Sam Juan Islands - Washington

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This archipelago of 237 islands is one of the most peaceful places on earth, a marine sanctuary for birds and animals, and also humans wanting to get away from stressful mainland life. The water between the islands is a playpen for young Orcas. Rocky tide pools reveal a myriad of invertebrates. Little wooded islands, left to themselves, provide high nesting places for bald and golden eagles. Loons bob on the placid waters. Dall porpoises arc gracefully as they take a look above the surface of this northern extension of Puget Sound.

These are just about the best canoeing and kayaking waters along the Pacific Coast, sheltered from ocean winds by the larger islands in the archipelago.

If we were to take an earlier view of the origins of human life, the San Juans would be the ideal place to begin history. The Lummi, who first inhabited the islands, believed that human life began in the wilderness of San Juan Island. They considered the islands to be sacred places. They still are, for reasons which can only be understood while visiting the quiet bays and secluded islands of this tranquil, life-restoring, corner of the nation.

How to Get There

Washington state car ferries bring visitors to the four largest islands from Anacortes, and from the Victoria, B.C. area. Sixty miles north of Seattle, via Interstate 5, State Route 20 leads west to Anacortes. The ferry terminal is on a point of land beyond the town. Car ferries leave here on a regular daily schedule, with ferries added during summer months. In addition to the state ferry system, private operators have operate ferries between the mainland and the islands.

Washington State Ferries

At the north end of Puget Sound (the Gulf of Georgia) there is ferry service from Anacortes, which stops at four of the San Juan Islands (Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan). All ferries do not stop at all of the islands. Once a day, more often during summer months, the ferry continues to Sidney on Vancouver Island, permitting travelers to drive to Victoria and points north on Vancouver Island. The first ferry leaves Anacortes at 6 a.m. with at least nine sailings during the day. The ferries cruise to the four developed islands, with some exceptions when the ferries don't land at them all. In order of ferry landing they are: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan. Some of the ferry runs end in Sidney, on Vancouver Island. It takes some planning to get to Anacortes (or Sidney) at the right time to catch a ferry. There may be lineups at the Anacortes terminal, during the busy summer months.

For information on all state ferries, call the following numbers. Schedules: (206) 464-6400 or 800-84-FERRY (statewide), or (604) 381-1551 (Vancouver Island/Vancouver, B.C.). Vehicle reservations are recommended during summer months from ferries leaving Orcas and San Juan islands. Call (360) 376-2134&endash;Orcas, or (360) 378-4888&endash;Friday Harbor.

Bellingham to the San Juans

The Island Shuttle Express is a passenger and bike ferry which cruises from the Cruise Terminal building, on Harris Avenue in the northwestern Washington city of Bellingham, to Orcas and Friday Harbor. The service operates from late May to the end of September, with one round-trip daily. For information, call (360) 671-1137.

Flying to and from the Islands

Four air services fly to and from the main islands (San Juan and Orcas). On the mainland, at Anacortes, West Isle Air will fly you to either island from 4000 Airport Rd. For reservations, call 800-874-4434. If you wish to fly from Seattle, Tacoma or Oak Harbor (Whidby Island), call Harbor Air Lines at 800-359-3220. From Bellingham and Anacortes, with connections to Seattle/Tacoma, call West Isle Air at 800-874-4434.

San Juan Island

San Juan has the most varied terrain of the San Juans -- with small mountains, agricultural valleys and a stunning coastline that is accessible by car or bicycle. The rocky shores of this island have tide pools which reveal an incredible array of crustaceans and other marine creatures.

The earliest settlement was San Juan Town, located at the southwest edge of the island, where the American Camp portion of the San Juan Islands National Park commemorates the early history of the island. You won't find much of this settlement remaining, and most of the island activity takes place in the town of Friday Harbor, a small community with a population of about 1,000. Visitors often outnumber residents, The University of Washington operates two scientific facilities that are open to the public. North of Friday Harbor is the marine laboratory where tours are available. A 200-acre biological preserve on False Bay offers a fine opportunity to observe inter tidal life at low tide.

The San Juan Historical Museum, at 405 Price Street, is a homestead from the 1890s, containing displays of local pioneer artifacts. It's open from Wednesday through Saturday, from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. from early June through Labor Day. One of the best whale-watching locations on the Pacific Coast, San Juan Island celebrates its fortunate location at the Whale Museum, located in the second-oldest building in Friday Harbor, at 62 First St. North. The museum is devoted solely to whale life and features a two-thirds scale skeleton of an orca and a life-size model of a baby humpback whale. Exhibits include data on the orca pods that feed in the waters off the San Juans. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., during summer (an admission fee is charged).

Art galleries, bookstores, cafes and grocery stores are found on Spring Street and connecting streets. The National Parks Service operates a visitor center on Spring Street, where you can obtain a map for the historic walking tour of the town. Cycling is a favorite way of getting around the island, and bicycles may be rented from Island Bicycles at 380 Argyle, call (360) 378-4941). Many visitors leave their cars on the mainland and use bicycles to tour the island. Mopeds provide another way to get around, and are available from Suzie's Moped at Churchill Square, just above the ferry departure lanes (call 360-378-5244).

American Camp is located near the southeast end of the island, accessed by driving down Cattle Point Road. This national park site has a great walking beach, a one-mile historic trail to the American redoubt and the site of the Hudson's Bay farm -- the home of the fateful wandering pig, which nearly brought the British and American sides to combat. Cattle Point, at the tip of the island, has its own picnic park and beach.

Roche Harbor

Fifteen minutes' drive from Friday Harbor, the resort at Roche Harbor is one of the region's most unusual and fascinating vacation haunts. In its first incarnation, it was a Hudson's Bay trading post, servicing the nearby British encampment, until limestone was discovered in the surrounding hills and thirteen quarries were developed. Then a lime and cement shipping operation was started in the mid-1800s. The property and business changed hands several times until the early 1880s, when Roche Harbor was purchased by magnate John S. McMillin, who turned the operation into a multimillion dollar mining and shipping industry.

By 1886, he had built a complete village with a hotel (Hotel de Haro), houses for his workers, and a church. His lime works were the largest lime operation west of the Mississippi, and ships carried the lime to ports down the Pacific Coast, until the operation closed in 1956. With a penchant for building monuments to himself, McMillin constructed a dramatic and eerie mausoleum -- in the woods, near the village -- for the burial of himself and his family.

In 1956, the Tarte family purchased the whole village and have turned it into a resort that includes a large marina, an excellent restaurant, the Victorian Hotel de Haro -- looking exactly as it did in the early days of the century -- and condominium units that provide modern accommodations for visitors. In front of the hotel is a formal garden in the English style. To the west of the resort, across the Puget Sound waters, are several state park islands. A hike to the south takes you to British Camp and the Mount Young Trail. The resort has its own paved airstrip.

Roche Harbor celebrates its past with special observances, including a daily lowering of the colors -- at sunset. Flags are lowered while the national anthems of Britain and Canada are played. The American flag is lowered to the strains of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." This marks the end of the day and the start of party-time on the many visiting boats and in the resort's bar. This festival atmosphere provides quite a contrast for the visitor who has spent the day in quiet reflection, while canoeing through the islands' quiet inland waters.

Shoreline Parks

False Bay is indeed false, half of the time. At low tide the water disappears to leave a mud flat with tide pools. This is one of the University of Washington's biological research sites; it's open to the public. Lime Kiln State Park offers picnicking and a view of the Lime Kiln Lighthouse. This is the nation's only whale-watching park, and one often sees pods of killer whales feeding on the salmon which feed here while on their way to the mouth of the Fraser River. San Juan County Park, to the north, is on Smallpox Bay. Scuba diving, beach combing, and picnicking are popular activities in this park. On the northeast side of the island is the Reuben Tarte Picnic Area, on a tombolo -- a small rocky peninsula that connects two coves.

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