The San Juan Islands are slowly — and very carefully — reopening in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s a road trip exploring some of our region’s rich and diverse cultures, driving north to the San Juan Islands for art, history, food and more.
Drive north to Anacortes to board the Washington State Ferry for the San Juan Islands. Travelers are asked to remain inside the car throughout the one-hour to 1 1/2-hour-long (or longer, depending on your route) journey — all the better to catch up on your reading. If going in fall or winter, bring a warm blanket as the ferries get chilly and your car’s engine must be off.
Disembark in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. The island hosts many artists, some of whom open their doors once a year for a studio tour the first weekend in June. This event was canceled in 2020 but will hopefully be back in 2021. In the meantime, the seaside town’s seven galleries sell fine art, jewelry, paintings, sculptures, artisanal furniture and Northwest Coast and Alaskan Native American art.
Griffin Bay Bookstore is a fine place to browse for a cozy mystery or bestselling novel or order one for curbside pickup, for those who love the literary arts. If you can’t find what you need at Griffin Bay, Serendipity Books is packed with more than 40,000 used titles. If fabric arts are more your speed, Island Wools sells their own vibrant, hand-dyed yarns, as well as needles and other supplies. You’ll also find various crafts, arts, and good foods at the San Juan Farmers Market, from April through the end of October.
The San Juan Islands Museum of Art rotates Pacific Northwest artists’ exhibitions and is open Friday through Monday. Artists tackle contemporary issues through various mediums, including poetry, glass, paintings, wire, and even bamboo. The gift shop offers masks featuring patterns based on Renoir, Van Gogh, Klimt, Kahlo, and Seurat. The museum’s requirements keep everyone safer — including required masks, six feet of distance and limited visitors.
For lunch, try one of Friday Harbor’s outdoor dining options. Or the hand-dipped cod and fries and a steaming bowl of New England clam chowder from The Bait Shop, which has open-air indoor seating. Before you leave, reserve and pick up an oven-ready entree from San Juan Bistro (such as lasagna for two or pan-roasted pork tenderloin) to pop into the oven later.
If you have a moment, check out the two-story-tall mural of orcas at The Whale Museum. If you have a few more moments, put on a mask to step inside and view car-sized whale skeletons and models, as well as the skull of “Stinky Bill,” a one-year-old gray whale.
As you drive north along Roche Harbor Road, you’ll pass San Juan Vineyard’s 1895 schoolhouse, where the tasting room has recently reopened on Saturdays for outdoor service. San Juan Island Distillery’s tasting room also serves Saturday sips of micro-batch gin, liqueurs and brandy, as well as ciders made from heirloom cider apples grown on-island. (If you’re here on a weekday rather than a Saturday, Madrone Cellars offers cheese, salami, wine and cider flights in Friday Harbor.)
Nothing is more socially distant than an outdoor art gallery, perhaps. About 15 minutes north of Friday Harbor, The San Juan Islands Sculpture Park’s 150-plus pieces of free-standing, rotating art collection rest on 20 acres. Meander among jury-selected pieces ranging from realistic to the abstract. A 13-foot-tall bronze mama bear and two cubs are among the park’s newest residents.
Not far from the park, the historic Roche Harbor Resort hosts the circa-1886 Hotel de Haro, named for Captain Gonzalo López de Haro, the Spanish wayfarer, said to be the first European to visit the islands. Once a former lime-mining company town, the resort’s layout includes gardens, marina, walking paths, restaurants, a few shops and an 1892 church. The engagingly odd McMillin Family Mausoleum somehow manages to incorporate Masonic Order symbols, five orders of architecture, seven liberal arts and sciences, King Solomon’s table — and lots of family drama.
If you’re looking for more rustic luxury, into one of the 82-acre Lakedale Resort‘s 700-square-foot log cabins, or one of seven deluxe yurts. Each yurt contains a king-size pillow-top bed, sleeper sofa, gas fireplace, private hot tub, smart TV, kitchenette and bathroom.
If you don’t need a kitchen and can make do with Friday Harbor’s excellent food options, Friday Harbor House offers upscale, harbor-view rooms with strict masking requirements in the hotel’s public spaces.
The next morning, break your fast with either San Juan Bistro’s take-and-bake cinnamon rolls (which you’ve reserved in advance) or housemade doughnuts from Lime Kiln Cafe. Then, take Roche Harbor Road to West Valley Road to visit San Juan Island National Historical Park’s English Camp.
In the 19th century, U.S. and British forces disagreed over the rightful ownership of San Juan Island. So, the two nations’ troops peacefully occupied two different sections of San Juan Island — now called American Camp and English Camp — and even had a friendly disagreement, now known as the “Pig War.” (Yes, a territorial dispute brought to a crisis … over a pig.)
Continue along San Juan Valley Road to Mitchell Bay Road, and left onto West Side Road, which hugs the island’s western edge and affords Vancouver Island views — and you may even spot an orca or two. At San Juan Island’s southern tip, you’ll find American Camp. While the visitors centers aren’t open at either camp due to construction or seasonal variations, you can still hike the trails and view the original Officers’ Quarters.
Along The Jakle’s Lagoon one-mile trail, 12 new interpretive panels with hand-drawn illustrations describe your environs, including surrounding forest undergrowth, Western Red Cedar, and woodpeckers. Enjoy last sweeping views of the Olympic Mountains and nature’s landscape, en plein air.
Note: Before going, read up on the San Juan Islands Visitors’ Bureau’s tips on how to plan, pack and prepare for your trip. Obey directives. The Islands take COVID-19 exposures extremely seriously, as should visitors — with limited on-island resources, the community can’t put themselves at risk. Pack your mask and hand sanitizer, and be ready to turn back if you’re sick.
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