A recent adventure began on a steamy, record-setting day at Palihotel Seattle. From my fourth-floor oasis in the air-conditioned comfort of the funky boutique hotel across from Pike Place Market, I glimpsed twinkling Elliott Bay. I could nearly see Pier 69, where I’d climb aboard the San Juan Clipper the next morning.
As the hazy skyline simmered into softer sunset hues, I watched ladybugs march across the exterior of my window, the illuminated Great Wheel spinning below. It felt like a lucky start to the first of three great staycation day trips from the Seattle waterfront: whale-watching in the Salish Sea, kayaking and hiking around Blake Island, and a day trip to Bainbridge Island. Here’s how to get there.
Board the Clipper bound for the Salish Sea
The vibe loading my sleek Clipper vessel was friendly and laid-back, and each staff member seemed elated to be back on the open waters. Although international travel across the Canadian border remains suspended, the San Juan Clipper now offers half- and full-day whale-watching excursions from Pier 69 on the Seattle waterfront. (The half-day whale-watching tour, from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., costs $129 for adults and $79 for kids up to age 11; the full-day tour around the San Juan Islands, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., costs $139 for adults and $71 for kids.)
Plush new seats — think tranquil aquatic hues — make the interior cabin a pleasant place to hang out, yet as soon as we got permission, I beelined for the sun-kissed viewing decks. While welcoming comments were made overhead, the boat cruised past West Seattle’s beaches and lighthouse, where kayakers took morning paddles. We veered toward Vashon Island, and the water sparkled as if adorned by a billion shards of glass.
It’s naturalist Carlyn Schmidgall’s second summer on board, and the Issaquah native’s oceanography expertise quickly became clear on our voyage. She cheerfully revealed that our day had no set agenda: “We let the wildlife determine our path.” Clipper belongs to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a collection of 29 commercial whale-watching companies that share reports of sightings. Within the association, no one uses tracking or tagging — or sonar or radar — to find wildlife within the Salish Sea.
As we followed sighting leads from other boats, Schmidgall shared facts through her mic: Salish Sea consists of Puget Sound (technically a fjord), the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. It’s also home to 250 species of fish, 170 types of seabirds, 38 mammals and four species of whales. “The array of life we have here is truly something spectacular,” Schmidgall said.
It took only 30 minutes for our boat to come upon a thrilling find about 8 miles from shore — five majestic transient orcas slicing across the water. There were audible gasps on deck each time they reappeared — sometimes in synchronized leaps — a “National Geographic”-esque scene taking place in my own backyard. This mammal-eating population is expanding, Schmidgall reassured us, with plenty of food still available; for the southern resident killer whales, however, it’s a different, devastating story due to dwindling salmon supplies.
Washington directives require that boats don’t get closer to transient killer whales than 200 yards; additionally, the boat tries to stay alongside them instead of going in front or behind. Boats also slow to below 7 knots within a nautical half-mile, fly “whale alert” flags and disengage engines if the whales approach them. “Regulations are also far stricter, and far more complex, for our endangered southern resident killer whales,” Schmidgall said.
At one point, I peeled away from the real-time spectacle for a bite from the cafe counter (a tasty turkey sandwich from Alki Bakery). I enjoyed a quick chat with Jason Mihok, a seasoned captain who let us follow the mesmerizing whales for a couple of hours, keeping an eye on changes in their behavior.
Some moments almost felt scripted, like when an eagle appeared just as we spotted a flock of harlequin ducks chilling on rocks alongside some sunning seals. Later, an orca reemerged from the blue expanse, its exquisite black-and-white body directly in line with the distant Space Needle.
Mihok’s favorite part of this gig? “Being out on the water on a day like this,” he said.
After four-plus hours, we wove back along the coastline. Frequent narration kept passengers’ attention amid the consistent beauty, exploring topics like the region’s original, Native habitants, European settlers, and modern-day attractions like Smith Tower. In my book, the first day had been a whale of a success.
Hop on the Argosy ferry to Blake Island
On a much cooler summer Friday, I boarded an Argosy Cruises boat bound for Blake Island Marine State Park. (Round-trip tickets are $29.) Throughout much of the 45-minute journey (soon to be quicker, with the July 26 return of the fast ferry), a young passenger pretended to “surf” on the front deck. We soaked in stunning views and reread our itinerary, featuring a two-hour guided nature walk ($20).
Other Argosy passengers had chosen island options like kayaking (an hour for $50), paddleboarding ($25 for the hour) or wine tasting ($20). Some would attend the Coast Salish Cultural Presentation ($18) in the Tillicum Longhouse (which I’d seen some years back). Cultural supervisor Frank Mather (Makah, Tsimshian) played an integral role in developing this one-hour exploration of the history, masks, regalia, ancestral dances and storytelling of Coast Salish tribes. (These activities are offered through September.)
Once we offloaded, it was time to explore the island. We met up with nature guide Roniq Bartanen, a hairdresser who discovered her passion for birding nine years back. She credits a bus driver in Denali National Park for changing her life path when he asked if she’d ever considered taking a naturalist guiding course.
Bartanen came armed with a camera, binoculars, a small bag of pine cones and a bevy of knowledge. She gave us a quick overview of the land, which is the rumored birthplace of Chief Sealth and the ancestral camping ground of the Suquamish Tribe. Due to the land’s logging history in the 19th century, she explained, much of the forest is now second- and third-growth; during Prohibition, the island was used as a smugglers’ refuge.
After a warning to steer clear of pesky stinging nettle, we set off. It turns out Bartanen wrote the tour script herself, so there was no one better to lead the way. We learned that the sub-500-acre island has 8 miles of trails and 170-plus plants and trees, from the omnipresent Douglas firs to recent developments of pink honeysuckle. Our small group marveled at intricate ecosystems growing off nurse logs and paused to admire distinctive birdcalls, which Bartanen could identify within seconds. She taught us memorable phrases like “cedar swoops, hemlock droops” and confirmed that no bears call this place home. (Deer do, though.)
Before looping back, we strolled the idyllic camping beach on the island’s western side. A harbor seal bobbed its head as the Seattle skyline came into view; I spied a (harmless) garter snake slithering into the ferns. “The island is magical that way,” Bartanen said. “You just turn the corner, and see different things.”
Bartanen intentionally talks less on the walk back, perfecting the balance between showing off nature and not consuming guests’ attention every second. “I want them to experience the forest on their own,” she said. “Whatever that means to them.”
Moments before our hike ended, we spotted a resident eagle perched in its preferred treetop. Having worked up an appetite, we ordered lunches from the Longhouse Café and enjoyed them al fresco. (Nearby, a curious raccoon tested our boundaries.) More welcomed sights included the blue heron proudly perched on the dock edge and paddlers swishing by in bright kayaks.
When 3 p.m. rolled around (there are multiple round-trip voyages daily; see argosycruises.com), we boarded the boat along with gear-toting campers who had stayed over on this special island. Before leaving, visitors walk under an archway that reads “NDM-AL-GYIK-NIIDZN” — “Until we meet again” in the Sm’álgyax dialect.
Take a day trip to Bainbridge Island
On a misty Tuesday, I set out on the week’s third excursion — a day trip to Bainbridge Island. I made my way down to Pier 52 through an obstacle course of orange construction barriers and coffee-carrying tourists. Not long after climbing aboard the MV Kaleetan ferry (fun fact: Washington state’s ferry system is the largest in the country), I was already breathing easier. I quickly fell into step with carefree vacationers who scoured old-school maps and pointed excitedly to Seattle sights we were leaving behind in our gray-green wake. (It’s $9.05 for round-trip, walk-on fare; seniors and youths ages 6 to 18 are $4.50.)
I watched the foggily obscured skyline grow smaller throughout our 35-minute journey to Bainbridge. Once we’d arrived, I followed the foot traffic for less than 10 minutes into the downtown Winslow area, where the main drag is lined with eateries, boutiques and vendors like Coquette Bake Shop, hard to miss with its wafting aromas.
First order of business: Get to the water ASAP. I strolled the length of Winslow Way, turned left and felt the draw toward Winslow Wharf Marina. The clouds burned off as I paused to suck in briny sea air, ogle clever boat names and take photos of whimsical rock art by Ethan Currier. A Van Morrison tune played on a nearby patio, whisking me away to a dozen vacations past.
Nearby I picked up a latte from Pegasus Coffee House, a sweet neighborhood spot where a bulletin board showcases enviable events, from the First Friday Art Walk series to free Live on the Lawn! shows put on by Bainbridge Performing Arts. I then meandered back into town, past a stunning English walnut tree in front of the historical Captain’s House and a huge banner reading “Stronger Together.” It felt obligatory to duck into Eagle Harbor Book Company, a wonderfully stocked independent bookstore that’s been an island staple since 1970.
I picked up lunch from the takeout counter at Thuy’s Phó House Vietnamese cafe, savoring my prawn banh mi and fresh papaya salad under a courtyard umbrella. In the happiest surprise yet, three men at the next table pulled out instruments. To my delight, they played unplugged tunes ranging from Irish ditties to Bob Marley jams. We struck up brief banter in between songs. “[Bainbridge] is a nice place,” one of them said with a grin. “It feels almost trouble-free.” As I noted the straw hats, Hawaiian shirts and ice cream cones in my midst, I couldn’t help but agree.
On the way to my afternoon ferry, I popped into Bainbridge Brewing Alehouse, a 21-and-over venue that’s located 2 miles from the brewery. I ordered a pint of the brewery’s delightful sour and plopped myself on the shaded patio, a prime perch from which to watch the steady stream of pedestrian traffic, bicycles and motorcycles that rev onto the island with each arriving ferry. Across from me, a large sign on the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art announced its Summer Art Market (every Sunday through Aug. 15).
Fueled by sunshine and perhaps the empty pints on their tables, chatty tourists befriended one another, sharing their favorite Washington discoveries thus far. Soon it was time for me to join the ferry queue; the mainland was calling my name. The return sailing showed off both Bainbridge and Seattle (and surrounding peaks) in all their summertime glory.
With the water and mountains all around, one needn’t go far from Seattle to have an adventure.