North and west of Whidbey Island, midway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, the unspoiled SAN JUAN ISLANDS are scattered across the northern reaches of Puget Sound, with plenty of small-town charm, culinary treats and killer whales offshore. Every summer brings lots of visitors, especially on the largest islands, San Juan and Orcas, so you’re well advised to book your stay and transport in advance. Ferries depart Anacortes on the mainland, eighty miles north of Seattle, where you can also catch services to Sidney in Canada.
Horseshoe-shaped ORCAS ISLAND offers a bucolic getaway with rugged hills that tower over its fetching farm country, craggy beaches and abundant wildlife. The island’s highlight is Moran State Park off Horseshoe Highway southeast of Eastsound (the main island settlement), where more than thirty miles of hiking trails wind through dense forest and open fields to freshwater lakes and to the summit of Mount Constitution – the San Juans’ highest point at 2409ft – crowned with a medieval-style stone observation tower.
San Juan Island
SAN JUAN ISLAND is best known as the site of, at the southern tip, San Juan Island National Historical Park, where the American Camp (360 378 2902, nps.gov/sajh), once played a role in the so-called “Pig War”, a rather absurd 1859 border confrontation between the USA and Britain (no shots were fired, and the island was officially ceded to the USA in 1872). More appealing is English Camp, to the west (same entry as American Camp), where forests overlook rolling fields and maple trees near the shore, and four buildings from the 1860s and a small formal garden have been restored.
Friday Harbor is a small and attractive resort village with cafés, shops and a waterfront that make for pleasant wandering. Its small Whale Museum, 62 First St N (whalemuseum.org), has a set of whale skeletons and displays explaining their migration and growth cycles, as well as a listening booth for whale and other cetacean songs. To see the real thing, head past the coves and bays on the island’s west side to Lime Kiln Point State Park, 6158 Lighthouse Rd, named after the site’s former lime quarry. Orca (“killer”) whales come here in summer to feed on migrating salmon, and there’s usually at least one close sighting a day.