This was just posted to the Conde Nast Traveler website
Written by Rebecca Misner August 02, 2016
On remote Orcas, off the coast of Washington State, the summer is short, the days are long, and the empty beaches, gin-blue lakes, and dense forest trails add up to the castaway vacation you’ve been dying to take.
Although I’m from the Pacific Northwest, I hadn’t heard of the San Juan Islands until my mid-twenties, when I was living in New York and dating my now husband, Alex, who grew up on Orcas. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I feigned knowledge of his seemingly exotic origins—pre-Google, it took me weeks to figure out that the San Juans were not some Caribbean island-nation but an archipelago of about 175 forested and rocky islets scattered along the Salish Sea, which separates Washington State from Vancouver Island, British Columbia. (Orcas is the largest of the four reachable by passenger ferry.) I’d listened to Alex’s stories about having just 35 people in his graduating class, taking a ferry to play a rival basketball team, not to mention sailing, hiking, and fishing after school—there being no malls or 7-Elevens to slack in. But it wasn’t until I visited a few years later that I finally grasped how tiny and off the grid the island really is—you can drive the 20 miles from Deer Harbor, on the western edge of the M-shaped island, to Doe Bay, on the far eastern side, in about 35 minutes—or how Mowgli-esque his childhood had been.
Alex’s family’s home is on the eastern lobe, where we spend most of our time. It’s a mountainous, lush area, heavily forested with Douglas firs and enormous cedars. The best hiking and all of the clear freshwater lakes are here too, which means it’s where swimming and cliff-jumping take place. (The latter is an Orcas teen rite. of passage that Alex introduced our New York friends to when they decamped to the island for our wedding—the groom and officiant took the plunge about an hour before the ceremony.) The center of the island is mainly rolling farmland with grazing sheep and horses, while the western side is dry and rocky and the vegetation a little scrubbier, giving it a vaguely Mediterranean feel. It’s also, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of this place, and where you’ll find the stunning Four Winds Westward Ho—a throwback of a sailing camp that’s been around since the 1920s. Anyone can enroll their kids, as we do, though to my daughter’s dismay the girls still wear bloomers and middies. Aside from a few more places to eat, and the introduction of stand-up paddleboarding to the island’s water sports repertoire, Orcas looks remarkably as it did when I first arrived 20 years ago. And with no stoplights, big-box chain stores, or tall buildings, it has seemingly changed little in more than a century.
The San Juans’ first recorded inhabitants, the coastal Salish tribes, considered Orcas to be a sacred place. There’s a part of the island, Madrona Point—a wild, rocky outcropping thick with twisted, ruddy-barked madrona trees that grow right down to the water—that only Lummi nation tribal members are allowed to access. Orcas’s first white settlers were Hudson Bay men sent in the mid-1850s to hunt black-tailed deer—and who, knowing a good thing when they saw it, decided to stay on, marry local Lummi women, and become homesteaders rather than return to Vancouver Island.
The 1960s and ’70s somewhat predictably brought artists, organic farmers, and other idealists looking for utopian simplicity, while the 1980s, when my in-laws moved to Orcas from Oregon to take over the local newspaper, saw a bizarrely diverse set of transplants. They included followers of the spiritual sect Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment (leader JZ Knight, who claimed to channel a 35,000-year-old sage named Ramtha, moved her publishing operations to the island—Ramtha’s sword is supposedly buried somewhere on Mount Constitution); Hollywood types like producer Richard Donner (of Goonies and Lethal Weapon fame); and outdoor-brand moguls such as surfboard and sailboat designer Hobie Alter and Oakley eyewear founder Jim Jannard. In the 1990s, Microsoft money quietly flowed into the San Juans (Bill Gates owns property on nearby Shaw, Paul Allen on Lopez) in the form of subtly expensive, beautifully constructed post-and-beam summer homes. Recently, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a wavelet of young entrepreneurs, artists, and farmers relocated to Orcas to pursue their passions without the high risk, rent, and competition of big cities.
But regardless of when locals arrived, they all cite similar reasons for staying: the island’s pulse-charging natural beauty (there’s even a cringeworthy term for the landscape’s dizzying effect—Orcasm) and its almost primordially human pace. Days are planned around the weather and tides and remain free of mainland intrusion, since cell phones only work in the town of Eastsound (and only sometimes). But also, without fail, they’ll pause, shrug, and resort to words like calling, magical, and spiritual.
Clearly there is magic at play. But for me, it’s not the type that comes from Ramtha’s buried sword. Rather, it’s from returning again and again to an island that so gracefully captures all that is glorious about summer.
LIVE LIKE A LOCAL
Planning a trip to Orcas isn’t plug-and-play, but it’s not daunting (and totally worth it) if you have the right intel.
Finding Your Way There
Orcas is not easy to get to, which is why, even over a holiday weekend in summer, you’ll see only one or two other hikers on the trails and will have the rope swing at Mountain Lake to yourself. You can get to the island by boat or plane.
If you’ve got half a day, going by Washington State Ferry is a nice intro to the region’s geography. Fly into Seattle-Tacoma International, rent a car (you’ll need one on Orcas), and drive 100 miles north to Anacortes to catch the car ferry to the San Juans. (In summer, make a reservation at least two weeks in advance.) During the hour-long trip, you’ll cruise by tiny Blakely, Cypress, and Decatur islands, and maybe see pods of orca whales, or a weekend regatta, before stopping at Lopez and Shaw. The time-pressed should consider flying by seaplane: Kenmore Air will pick you up at Sea-Tac and take you to Lake Union in downtown Seattle. From there the six-passenger crafts fly breathtakingly low—the Space Needle is at eye level as you leave—and when you veer west (try to sit on the left side of the plane), you’ll see all the way up the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Canada. Alternatively, Kenmore can shuttle you to nearby Boeing Field, where you can take a small Cessna plane to Orcas’s airport in Eastsound. Once there, you can rent a car.
You’re not going to Orcas for its hotels, most of which are fine, if fusty and dated. The better move is to rent a house. Vacation Doorways has a strong portfolio of rentals—many of them Pacific Northwest modern style, meaning lots of glass and wood with an expansive great room, large wraparound deck, and beach access. If you don’t mind going simple, reserve a waterfront cabin. My favorites are Cabins-on-the-Point on Massacre Bay, on the island’s western side (the two-bedroom house and cluster of early-twentieth-century cabins are ideal for groups), or the log cabins at Beach Haven Resort, on the northwest shore, where the sunsets are spectacular (these book up quickly with regulars, though).
Alex and I have made some of our best summer meals on Orcas. You can find any staples at Island Market in Eastsound. For fresh produce, hit the Saturday-morning farmers’ market in town. It’s a place to hang out as much as to shop—there’s often a local bluegrass band playing, and the prepared food is fantastic (get a round of fried oysters and papusas topped with crema and hot sauce). The best vendor for heirloom tomatoes, baby lettuces, new potatoes, and berries is Maple Rock Farm. Other market highlights: wildflowers from island growers and local fruit preserves from Girl Meets Dirt (the peach-chamomile jam is heaven on toast). We go to Buck Bay Shellfish Farm in Olga at least once a day. Toni Knudson, who runs the farm with her husband, Mark Sawyer (Mark’s family has been farming oysters and clams here since the early 1930s), will shuck a few Pacific oysters for you to eat while you decide what looks good for dinner. There’s usually local salmon (king, silver, or sockeye), Manila clams (small and tender and great in pasta con vongole) or the meatier littlenecks (excellent grilled with a little butter and fresh herbs), and Dungeness crab. For wine, fresh-baked bread, meats, and cheeses, Roses Bakery Cafe in town is the place.
Getting Out of the Kitchen
As lovely as it is to have your own setup, there are excellent places to eat out—most take full advantage of the access to amazing seafood, island-raised beef and pork, and produce. Stop by Brown Bear Baking on Main Street for a pre-hike coffee and a pastry—any order should include the flaky, buttery kouign-amann and at least one of the huge, gooey sticky buns. The best lunch spot on the island is The Kitchen: It’s little more than a few picnic tables beneath a large corkscrew willow tree, but its take on healthy, fast Asian food has earned it a die-hard following—get the chicken or vegetarian pot stickers with zesty plum sauce and the fried tofu and sesame rice cakes with crispy kale, prawns, and ginger-wasabi-soy sauce. You’ll want to go to Hogstone’s Wood Oven for dinner twice: once to sit outside and drink beer and eat chef/owner Jay Blackinton’s divinely thin wood-charred pizza (the smoked tomato and goat cheese, and Mangalista pork with peppers, are particularly good pies), and a second time to eat in the cozy dining room, with its ambitious locally sourced and foraged tasting menu and well-curated wine list. For a cocktail and classic Northwest farm-to-table cuisine in a (slightly) more formal environment, the restaurant at the Inn at Ship Bay is always solid.
It’s All About the Water
Because of the island’s M shape, there’s a lot of protected shoreline to explore, and sea kayaking is the best way to do so: It’s not uncommon to paddle past orca whales, Dall’s porpoises, and harbor seals while bald eagles and peregrine falcons circle overhead. Shearwater Kayak Tours in Eastsound offers three-hour and full-day trips. Our favorite is the afternoon trip from Doe Bay Resort & Retreat, on the remote eastern tip. It’s so peaceful—it seems like there are fewer private and commercial boats on this side—and we always see a ton of marine life. Bonus: When you return, you can pay a drop-in fee and use the resort’s sauna and hot outdoor mineral pools (they’re clothing optional, which is no big deal unless you run into someone your husband went to high school with). Afterward, head down a fern-lined path to the sound and plunge into the ocean; you may even see some bioluminescence—and during the ten seconds you brave the icy water, you’ll glow.
The Hiking’s About the Water Too
There are dozens of different hikes on Orcas, from casual rambles to serious climbs. The three-mile loop around Cascade Lake in Moran State Park is one of the easier, family-friendly hikes. You’ll have multiple opportunities to swim along the way—from a tame swim park (there’s a lifeguard on duty as well as paddleboards for hire), to a more thrilling jump off a 20-foot-high bridge that separates the lake from the lagoon, to a staggered group of cliffs that only the brave (the lowest cliff is a 25-foot jump) and the stupid (the highest feels close to 60 feet) should attempt. Other gentle hikes include the loop around Mountain Lake (there’s a rope swing near the start if you’re going clockwise) and the half-mile hike to Obstruction Pass, which ends at the best tide pools on the island. My favorite hike, and one of the more difficult, starts at the summit of Mount Constitution and, on a series of thigh-killing switchbacks through old-growth forests, takes you down to Twin Lakes, accessible only by trail.
Worth Their Weight
Despite the 25-pounds-per-person luggage limit on seaplanes, I always bring something back. There are a number of well-respected artists on the island, but my two favorites are master potter Jerry Weatherman, who sells out of his studio, Olga Pottery, and wood shaper Rob Thornber, whose work can be found at the Orcas Island Artworks. Both reference the island beautifully: The glazes Jerry uses on his ceramics—deep indigos, cold grays, black-greens—capture the Orcas palette, while Rob somehow manages to lathe-turn solid pieces of local madrona wood into whisper-thin, organically shaped bowls. Back at home, I drink my morning coffee from one of Jerry’s mugs and use my enormous madrona bowl for salad nightly. It seems fitting that these summer keepsakes have worked their way into my everyday life.