Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands, has scenic and recreational delights, a down-to-earth culture and a populace of farmers, retirees, artists, arts-lovers and a smattering of hippies young and old.

Share story

ORCAS ISLAND — If life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, right? But if life hands you nettles, and you’re on Orcas Island? You make pizza.

On a recent rainy Thursday, during the weekly pizza and open-microphone night at Doe Bay Café, an overflow crowd of locals steamed up the wood-framed windows overlooking emerald-green Otter Cove. Manny’s ale fueled loud, happy conversations.

Topping the popular pie this night: nettle pesto, a sprinkling of blue cheese, Parmesan, pecans and sliced roasted beets, reflecting the guiding genius and local-food focus of chef Abigael Birrell, who has made this the restaurant everybody’s talking about on Orcas this year.

Obviously, the focus on local can get pretty basic.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“We’ve no shortage of nettles,” Heather Watts, the young overseer of Doe Bay Resort’s organic garden, told me the next day as we donned gardening gloves and snipped nettles just outside the garden fence. We mashed the nitrogen-rich, stinging stalks — the nemesis of path-straying Northwest hikers — into a water-filled tub to make “nettle tea.”

After brewing for a couple weeks, Watts said, the “tea” would make a potent fertilizer for the garden that supplies the café’s “seed-to-table” strategy.

Elsewhere, nettles are one of nature’s nuisances, but on Orcas Island they’re an asset, and that speaks volumes about the down-to-earth vibe on this largest “rock” of the San Juan archipelago.

Besides its rich growth of nettles, Orcas is distinguished for the pristine forests and lakes of Moran State Park, trail-laced mountains, and little farms pocketed among hills and dales from which black-faced lambs look up to watch cars pass every time a ferry arrives.

The people also seem a little different from the “big town” of Friday Harbor, the county seat that’s a 40-minute ferry ride away on San Juan Island.

“I think we’re more eclectic here … more involved with culture and sustainability,” said Morgan Meadows, a stalwart of the Occupy Orcas Island movement — yes, they have one — as she waved a sign from a roadside park in Eastsound, the island’s largest village. The group makes a weekly stand from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays, in between teaching jobs or doing face-painting at the farmers market.

But old-fashioned capitalism and small-town quaintness is no relic here: At a table just around the corner, two young teens sold lemonade and 50-cent brownies to make a few bucks after school.

Where hippies were happy

It might be notable, too, that humble Doe Bay, home to the healing-arts Polarity Institute in the 1970s, a hippie retreat in the 1980s, and renovated in recent years by new Seattle owners, still draws crowds with its yurts, rustic cabins and clothing-optional soaking tubs (www.doebay.com). Meanwhile, a few miles down the road, once-proud Rosario Resort, a high-society enclave built around the 103-year-old mansion of 19th-century shipbuilder Robert Moran, is struggling back from the auction block after a 2008 financial bust.

“Doe Bay is Orcas,” said Jeffri Coleman, 54, lifelong Orcas Islander and co-proprietor of Crow Valley Pottery, the granddaddy of island galleries (www.crowvalley.com).

While moneyed newcomers have built fancy bed-and-breakfasts, he says with tongue-in-cheek asperity, “If you want to stay at a French château, go to France!”

Another longtime islander bemoaned that visitors “are smitten” when they first come, but if they move to Orcas, too many then find fault with things such as the rural public services without appreciating “every splendid thing, like the ridgelines and the valleys and the inviting glimpses of coves and little beaches that are magical, and the osprey by Cascade Lake, the oystercatchers along Crescent Beach, or the ouzels in the streams at the state park.”

Orcas, shaped like a giant horseshoe cleaved almost in two by the waters of East Sound, feels more geographically diverse than other islands in the San Juans. It’s the only island with more than one official U.S. Post Office — in fact, it has four: in Eastsound, Orcas village, Deer Harbor and even the tiny hamlet of Olga, where a “For Rent” sign fills the window of the only store. Each village has its own personality.

“Olga even has its own parade, for the Olga Daze (festival, in July),” Coleman said.

“Does it last about three minutes?” a visitor asked with a grin.

“If it goes around twice!” Coleman laughed.

High on Orcas

The island’s most famous geographic feature is Mount Constitution. The San Juans’ highest point, at 2,400 feet, is the crowning glory of 5,000-acre Moran State Park. Visitors can drive (or ambitiously bike or hike) up to a stone lookout tower offering views of snow-clad Mount Baker and soaring eagles, along with eagle-eye views of boats of all sizes threading among islands spread below like blue-green lumps of clay waiting for a sculptor.

These days, another landmark beckons hikers, bikers and equestrians, thanks to local conservationists’ 2006 purchase of Turtleback Mountain, which occupies a chunk of the island’s western half.

From a distance it looks like a turtle, with a dark green “shell” and the hump of a “head” at one end. The late Weyerhaeuser tycoon and one-time Boy Scouts of America president Norton Clapp owned it for many years as a retreat with only a tiny cabin at the top.

“It is truly the most iconic property on the islands, because it’s the most visible from all the islands — from San Juan, Lopez and Shaw, it’s this beacon,” said Lincoln Bormann, director of the San Juan County Land Bank, as he led me up one of the trails developed by his agency, which manages Turtleback’s 1,576 acres as a nature preserve.

Trails meander up through fir and hemlock woods and break out into steep meadows of dry grass dotted with glacially-scraped rocks and gnarled Garry oaks.

“There’s Tiptop Mountain and Spieden Island and Yellow Island,” Bormann recited fondly as he looked out at views to the northwest. New in the past year: the Lost Oak Trail, built by volunteers and the Washington Conservation Corps, creating almost seven miles of trails on the mountain (details and maps at www.sjclandbank.org/turtle_back.html”>www.sjclandbank.org/turtle_back.html).

Preserving farms

Back on the road just below Turtleback, we pulled into Coffelt Farm, another recently preserved Orcas treasure — a 185-acre Crow Valley farm that was up for sale when the owners sought to retire a few years ago.

The Land Bank purchased it and handed over management to a nonprofit, which gets help from the longtime farmers, Vern Coffelt, who was born on Turtleback, and his wife, Sidney. Under the arrangement, the couple may stay on the farm as long as they choose.

“It’s one of the more productive and complete farms on the island,” Bormann said.

“We just had a pig that had 11 babies, and we had 120 lambs this year!” said farmworker Ruthie Dougherty, who was at the counter of the farm’s little shop, which that day offered everything from organic Purple Majesty potatoes and fresh rhubarb to socks made from the farm’s wool. There’s also a freezer full of meats, all from Coffelt Farm. (Unfortunately for visitors, the farm stand is open weekdays only.)

Pick up dinner fixings, take one of the farm’s occasional workshops, such as Beekeeping Basics (2-4 p.m. June 23, $20), or come for the Aug. 18 Summer Farm Tour (see www.coffeltfarm.org).

Culture, too

Orcas has a sophisticated population of retirees, and the arts are a big part of island life. Galleries are easy to find in Eastsound, and Orcas Island Artworks in Olga (www.orcasartworks.com) is a good reason to drive across the island to see the output of local visual artists and crafts-

people (and have lunch at Café Olga).

Residents and visitors alike can also enjoy artwork, dance and theater at Orcas Center, a publicly funded cultural center under the new direction of Kara O’Toole, former director at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center.

New at Orcas Center, on the edge of Eastsound, are satellite-beamed, big-screen viewings of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the National Theater of Great Britain, including opera on five Friday nights this summer ($11-$15 for nonmembers).

An August attraction: the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, Aug. 10-25, plus a day of “hamlet concerts” Aug. 9 in Olga, West Sound and Deer Harbor. See www.orcascenter.org.

Rosario tunes

Or if you prefer no-cost entertainment that’s been an Orcas Island staple for years, head to Rosario Resort, where manager Christopher Peacock sets the Moran mansion’s foundation shaking with his gleeful renditions of “Phantom of the Opera” themes on the mansion’s 1,972-pipe Aeolian organ (free to the public, 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday in summer).

With new owners, Rosario has been replacing guest-room furnishings this spring and renovating the lovely old mansion. The resort recently added to its room offerings by acquiring the neighboring Cascade Harbor Inn. The comeback is definitely still a work in progress, but they’re making headway (www.rosarioresort.com).

Visit Orcas in autumn and end your day with a thrill ride: Have a friend drive you to the top of Mount Constitution, then mountain-bike all the way down on trails that are open to bikers Sept. 15 to May 15.

If you accidentally veer into a patch of nettles: Get revenge. Go for pizza.

Brian J. Cantwell is The Seattle Times’ Outdoors editor. Contact: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.