What's new this summer on San Juan Island? Zip lines, a walking path, local gin, a waterfront inn and more.
SAN JUAN ISLAND — On this big island of bucolic farms, quirky history and salt-splashed shores with some of the world’s best whale watching, most visitors from the city come to slow down — thus the motto of Friday Harbor’s newest inn: “Ready. Set. Slow.”
This summer, though, on what is one of Washington’s most treasured vacation playgrounds, visitors have a choice: Crank up the excitement, or take things even slower.
The “slow” part comes naturally. Blood pressure notches down with every passing madrona-spiked cliff along the hour-plus ride to get to San Juan Island, aboard lumbering white and green Washington State Ferries from Anacortes.
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But you can drop your heart rate even more this summer by skipping auto lines at the ferry dock, coming as a walk-on passenger, then being an early explorer on parts of a nearly completed 6.5-mile walking route connecting Friday Harbor with one of the island’s more popular scenic attractions: American Camp, site of a 19th-century military post overlooking the wide and windswept Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Or, if that “crank it up” part gave you a little adrenaline jolly, here’s that part of the news: Zip lines have come to the San Juans.
Twist and shout with your friends and family as you fly like a tethered turkey — harnessed for safety — gliding on wires stretched between tall firs and cedars and over a lake and wetland between Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor.
Zip San Juan (www.zipsanjuan.com) started its second season here in April, with eight zip lines, offering a three-hour experience including a shuttle from Friday Harbor. “It’s another great reason for people to come up here,” said Deborah Hopkins, director of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. “It’s just another great outdoor adventure.”
Natural beauty and the rural experience are the big draws here, even on this most populous island of the San Juan archipelago. San Juan Island, with about 7,500 people, still has no traffic lights and no chain supermarkets or restaurants — there aren’t enough people here in winter to support a McDonald’s.
While recent decades have seen little subdivisions sprout on the edge of Friday Harbor, and visitors make the town bustle in July and August, drive just five minutes out of town to find two-lane country roads past farms with cattle, horses, alpacas — even a lone camel named Mona.
Ponds dot the island like sprinkles on a big (and grassy) cupcake. Along with old barns are houses converted from old barns. At Lime Kiln State Park, orca whales come right up into the shore kelp as they patrol for salmon. Above, look for eagles, and in meadows, black foxes — so common that some homeowners have to shoo them off their porches.
Some people who’ve moved to the island have the feeling of “pull up the ferry dock now that I’m here,” said Bill Severson, of the island’s citizen-run Trails Committee, a group of dedicated trampers and trail-builders. “And while we don’t need more people to move here, it is a magical place that should be shared.”
The number of cars on the island in summer, however, “is reaching the tipping point of too many, so we’re looking at how we can make it work for more people to come here without cars.”
One goal is to build more trails accessible from town. His group is nearing completion of the Cattle Point Road Trail, connecting to American Camp. While some stretches follow little-used back roads, most is dedicated footpath through salal, wild roses and hawthorne scrub, filled with the tin-horn tootling of nuthatches and other bird calls.
Signage is still a work in progress, though, so for now you might settle for the first section through fields and woods skirting the Friday Harbor Airport (see the website), or contact the trails group for details.
The group offers free guided “Know Your Island” hikes the fourth Saturday of every month. More info and trail maps at www.sanjuanislandtrails.org.
Other means of exploring make it easy to come car-free. There’s a summer-season van shuttle, San Juan Transit (www.sanjuantransit.com), which connects Friday Harbor to major attractions such as Lime Kiln Park and English Camp, part of San Juan Island National Historical Park, which together with American Camp commemorates the so-called Pig War, a 19th-century military occupation of the island in which the only casualty was a British-owned oinker shot by an American settler.
Susie’s Mopeds offers rentals in Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor (www.susiesmopeds.com). You can ride your own bike aboard the ferry (no lines!), or rent from Island Bicycles (380 Argyle Ave., Friday Harbor; www.islandbicycles.com).
“There are more and more things for people to do here in summer,” said Paul Ahart, who has run the bike shop since 1986. “Years ago, there were just bikes and mo-peds to rent, and a couple whale-watching operations. Now there’s a plethora of kayaking and whale-watching outfits, and the number of bike rentals has gone up year by year.”
If you’ve noticed Pelindaba Lavender’s new franchised store in La Conner — and coming soon to San Francisco — see where the purple comes from on San Juan Island: Bike to Pelindaba’s 25-acre Wold Road farm at bloom time.
“It’s spectacular in July and August — it’s just a mass of color, and you can smell it for miles around,” said owner Stephen Robins, who recently opened a low-profile processing plant where most work is done by hand, all by island residents (www.pelindabalavender.com).
Among new adventures on the water this summer is a three-day “Brew and Boat” kayaking tour with local Outdoor Odysseys kayak tours (www.outdoorodysseys.com) and Oregon-based Full Sail Brewing. (Think Full Sail IPA and baked Brie with pecans after a day of kayaking.)
Near Roche Harbor, visit the year-old San Juan Distillery, which recently introduced Spy Hop Gin (with a “spy-hopping” orca on the label), made from apples grown on Westcott Bay and botanicals ranging from wild roses to lavender and even tree bark.
“We’re using locally foraged ingredients to make a high-quality natural product for people on the islands, and if that makes us a tourist attraction, that’s awesome,” said Suzy Pingree, a partner in the distillery, which will open for tasting every Saturday from Memorial Day to Labor Day (www.sanjuanislanddistillery.com).
Happy to walk around Friday Harbor? There’s something new right in town for food lovers. The historical Brickworks, off Sunshine Alley at Nichols Street, is the new home for the island’s farmers market, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on summer Saturdays. The venue includes an outdoor patio with live music as well as artist booths (www.sjifarmersmarket.com).
And if you’re looking for a new place to stay, Friday Harbor’s latest addition is the Island Inn (“Ready. Set. Slow.”), which opened last May (www.123west.com).
On a former Chevron oil-tank lot directly above the Port of Friday Harbor marina, the inn is a gem of modern design, with green-building certification, an artistic sensibility and touches of wry humor reflecting its owner, artist Misty Todd. Thus the inn’s windowless, less-is-more “Euro” units and their tiled showers with depth markings like a swimming pool — complete with “no diving” signs. Looking for fancier? Book a harborview penthouse suite. (The website rates each unit with a “view-o-meter.”)
From there, you can dive into Friday Harbor, almost literally.
• This is the first story in a summer-long series spotlighting islands in the San Juans. Next month: Orcas Island
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org