skippered day cruises. Tourist officials say you can inquire at the bulletin boards at the docks. During fishing season, some boat owners also offer charters.

Boaters have much broader choices for island hopping than visitors who rely on ferries. Reid Harbor on Stuart Island is a picture-perfect anchorage, usually filled and some times overfilled with boaters. This is “social” boating, not meant for those who want to get away from it all.

A few of the islands are designated as state parks for boaters only, including a cluster of islands at the far north of the chain--Sucia, Matia, Clark and Patos islands. These offer pleasant day hiking through forest and around sculpted sea cliffs. Anchorages are scattered through several bays.

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