Life in the Slow Lane on Lopez Island

Life in the Slow Lane on Lopez Island
A lone canoeist takes a twilight glide on Fisherman Bay Lagoon off Lopez Island, the smallest of Washington state's three main San Juan Islands. (MIKE URBAN / Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Escorted by sea gulls and a cool, salty breeze, the ferry snaked around evergreen-cloaked islands as passengers gathered on the front deck to gape at Mt. Baker's volcanic dome.

It was a view we almost missed. Before the ferry ride came a flight to Seattle and a 90-minute drive north to Anacortes. It had seemed like too much hassle for a weekend getaway, at least at first.

But we gambled. By the time the boat pulled into Port Stanley, our worries had vanished with the gulls.

Last month John and I wanted a quiet place to celebrate our first wedding anniversary and to unwind from weeks of overtime and deadlines at work. Lopez Island--and the journey to it--proved to be the answer.

Of the three main San Juan Islands, Lopez is the smallest and is best known for its flat, bicycle-friendly roads and pastoral beauty. (Orcas is the largest in the archipelago, and San Juan Island has the bustling county seat.)

Lopez Island's main village consists of little more than a food market, three restaurants, a bakery, a thrift shop and a couple of boutiques. Lest one forget the proximity to Seattle, two espresso cafes and two bookstores (one new, one used) round out the mix.

Lopez also has the fewest accommodations, which increased our chances of avoiding crowds. Our lodging looked like a bargain too: an open-beamed cabin surrounded by cedar and fir groves for $89 plus tax per night. Nearby was a waterfront gazebo and a small private beach with another view of frosty Mt. Baker. This was the solace we sought.

We flew to Seattle, drove toward the ferry and, anticipating limited provisions on the island, detoured through Seattle's Pike Place Market one Saturday morning for handmade ravioli, asparagus, a baguette and sweet Washington apples. A sack of fryer-hot doughnuts from the market's Daily Dozen Doughnut Co. topped off our menu.

At the time of our visit, before school-is-out crowds had descended on the San Juans, the chances of driving onto the first ferry that showed up were good. (Peak-season round-trip fares are $27 for a car and driver, plus $9.60 for each additional passenger.) Between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, we were told, those in the know bring a book and a beach chair and show up early.

Lopez Island is the closest to Anacortes, and after just 45 minutes on the ferry we pulled off in our rented sedan, passed the scent of sizzling burgers at the Fogged Inn takeout counter and made our way to the Blue Fjord Cabins on the island's southeast side.

The 11-mile drive past cows, sheep and hand-painted "Eggs for Sale" signs hints at Lopez's agricultural roots. Today the farms visible from the road are more likely to be B&Bs than poultry producers, but the pastoral feel remains. We learned later that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has poured millions into a compound here with more than 25,000 square feet of living space, but the 291/2-square-mile island gives no hint of being a retreat for the wealthy.

With its "Lopez wave"--a half-wave exchanged by passing motorists--and otherworldly respect for bike riders, the place more closely resembles the quaintness of 1970s Martha's Vineyard, Mass., or the sleepy friendliness of the rural South. Locals told us that visitors in spring and fall tend to be stressed-out Seattleites, and summer brings camping families and international travelers who stay for a week or more.

One of the two Blue Fjord Cabins was our home, a spacious wood-paneled place with a queen bed, bathroom, kitchen and deck. (We never saw the occupants of the other cabin.) The furnishings were basic but comfortable, with some nice touches such as freshly ground coffee and an accompanying pot. The rate was slightly lower than those of other lodgings on the island, perhaps because of the distance from the ferry.

After dropping our bags, we considered our options: nap, hike or watch the sunset from the beach. We happily chose all three, walking to Shark Reef Park on the island's west side before dusk. We shared the craggy rocks with another couple and watched dozens of seals splashing around for fish, with San Juan Island stretching green and shadowed in the distance.

A wrong turn out of the park extended nature's show, and as we stopped to turn around, two bald eagles soared in wing-extended splendor.

Nowhere is Lopez Island's unpretentiousness more evident than at the Islander Waterfront Restaurant, where the simple menu consists of steaks, burgers and other straightforward American fare. The service is genially slow, the tables are full of unhurried customers, and Foosball and pool tables at one side of the room encourage customers to linger.

Hungry after our sketchy brunch of doughnuts, we devoured the house specialty of fish and chips--good, thick slabs of local halibut and hand-cut potatoes--at a table overlooking Fisherman Bay marina. Afterward we joined a crowd of Seattle Mariners fans ensconced in front of a big-screen TV, never revealing that we wanted the visiting Red Sox to win.

Sunday we went to the north side of the island and hiked Spencer Spit State Park's well-marked trails along the beach and into the woods.

Our plan to head over to San Juan Island's busier Friday Harbor village was thwarted by our misconception that everything here must operate on island time. The prompt 1:10 p.m. ferry, which takes passengers and bicycles for free, was pulling away as we arrived, and the next departure was three hours away.

Instead we sought sustenance in slivers of Greek pizza at Holly B's Bakery and exercise in a bicycle ride around the island. The Bike Shop in the village rents all-terrain bikes or tandems--$25 for 12 hours, $30 for a full 24. For an extra $6, owner Margaret Devoe will deliver the bikes to disembarking passengers at the ferry landing three miles away.

Gently rolling hills and interchanging views of water and shaded forest made for a rewarding ride, although a desire to spend the last couple of hours of daylight reading by the water kept us from finishing the island's carefully marked 33-mile loop. Good rest stops for the weary include the Lopez Island Vineyard & Winery, which has a tasting room and the oldest vineyard in the San Juans, and the tiny Lopez Island Historical Museum, which chronicles the island's transformation from Native American fishing and hunting ground to prosperous farming community.

If our cabin had been less inviting, our dining choice that evening probably would have been the Love Dog Cafe in Lopez Village for its enticing fish and pasta specials and candlelight setting. (Its quirky name comes from a line in a poem by 13th century philosopher Jalal ad-Din Rumi: "There are love dogs in this world no one knows the names of, give your life to be one.")

Instead, our anniversary toast came on the Blue Fjord's deck with only Mt. Baker and a couple of sea otters as witnesses. We retired well before our usual sleeping hour, knowing the ferry would arrive early (and punctually) the next morning to return us to the big city.

Back home we felt rested, invigorated and relatively confident that next year's anniversary escape will involve a ferry ride and a cabin with a view.

Laura Randall is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.