Around 100 miles north of Seattle, you'll find hundreds of islands in the northwest Salish Sea. About 174 have names, and four main isles are reachable by ferry: Orcas Island, San Juan Island, Lopez Island, and Shaw Island. They're carpeted with evergreen trees and sandwiched between Canada's Vancouver Island and the mainland.
In 2013, President Obama designated San Juan County a National Monument. The dry season during summer is the best time to visit, and you can row past porpoises, go scuba diving, taste mineral-rich seaweed, climb tall and ancient trees, take art classes, or lick the sweetness of ripe fruit off your fingers at orchards. It's sheer bliss.
Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan islands by a small margin, but going from east to west takes just over half an hour by car. The terrain is mountainous and vividly green, so beautiful the locals cheesily call it "Orcasmic." Nature lovers can spend idyllic days stand-up paddle boarding, swinging off tree ropes, swimming in lakes, jumping off cliffs and bridges, and hiking until their calves burn—family vacations don't get better than this.
The skyline on Orcas is remarkably devoid of tall buildings, and you can expect a digital detox. Moran State Park has many scenic trails, and Rosario Resort has an inviting spa if you want to remain stationary.
If you're in the mood for cycling, Lopez Island can make your San come to life. It's flat, won't make you huff and puff too hard, and the drivers are patient and accommodating. The landscape flows from a coastal dream to the forest and countryside, and you don't need to bring your own bike for long and leisurely rides. Look for the seals playing on pebbled beaches and eat at some of the best restaurants in the region.
Whale watching is a given when you come to this part of the States, and you don't always have to travel out to sea to spot the local orcas. FYI, they're technically dolphins.
Stretches of shoreline, including the one at Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island, offer a peek, and you can spot minke whales, gray whales, and humpbacks. Go sea kayaking along the Cascadia Marine Trail, and you'll float right past these magnificent mammals before setting up camp for the night. The whale museum on San Juan Island provides further insight into the biodiversity.
In 1859, there was a four-month diplomatic dispute about where the US border ended, and the UK border began. This dispute is known as the Pig War and was thankfully short on violence but for a murdered hog. You can learn about it at American & English Camp National Parks on San Juan Island. Ride scooters here for fun, and keep an eye out for an Osprey eyrie.
While you're at English Camp, you must summit Mt. Young for unforgettable views of Garrison Bay's glistening waters, the Olympic Peninsula, and various islands—the panorama will imprint itself on your retinas. It's a steep ascent, but only a mile long, and dogs on leashes are welcome too. Westcott Bay Sculpture Park and the Afterglow Mausoleum are nearby.
Roche Harbor gets busy during peak periods, but you'll want to stop here for a meal, ice cream, or drinks and to shop for souvenirs while catching glimpses of the marina. Take bougie pics near Hotel de Haro and head to the McMillin Mausoleum, AKA the Afterglow Mausoleum, at the Roche Harbor Cemetery for an eyeful of the stunning rotunda. You'll want to do a spirited photoshoot here, even as you're a stone's throw away from the dead.
The San Juan Islands are big on self-sufficiency. It's no surprise, then, that a sustainable ethos prevails, and there are impressive organic farm-to-table dishes to sample. Beyond the delicious gourmet food, you can meet alpacas, drink up the vineyards and cideries, visit Pelindaba Lavender Farm with its fragrant purple fields and lavender-themed treats, and shuck oysters at a farm too. Farmers' markets dot the islands on weekends.
San Juan Islands Museum of Art is situated in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and is open four days a week. It's an intimate venue celebrating the fine arts with three exhibitions of paintings, sculptures, photography, and other mediums, such as glass. You might see works focused on the Vietnam War, Native ceremonial masks, or rotating displays with local or international themes. There's also student art and pieces that reflect flora and fauna from this part of the world.
Charter a small yacht if you can, and take in the islands from the malachite waters. You can hire a skipper if you have little sailing experience and fish, read a book, sunbathe, or play cards with peace of mind. Unpredictable cell reception means you can go offline for proper R&R and savor the relative seclusion. You won't have to pay for extra whale-watching tours or marine safaris, and the orcas really put on a show when you linger long enough. Make stops at the various islands to go clamming or sightseeing on land.
Fidalgo is seen as the gateway to the San Juan islands, but it has its fair share of charm. Once you're done walking along the docks in Anacortes, head to Old Town for fresh seafood or Washington Park for the vistas over the archipelago. The Roozengaarde Display Garden is 15 minutes away from Fidalgo island and immensely popular, so go early or on a weekday. There are 1000 acres of various bulbs, including daffodils and irises, and the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in spring is a riot of color.