Lopez Island, the first stop for ferries to the San Juans, has fewer residents and tourists than islands farther along the route. And its drivers share an iconic habit of waving.

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LOPEZ ISLAND — One hates to define a place by its clichés, but sometimes there’s truth to be found.

“On Lopez, everybody does ‘The Wave,’ ” an Orcas Islander told me before I embarked for Lopez.

It’s a bit like what you see on the back roads of Hawaii, where locals salute each other with the “hang loose” sign.

But the Lopez wave isn’t that demonstrative. In fact, it’s barely a wave at all — more a lifting of one finger from the steering wheel when cars pass.

Of “the big three” islands in the San Juans — San Juan Island, Orcas and Lopez — this is the only place you’ll regularly get waved at. It’s emblematic of Lopez, which is about half as big as the others and, with about 2,400 year-round residents, has half the population of its next most-populous sister, Orcas. It seems the Lopez populace is still rooted in a time when everyone knew everyone else. So they wave.

An island of farms and more farms, pretty little bays and more pretty little bays, Lopez has a laid-back lifestyle, and that’s the other cliché.

“Have you heard, they call it Slow-pez?” a Seattle friend with a Lopez vacation home asked before I left the city.

“Some people call the islanders Slow-pezians,” said John Warsen, my Long Island, N.Y.-bred host, when I checked in at Lopez Farm Cottages.

“Everybody calls it Slow-pez,” I heard again as I rented a bike at the local cycling shop.

I guess it’s unanimous: Welcome to life in the slow lane.

Even newcomers

Just off the ferry, as a pickup passed from the other direction, I got the wave.

Wanting to be friendly, I lifted two fingers, immediately branding myself a rashly exuberant off-islander.

“It changes how you drive! I used to hold my hand on the bottom of the wheel, and now I have to have it up top!” said Tim Shea, a former Bellevue restaurateur, who with his wife, Kristin Shea, moved to Lopez this past winter and took over Lopez Village’s long-established Bay Café. They’ve renamed it simply “The Bay.”

Lopez, named for Gonzalo Lopez de Haro, a Spanish sea captain who explored the islands in 1791, is something of a paradox. The first stop for Washington State Ferries as they plod the route from Anacortes into the San Juans, Lopez is the closest to the outside world. Yet it feels the most rural and least touristed of the commercially developed ferry-served San Juans. (Insular, residential Shaw Island is a whole different story, which we’ll tell another time.)

“We’re not far enough, everybody has to go a little farther — to the source of the Nile!” chuckled Warsen, whose five modern, cozy cottages edge a grassy meadow dotted by giant glacial-erratic stones that give mute testimony to the island’s geological past (www.lopezfarmcottages.com).

“My understanding of Lopez is: First, they logged it, and the wood went to Seattle; then they grew fruit here, which also went to Seattle, until Eastern Washington got irrigated and they started growing fruit there; so then they fished for salmon here, and now the ‘run’ is tourists!” Warsen said.

But in the battle for visitors, Lopez is a minor power, if only because there aren’t that many places to stay. Warsen’s is one of a handful of commercial lodgings. The one place that calls itself a resort, the Lopez Islander, is a 60-year-old, 30-room motel with marina on shallow Fisherman Bay, the island’s principal harbor (www.lopezfun.com).

A few bed-and-breakfast inns, cottages and vacation-home rentals add to the mix, along with waterfront campgrounds at Odlin County Park and Spencer Spit State Park. Coming for a summer weekend? Better have a reservation.

It takes a village

Island life revolves around the one town, Lopez Village, where Holly B’s Bakery seems the center of the universe. I nibbled a turkey and Gruyère croissant while looking over the bulletin board outside, with an ad for roasting chickens from Super Natural Farm, along with notices for a Saturday yoga circle and the big production of “The Wizard of Oz” at Lopez Center for Community and the Arts.

The biggest news in town was when the island’s only supermarket moved into a fancy, larger building two years ago. Not much changes fast on Lopez.

“It’s a dream come true for me,” said Chamber of Commerce manager Lia Noreen, a refugee from urban life. “I live smack dab in the middle of the island. We can see the Olympics, and we have an eagle’s nest nearby. My husband whistles and they come for trout that he catches in the lake.”

Slow the pace may be, but the Sheas, the new cafe owners, feel confident about the business climate. They’ve brought white tablecloths, fancy wineglasses and an upmarket menu to Lopez (www.bay-cafe.com). So far, the results have encouraged them.

“And I haven’t worn a tie since I got up here, and that’s awesome!” Tim Shea said.

Like many island restaurants, they emphasize local farm products. Lopez has no shortage there.

Passionate about producing

Dedicated farmers include 34-year-old Nick Jones, of Jones Family Farms (jffarms.com), whom I met at an open house on the shell-strewn beach at Shoal Bay, where he farms clams and oysters. Showing a small crowd of islanders a Quonset hut where he’s just starting to seed geoducks, he talked passionately about his self-taught profession.

“This is some of the absolute best shellfish in the world. We’re rewarded for our water quality. We’re rewarded for maintaining our ecosystem.”Another proud businessman, Michael Cherveny, 33, came from Hawaii and last year opened Village Cycles (www.villagecycles.net) in Lopez Village. It’s the second bike-rental shop on the island, which is considered the San Juans’ best cycling island because it’s the flattest, with scenic rural roads.

Cherveny led me on a bike ride to Shark Reef Park, where we left our bikes unlocked — that’s Lopez — and walked on a trail through salal and ferns to a rocky perch overlooking Cattle Pass. The narrow channel that flushes saltwater from the crowded archipelago into the Strait of Juan de Fuca was uncharacteristically serene.

“I came down here once and saw two eagles in courtship in midair — it’s quite the dance they do!” said Cherveny, lounging on a boulder in his tie-dye sweatshirt and European cycling cap. “And there are usually seals down on the rocks here. It just brings peace and solitude to me, to get to experience nature in ways I haven’t before.”

On our ride back, we passed perhaps the prettiest little white steepled, picket-fenced, hilltop-perching church in existence. Built in 1887, Center Church is still used for Lutheran and Catholic services.

We pedaled past farms with sheep and cattle, hedges of wild roses, old orchards and a Grange hall or two.

I felt my heartbeat slow. And every time we passed a car, I waved, slipping into the Slow-pezian lifestyle. It barely required lifting a finger.

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