Just off the northwest coast of Washington, the sleepy San Juan Islands are a bit of a well-kept secret, beloved by locals who long to get off the grid and into the beauty of nature. Each of them has its own character and charm, but the crown jewel is Orcas Island, the largest and lushest in the group. Pastoral and pristine, it boasts a patchwork of evergreen forests, open farmland, fjord-like waterways and rocky beaches. With less than 6,000 residents and not a single stoplight or a major chain store, Orcas makes for a blissful summer getaway and the perfect place to enjoy a few days of unplugged family time.
Although Orcas Island isn’t named for those distinctive black-and-white whales, this area is among the best places in the world to see them. Whale watching cruises are numerous, and in season (roughly May through October), you’re likely to spot orca pods as well as humpback whales and other species. We chose Deer Harbor Charters, the oldest such operation in the San Juans, and spent a gorgeous day on the water with our captain, naturalist and a small group of other passengers. While the orcas didn’t put in an appearance, we followed a pair of humpbacks for quite a while (magnificent!) and encountered lots of sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles and more in the process.
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One of the best ways to take in the scope of Orcas’ beauty is to paddle around its shoreline. From April to September, Shearwater Kayak Tours leads excellent 3-hour excursions that depart from points on the island’s eastern and western lobes; kayaks are tandem, so younger children can ride along with a parent. If you have teens with enough stamina, Shearwater also offers a full-day version that includes stops at some of the small islands nearby. Note that minimum ages for all kayaking trips range from 5 to 15, depending on location and length.
Orcas is a hiker’s dream, with trails of all difficulty levels crisscrossing the landscape. Our two favorites were the half-mile hike down to the rugged beach at Obstruction Pass (a great spot to explore tidepools, as described below) and the 3-mile loop around the clear blue Cascade Lake, home to a low bridge from which you’ll often see locals jumping into the water. Don’t be surprised if the kids beg to follow their lead! A more intense hike leads to the summit of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans — your reward is a breathtaking vista over the archipelago.
At low tide, Orcas’ tidepools offer an impressive variety of marine treats: sea stars in brilliant red, orange and purple; moon jellyfish; sea cucumbers; anemones; tiny crabs no bigger than a thumbnail. We spotted these and other creatures in spades at Obstruction Pass and also at Indian Island, accessible by a thin spit of land that gets swallowed up as the tide comes in (keep an eye on your watch). Bring a guidebook with you so kids can identify what they find.
Eastsound, a small, picturesque town at the hub of local life, is a pleasure to stroll. With one main thoroughfare and a handful of side streets, it’s so easy to navigate that parents will feel comfortable giving older kids the freedom to wander. A surprising variety of restaurants and boutiques are clustered here; our favorites included Brown Bear Baking, which serves wonderful pastries and breakfast fare; The Kitchen, offering quick and fresh Asian dishes; the cozy and well-stocked Darvill’s Bookstore; and Kathryn Taylor Chocolates, where you’ll find handmade confections with Orcas-inspired flavors like Douglas fir. Splurge on dinner at Hogstone’s Wood Oven, where every ingredient is sourced on the island and the wood-fired pizzas are exquisite (opening hours are limited, so book well in advance).
Orcas has a rich and thriving arts tradition, and Orcas Island Artworks in the little community of Olga houses the work of more than 40 artisans. This is a wonderful place to find a special souvenir or a gift; there’s a cute cafe onsite too. We also enjoyed stopping at Olga Pottery down the road, the studio and shop of friendly potter Jerry Weatherman.
On summer Saturdays, Eastsound hosts an open-air farmers’ market. Don’t miss it if you’re in town — kids love markets, and it’s fun to mingle among the stalls selling local produce, handcrafted food items, jewelry, clothing and more.
There are two ways to reach Orcas: by ferry or by seaplane. We rented a car in Seattle (you will definitely want one to get around the island) and drove north to Anacortes to board the car ferry. The ferry ride takes about 75 minutes; it’s smooth and easy, with ample indoor seating and outdoor deck space, a small cafeteria that serves snacks and simple meals, and beautiful scenery along the route. Or if you prefer, catch an hour-long seaplane flight from Seattle, then pick up your rental car when you arrive.
TIP: Orcas pairs nicely with a short stay in Seattle. We spent three nights in the city followed by four on the island, an ideal balance for both.
Orcas comes alive in the warm months. Although it never feels truly overrun, vacation traffic hits peak levels mid-June through August. Shoulder season — late April and May, very early June, and September — brings lighter crowds and reliably pretty weather. The San Juans lie in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, meaning that they see less precipitation than other points nearby (we had four full days of sunshine and blue sky). This is the Pacific Northwest, though, so pack that waterproof jacket just in case.
The island has only a handful of hotels and resorts, most notably the Outlook Inn and Rosario Resort & Spa. We opted for a vacation rental in downtown Eastsound and loved the location — it’s nice being just a couple of minutes’ walk away from the best shopping and dining as well as basic services. The tradeoff is that staying in town comes with a slight amount of noise and bustle; for true tranquility, book a property farther afield. CB! Family Vacation Advisors can help you choose the right rental from a vetted portfolio.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Lisa Frederick.
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