Would you like to go on a weekend get-away? Someplace quiet, laid back and off the grid? How about, if it was a kind of artsy place with a lot of great local scenery, curious shops yet not far from nature? Join me for a short trip to Orcas Island in the San Juans.
Any day you spend in Washington’s San Juan Islands is a good day. October 20, 2010 we spent three days with my son and his wife, Shawn and Brittany Ernst, on Orcus Island. It was a moment to celebrate Shawn’s retirememt from the Navy after 10 years, getting his bachelor degree and landing a great job. Way to go son, we’re very proud of you.
Orcas Island (pronounced /ˈɔrkəs/, not */ˈɔrkəz/) is the largest of the San Juan Islands, located in the northwestern corner of Washington state in San Juan County, Washington. The name “Orcas” is a shortened form of Horcasitas, or Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, the Viceroy of Mexico who sent an exploration expedition under Francisco de Eliza to the Pacific Northwest in 1791. During the voyage, Eliza explored part of the San Juan Islands. He did not apply the name Orcas specifically to Orcas Island, but rather to part of the archipelago. In 1847 Henry Kellett assigned the name Orcas to Orcas Island during his reorganization of the British Admiralty charts. It was this work of Kellett’s that eliminated the patriotically American names that Charles Wilkes had given to many features of the San Juans during the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842. Wilkes had named Orcas Island “Hull Island”, after Commodore Isaac Hull. Other features of Orcas Island named by Wilkes include “Ironsides Inlet” for East Sound, and “Guerrier Bay” for West Sound. One of the names Wilkes gave remains, that of Mount Constitution. Wilkes’ names follow a pattern: Isaac Hull was the commander of “Old Ironsides” (the USS Constitution) and won fame after capturing the British warship Guerriere in the War of 1812.
Approximately an hour and twenty minutes from the mainland city of Anacortes by ferry, Orcas is home to an eclectic community of artisans and small cottage businesses. Its diverse landscape of mountains, wooded countryside and spectacular vistas make it a popular destination for both day trips and extended vacations.
Eastsound is the largest town on the island and is home to a variety of accommodations and restaurants. Four other small communities, Olga, Deer Sound, West Sound and Doe Bay are scattered across the horseshoe-shaped island and have a range of galleries, artist studios and shopping amenities.
Moran State Park is located near Eastsound and is a favorite camping location. Mount Constitution, which towers 2,409 feet, affords a spectacular 360-degree view of the surrounding parklands and islands.
Many people, however, come to Orcas to tour the countryside by bicycle or to kayak the fjords and coastal waters. Day tours are available through several local companies on the island.
Orcas Island can be reached from the mainland via a leisurely ferry ride from Anacortes or by seaplane from Seattle or Portland, Oregon. Visitors should plan visits ahead of time and check ferry and plane schedules. Not all of the ferries stop at Orcas Island and travel times vary according to the time of day. Orcas Island also makes an ideal lunch or dinner stop from any of the adjacent San Juan Islands.
We arrived on the 3:00pm ferry from Anacortes after an hour and a half ride. We drove north along the west side of the horseshoe shaped island, through Eastsound to our accommodation at Smugglers Inn on the north shore of the island. Fog was hugging the north shore by the time we got there and it was almost dark. Our accomodations included a 2 br/2 bath condo that sat right on a small canal with a nice view of the north shore. Much to our surprise the manager voluntarily offered us an additional discount on top of off-season rates.
The next day, after a leisurely breakfast, we began showing Shawn and Brittany some of our favorite places on the island. It was a typical foggy fall day so we decided to go see Orcas Island Pottery first as it was not far from our condo.
Orcas Island Pottery the oldest pottery in the Pacific Northwest, it is located on West Beach only 3½ miles from Eastsound, in an area of old growth cedars and Douglas fir, on a 100 foot high bluff overlooking President’s Channel.
When you turn off the main road onto the long driveway into the woods, you feel like you are entering a fairyland. As you arrive at the O.I.P. parking lot you will notice a sign for the ‘Foot Path’ that leads you down into the yard. There, you will follow the pathways to discover this magical place with its beautiful gardens, fountains and, of course, lovely pottery. It’s a whimsical adventure. Along with displays in the main building, there is a cabin, another show room building in the yard, and a huge tree house. It was too foggy to see the channel so we enjoyed exploring the buildings and the yard.
The next stop was a visit to Mt. Constitution on the east side of the island in Moran State Park. There is a good paved road to the top of this 2409 foot mountain and we hoped to get out of the fog a bit. On the way up the mountain we stopped off and did a short hike into a couple waterfalls.
On a clear day, the lookout on top of Mt Constitution offers a wonderful 360 degree view. The day we were there, it was foggy and visibility changed from moment to moment.
We went back to our condo at Sugglers Cove just a bit before sunset. This night was clear and we could enjoy the view of the dock and the bay.
We discovered that many of the island restaurants were on an “off-season” schedule or closed. We finally settled on dinner at Risarios. Rosario Resort, the island’s largest hotel, is the former estate of shipbuilder Robert Moran and offers first-class dining and accommodations, as well as sweeping views of sound. The restaurant had changed hands in recent years and the menu more limited than in the past. After dinner, we returned to our condo and played a few gamex of Hand and Foot. It had been years since we played this card game so it took a bit of re-learning.
The next day was clear. After breakfast we decided to explore some of the more distant portions of the island. We first drove to Westsound and prowled the dock at Deer Harbor. It was a beautifullly, warm and sunny afternoon. The drive thru the hills and valleys dressed in fall colors was wonderful. As there was still some daylight left, we drove back around this island to browse the towns of Eastsound, Olga and Doe Bay.
Eastsound is the largest town on the island and is a vary artsy kind of place. We browsed several of the shops and galleries and enjoyed the beautiful view of the bay.
Olga is a quiet little place. The store that is the main attraction in this small community was closed. The post office was open. We walked out on the dock just to take in the view.
Doe Bay is an alternative resort on the southeast end of the island that has a well-developed natural hot springs (clothing optional). There are cabins, yurts, a store, restaurant and other amenities there. We took a short tour of the resort and while looking at the garden, saw a very strange looking deer. It was so dark by then it was hard to get a good picture. You can see it is a speckled brown and white.
We decided to get an early dinner at Caffe Olga. This is an art gallery with a small restaurant. The off season menu was more limited than the summer menu but we enjoyed a good meal and a browsed through the gallery.
All life on these islands revolves around the ferry schedule. On the last day, we knew we needed to get in line at the dock at least an hour early. It is first come, first serve, so to miss the ferry would have meant at least a three hours wait before the next one to Anacortes would arrive. This gave us a chance to browse the harbor at Orcas Village and soak up some of the sunshine before the ferry ride and our long drive home.
The ferry ride through the islands is a wonderful trip of it’s own and on a clear day the sound and the islands are beautiful. Here is a look at Shaw Island as we made a stop there to pick up a few more cars before heading back to the mainland.
The San Juan Islands are a wonderful get away with their laid back, slower pace of life. I do hope you will put it on your list of places to see.
Enjoy the beauty that I saw on this trip and keep looking for the beauty in your own life.