Living on island time in the San Juan Islands

San Juan Islands
The marina at Roche Harbor, on San Juan Island’s north end, includes a restaurant, accommodations and sculpture garden.
(Rosemary McClure)

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — Two dozen hardy travelers were clustered near me on the top deck of a 114-foot ferry, most of us shivering under cloudy skies as a colorful mosaic of water and land slid by the vessel, the Victoria Clipper III.

We were sailing through the San Juan Islands, an archipelago of hundreds of isles between mainland Canada, Vancouver Island and Washington state’s northwestern coast. As we cruised north from Seattle, rolling hills were replaced by dark green forests and rocky bluffs that overlooked fiord-like inlets. Eagles soared, mountain sheep clung to steep hillsides and harbor seals hauled out to nap on the shoreline.

It had been overcast and drizzling all morning, but as we approached Friday Harbor, our San Juan Island destination, the clouds parted as if on cue. I saw palatial homes, mega-yachts in the harbor and a pretty little town marching down a hillside to the sea, all competing with unspoiled nature for attention.

Nature won, no contest. Now if I could just spot a whale or two, I’d be happy.


I’d heard this remote island offered over-the-top scenery and great whale watching. My goal was to catch sight of an orca. About 85 of the endangered whales frequent the Salish Sea, home to the San Juan Islands, and most sightings occur from May through the end of September. My visit, in July, fell within the time period. With a little luck, I’d see a pod.

Although the San Juan chain includes 170 named islands, only three — Orcas, Lopez and San Juan — offer accommodations. Friday Harbor on San Juan ranks as the star, a historic seaport with a range of hotels, restaurants, boutiques and activities.

San Juan’s stately waterfront mansions and multimillion-dollar yachts attract the platinum credit card crowd; it’s the kind of place that draws regulars who could vacation anywhere in the world.

Instead they come to party and play in this Pacific Northwest paradise, named by Travel & Leisure magazine as one of the top five islands in America.


The islands, originally settled by Native Americans, have been favored for centuries for their temperate climate. The Chamber of Commerce brags that San Juan receives 247 days of sun annually and only about half as much rain as Seattle, which helps draw visitors.

For 75 days every summer, the population leaps from about 5,000 to 20,000 as visitors swarm San Juan to enjoy sunny, mild weather that rarely tops 80 degrees. Tourists bike, hike, kayak and sail, eventually drifting into a blissful state of existence that locals call “island time.”

I learned to appreciate the condition while exploring the 55-square-mile island by car. The first clue: No stoplights. Next, I noticed street names. It’s hard to be tense when you’re ambling down Frog Song Trail.

If that’s not enough to rehab jittery nerves, just consider San Juan Island’s colorful history, which always draws laughs.

The Pig War, a 12-year standoff between British and American troops, had only one casualty — a British pig that habitually stole potatoes from an American settler’s farm. The face-off began in 1859 and wasn’t resolved until the early 1870s. Nonetheless, no shots were fired, except for the one that killed the pig.

Costumed history buffs reenact the Pig War era every year.

It was my fortune to visit San Juan Island National Historical Park ( during the late July event, where I learned about 19th century pastimes, including how to wash laundry in an outdoor tub and how to curtsy when meeting a royal. Who knows when I might find a use for these new skills?

With that thought in mind, I hit the road again, feeling as if I had almost succumbed to island time. I cruised along back roads that were a dozen shades of green, with tunnels of tree branches overhanging the highway. At ground level, grasses and wildflowers caught my eye.


Birds soared above, but I saw no mammals, although the island has red fox and Columbia blacktail deer. So when I spotted a dozen graceful animals grazing in a pasture at Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, I stopped to enjoy the scene ( They didn’t qualify as wildlife, but they didn’t scurry away, either.

At South Beach I climbed over mounds of driftwood that the current had deposited on the sand. The rough-and-tumble shore offered Olympic Mountain views, and I scanned the horizon for a sign of whales.

No luck, but a local told me to try “Whale Watch Park,” a few miles northwest ( The 36-acre rocky shoreline, officially known as Lime Kiln Point State Park, features a scenic lighthouse, rough trails that wind through Pacific madrone trees and offers panoramic water views.

I staked out a prime point of land and watched for flukes, to no avail. But the spectacular scenery made up for it, and I was now fully in the grip of island time. I couldn’t care less about alarm clocks, schedules or work. For me, island time meant the kind of serenity you find when walking through a lush cedar forest, watching a kingfisher dive for its supper on a calm blue sea or staring at a star-filled night sky.

Certainly it means other things to other travelers. And for them, Friday Harbor offers galleries, boutiques, restaurants and activities such as kayaking and biking.

At Roche Harbor(, on the north end of the island, you can explore a marina, visit a gift shop or restaurant, check out a sculpture park or watch the striking of flags at sunset during a pomp-filled ceremony called the Retirement of the Colors.

Enjoyable, but I was still hoping to see orcas, so I hopped aboard the Victoria Clipper III for a whale watching cruise( I was cheered to learn that the company has a success rate of 95%. My heart sank, however, when the captain announced at the beginning of the trip that we weren’t likely to see whales that day. And he was right. The whales had apparently taken the day off.

On another day, and in another place, I might have been upset. But, hey, I was on island time. I chilled instead.


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