By Jack Riley
Where do you like to escape to on San Juan Island to enjoy the summer splendor?
Though San Juan Island may not be more than 15 miles long, there are a ton of unique locations packed into this Pacific Northwest paradise. One of my favorite locations to explore is the Roche Harbor trail network. While the resort in and of itself is gorgeous, a stroll out of the core and into the miles and miles of designated nature trails will yield tranquil ponds, dense forests, and sprawling meadows.
Many people know the San Juans for their biodiversity, whether on land or sea, and I have become quite a fan of our local wildlife since I moved here five years ago. A few of my personal favorite spots to get out and see wildlife and landscapes are False Bay at low tide, the rolling hills and steep cliffs of Cattle Point with 180-degree views of the Strait of Juan De Fuca as well as the Cascades and Olympics, and (for those looking to break a sweat) the top of Young Hill with panoramic sights stretching clear out to Canada and beyond.
The island has also become world-class destinations for amazing culinary experiences. In your opinion, what are a few of the best bites around?
A big part of what makes San Juan Island stand out from other destinations is the fact that all of our restaurants are one-of-a-kind, privately owned businesses, operated by passionate individuals that want to offer the best in both product and service. I may be slightly biased, but my favorite place to get a bite to eat is Chef Bill Shaw’s Lime Kiln Café here at the Resort. Serving classic, diner-style breakfast and lunch dishes, this local gem has large proportions that do not disappoint, from belt-busting breakfast burritos to mouthwatering burgers and sandwiches.
Of course, would it really be a culinary hotspot if we didn’t have a brewery? We are proud of our one and only San Juan Island Brewing Co. and the award-winning beers they create and serve at their Friday Harbor location. Not only can you get one of their island-inspired brews—such as the Yachter’s Daughter Lager, Harbor Hefe, or Bull Kelp ESB (to name just a few)—but there is a full food menu as well with pizzas, burgers, and salads.
While restaurants do a great job of satisfying hunger, a place that takes the term “culinary experience” to the next level is Westcott Bay Shellfish Farm. This working shellfish farm located on Westcott Bay on the north end of the island is a must-see for all seafood lovers. Visitors can choose to dine at the water’s edge in the on-site restaurant, taking full advantage of the expert shelling and preparation of the products, or they can opt to purchase the shellfish and take them home to prepare on their own.
Sometimes a sit-down dinner is not in the cards and it’s time for a more relaxed and simple meal. August typically provides many days of sun and with that comes some beautiful sunsets. One of my favorite summer evening traditions is to pick up a pizza (or many pizzas) from Van Go’s Pizza in Friday Harbor and head out to the Westside Preserve with friends and family for a sunset picnic.
It’s a summer tradition for many NWY readers to moor at the marina for a weekend respite: Which land excursions do you recommend they take in during their stay?
Roche Harbor Resort is a starting point for many boaters and as soon as you are off the dock, there are activities that await such as a stroll to the McMillin Memorial Mausoleum, a historic piece of infrastructure designed by and immortalizing the family of John S. McMillin, the founder of the Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Company (the predecessor to Roche Harbor Resort). There is a lot of symbolism in this unique stone fixture located in the middle of the forest.
There are also a number of small businesses that I would recommend visiting including the San Juan Island Distillery (also within walking distance of Roche Harbor), the San Juan Vineyard, as well as the Pelindaba Lavender Farm. The distillery makes amazing spirits and ciders and has tastings every Saturday. The vineyard grows and produces wine at an idyllic setting in the inner-island, plus they have a tasting room and sprawling grounds to enjoy the fruits of their labor in style. The lavender farm is an influencer’s dream location for a photoshoot, with boundless fields of blooming purple lavender and aromas that even the best of perfumes could only dream of matching.
Of course, cruising the picturesque waters is another hallmark of summer here. What fun nearby spots can you recommend for boaters to explore?
There are so many places to visit out on the water, it’s hard to know where to start. I have a 17-foot Boston Whaler and have extensively explored the waters around San Juan, more specifically the northern end so that is the area with which I can share my insights. Jones Island is a state park located between Orcas Island and San Juan Island and it is a favorite spot of mine to visit on a summer day, whether just for a daytrip or to spend the night. There are public restrooms and campsites perfect for a campfire and s’mores, as well as a public dock and mooring buoys.
Another location to check out is English Camp on San Juan Island. As its name implies, this was the settlement of choice for the British during the Pig War, an international conflict that occurred on San Juan Island in the mid-19th century. A few of the historic buildings remain and the grounds of the camp, located on the picturesque and quiet Garrison Bay are worth a stroll. (Just be sure to anchor out and dinghy in, as the dock itself is not in deep water.)
For those looking to entertain or be entertained while out and about on a cruise, there are a number of intriguing landscapes and potential wildlife hotspots throughout the northern San Juan Island waters. Flattop Island, a National Wildlife Refuge, sits just to the north of San Juan Island and presents some very unique geological structures on its sheer northern side. Layers of rock undulate horizontally in a way that is rarely ever exposed. A pass by this section of earth is worthwhile and I have even seen the whale watching tours take their guests by. It’s saying something if they’d rather show them a rock than some orca whales!
Another environmental phenomenon that’s worth checking out is the backside of Spieden Island, a privately owned island with quite the storied history. While the south-facing meadowed side of the island is more well-known, the forested, rocky, and dark northern side hides one of the area’s best natural features: a rock archway. Yes, that’s correct. It may not be as large as the iconic arches in Utah, but it’s still amazing! It can be hard to find but my best directions to find it would be that it’s directly perpendicular to the western side of Cactus Island to the north and there is a large tree directly atop the arch that stands alone from the rest of the forest. The arch is at the waterline and is best experienced fully exposed at low tide.
ABOUT THE EXPERT: Roche Harbor is and has been my home for almost a decade—and I plan on it being so for many more to come. I was lucky enough to be hired as a dockhand back in 2013 and spent my college summers working on the docks. After graduating college and a brief break working in a corporate setting on the mainland, I came back and worked in the administrative department of Roche Harbor Resort for five years before recently returning to work in the marina. It’s hard to put into words how special San Juan Island is, specifically Roche Harbor Resort. It’s more something that has to be experienced to be known, but if I had to describe it, I would say that the number one thing that makes this such a unique location is the community. Sure, being in a small town in a beautiful part of world helps, but it’s the people and shared appreciation of our island that seals the deal on why I choose to live here and so many people visit every year. Many boaters return to Roche in part because of the relationships they have built with the staff here. Whether it’s a specific member of the team they look forward to seeing on the docks, in the restaurants, or around the resort, or simply the interaction with our staff and guest service as a whole, the personal interactions and connections that are made in Roche can last a lifetime.