This week’s post is a throwback. It’s not Thursday so let’s say it’s a Memory Monday post. That’s a thing, right? Orcas Island is part of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state. Visiting this region was on our PNW bucket list for years. We finally got around to it shortly before leaving on our long-term travels.
We spent Christmas on Orcas Island last year and it was exactly the relaxation we needed after the busy holidays. We were able to get outside and connect with nature during the winter plus complete 2½ puzzles during our stay (real party animals, I know). We’d love to visit again, especially in the off-season. Here are some of our favorite things about what’s known as the Emerald Isle.
Journeying to Orcas Island
The trip starts out fun! Ferrying to the island is a beautiful and peaceful experience. You can grab a hot chocolate or a beer (whatever your warming beverage of choice may be) and stroll around the ferry. The deep rumble and chug of the engine combined with the gentle swaying of the craft sets the tone for the slower rhythm of island life.
If you visit Orcas Island in the off-season it’s easy to find reasonable accommodations. We stayed at the Buck Bay Shellfish Farm, paid less than $100 per night, and can’t imagine a more hospitable experience. Our lodging even included a vacation cat. That’s right, we had our very own feline friend named Turbo during our visit. (Technically her name was Turbo Killer, but we dropped the Killer part because she really was the sweetest thing and fortunately didn’t bring us any “gifts”.) Seriously, if you have a chance to stay at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm, you should do it. And say “hi” to Turbo for us!
I find waterfalls lovelier in the winter than in the summer. Perhaps you can see more of them because of the diminished foliage. Or maybe it’s the variation between the thundering wall of water emerging from the quiet snow-clad forest. Regardless, Moran State Park on Orcas Island has some spectacular winter waterfalls. You can traipse along Cascade Creek to see multiple falls and rapids.
We had beaches that are usually crammed with people in the summer, completely to ourselves. One of our first excursions was to Obstruction Pass State Park where we walked along the beach at sundown and never saw another person the entire time. Later in the week we stopped at Judd Cove Preserve, which has a smaller shoreline, but it was also empty except for us.
As you may have gathered, there’s a whole lot of hiking to be had on Orcas Island. Moran and Obstruction Pass State Parks as well as Turtleback Mountain Preserve offer a diversity of terrain. We hiked through lush forests, around lakes, along coastal shorelines, and up mountains to expansive vistas. Budget travel tip: We’ve written about the Washington Discover Pass before but to re-cap, if you visit state parks at least 3 days in year (or stay at DNR campgrounds) it’s a great deal.
It goes without saying that the seafood here is phenomenal, but we didn’t have a bad meal of any kind our entire stay. If you visit in the off-season you don’t have to wait for tables or book reservations way in advance. Here are our recommendations:
Island Hoppin’ Brewery – hang out and play some games while sampling their beer.
Madrona Bar and Grill – right on the shoreline so it’s a good place to grab a pint and lunch while taking in the views.
The Mansion Restaurant at Rosario Resort and Spa – order the octopus ceviche, you won’t regret it.
Mia’s Café – wholesome and fresh breakfast fare.
The morning we spent at the Doe Bay Resort Spa was the most relaxing time of our trip. (Had to work out those shoulder knots from puzzling.) I’d say that hot tubs are undeniably better in the colder seasons when there’s a stark contrast between the frigid air and the hot steamy water.
The Doe Bay soaking tubs are positioned over a rumbling brook that drops below the misty pools and runs out to the bay. It’s a clothing optional establishment so just don’t be surprised if you end up having a conversation about saving the whales with someone in their birthday suit.
History and Art
Orcas Island has plenty of history and art to keep you entertained indoors on rainy days. The Moran Mansion Museum is free and fascinating. It reminds us of Pittock Mansion in Portland, except free. Did I mention it’s free? I guess we’ve always been budget travelers. Orcas Island Artworks Gallery is another fun stop (also free). There are lots of galleries, art shops, and theater productions to explore. Here’s a link to the current cultural happenings on the island.
In addition to letting us borrow their cat for a week, Toni and Mark, the incredibly kind and generous owners of Buck Bay Shellfish Farm:
• stocked our kitchen with a dozen fresh eggs from their chickens
• supplied us with a 5-gallon pail of fresh oysters
• showed us how to shuck said oysters
• were exceptionally patient with my lack of oyster shucking abilities
• invited us to a hearty and entertaining Christmas dinner
• took us into the bay during low tide to harvest more oysters to bring back to Portland
When you visit Orcas Island in the winter you get to see what life’s like outside of the busy tourist season. It’s a close-knit community of some of the most hospitable folks we’ve ever met. The people there are connected not only to one-another but also to the land in a unique way. They don’t take things for granted. They relish each moment, bounty, and task in a way that we seldom see in cities. If you have a chance to travel to Orcas Island in the off-season, we wholeheartedly recommend it. Who knows, you might even learn something from a local hitchhiking around the island. Shhhh, just don’t tell our mothers that we pick-up hitchhikers.
Have you been to any of the San Juan Islands? Which island did you visit and what was your favorite experience there?