Getting to Orcas Island takes a little effort. Reachable only by air or ferry, the largest of the San Juan Islands in Washington State has a peacefulness and beauty all its own that makes spending time here worth the effort. A week probably makes more sense to realize the island’s full potential, but we had only 24 hours, just enough time to scratch the surface of the island’s potential. It was tough, but we found 24 hours in Orcas Island was enough time to discover this Pacific Northwest capital of nature, scenery and relaxation.
With a couple of stops at neighboring islands, getting to Orcas Island on the ferry from Anacortes, Wash., takes about an hour. It’s also the best one-hour “commute” I’ve experienced. The views are spectacular, particularly if the sun is shining.
Traveling with a third grader is becoming increasingly challenging. As he quickly nears those tween years, he’s bored — a lot. But I knew the ferry ride, particularly with it being his first experience of this kind, would have his attention.
And it didn’t disappoint, even if we never spotted the whales the ferry captain said were in the distance as we sailed west.
Arriving at the Orcas Island ferry dock, it was just minutes before we were able to drive off and begin our journey.
Why spend time in Orcas Island? For us, this was a return visit to the San Juan Islands after a day trip in 2003 for a whale-watching excursion from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. This time, we wanted a different island and an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the laidback island vibe while enjoying its autumn beauty.
We’re drawn to creative communities, and Orcas Island is home to plenty of artists and writers.
Our first stop was Orcas Island Pottery, a cooperative of about two dozen potters set off in the woods overlooking President’s Channel on the north side of the island.
The setting deep in a forest of old-growth cedars and Douglas fir is only part of the charm of Orcas Island Pottery, which has sat there since 1945 and has continued to be owned by the same family since 1953.
Pottery is scattered throughout several rooms of the main building as well as on tables, benches and the grass all around. Everywhere one looks is pottery, with massive trees and water setting the background stage.
It’s rare to find an art gallery or business of any kind that can keep children entertained. But the swing in back, dogs eager to play fetch and a tree house perched high in a 200-year-old cedar does the job.
After driving down the long, secluded path back to the main road, we were in Eastsound within a few minutes and what would be our base for our time on Orcas Island.
Eastsound is a village that serves as the island’s downtown. Filled with shops, galleries and restaurants, it’s a quaint spot that can fill an afternoon strolling the streets. And it’s never far from the beautiful views out to Fishing Bay, a body of water that was impossible to see enough.
There are a number of lodging options spread around Orcas Island. Our home for the evening was Outlook Inn, which sits just across the road from the bay.
After quickly checking in to our room, we walked a couple of blocks east for a late lunch at Rose’s, where we enjoyed local food such as Lopez Island clams and a halibut sandwich.
As we lingered over fresh local seafood, I noticed a man come in who seemed like a regular. He didn’t even order, just a friendly hello followed by a soup and salad brought out after a few minutes. He sat and quietly read a book while enjoying lunch and a glass of what I imagined was a crisp white wine from grapes harvested somewhere in East Washington.
We, however, couldn’t linger. We had 24 hours on Orcas Island and as seems to be our tradition in every new destination, Stacey – or, make that we – had some shopping to do.
Art galleries, boutiques, gift shops, coffee shops and a bookstore dot the streets. It’s just enough for a few hours of shopping, but not too much to become overwhelming.
In fact, Eastsound provides just the amount of shops and galleries to enjoy for an afternoon, but not too much to distract from the natural beauty all around. Strolling the streets during October, the leaves were turning magnificent shades of orange and red with just enough falling to the sidewalk to give the full colorful effect of fall that I imagined would welcome us in the San Juan Islands.
A favorite is Darvill’s Bookstore, a cozy little shop with a cafe in one back corner. The opposite corner contains a large selection of children’s books and a window that looks out onto the beautiful bay.
We could’ve shopped longer, but we still had a couple hours of daylight remaining, just enough time to get a taste of nearby Moran State Park.
The fourth-largest state park in Washington, it contains more than 5,000 acres of deep woods, a large lake, waterfalls, hiking trails, campgrounds and the highest point on the island that provides views of Mt. Baker in the distance on clear days.
We didn’t have time to drive to the top for the views from Mt. Constitution. Instead, we stopped and enjoyed Cascade Falls Trail.
As darkness neared, we began our drive down and out of the park with a steady flow of cars heading in. I imagined they were heading up the mountain to enjoy what only could be a gorgeous sunset seen from high up.
After a busy day getting to know Orcas Island, we decided to unwind with a few beverages at Island Hoppin’ Brewery, just a short drive north of Eastsound.
If traveling to Orcas Island with children keep an eye on your restaurant choices. Our first choice was closed; some businesses were randomly closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so maybe it had something to do with it being a Tuesday night. Or maybe it was because we were there in mid-October during the shoulder season.
Our second restaurant choice we read had a fabulous burger but we discovered children couldn’t dine in.
That was fine, because we got the food to go and enjoyed the remainder of the evening next to the fireplace in our room back at the inn.
One Night at the Inn
On this brisk October evening, we sat with the balcony door open, the room’s fireplace serving as the remaining warmth necessary that the bottle of red wine wasn’t already providing. Part of a hotel’s attraction can be found in its charm, and the Outlook Inn has it in droves.
It worked out well that both our restaurant choices didn’t happen. Dining in our room gave us the chance to unwind in this charming white-painted 40-room inn that dates from the late 1800s.
There are a couple of reasons to visit Orcas Island, and one of them is to enjoy the outdoors. The other is relaxation, and Outlook Inn is a great way to center the activity.
Spending 24 hours in Orcas Island means some things are rushed. Waking up on Wednesday morning, we only had a few hours before we had to drive to the ferry terminal for the quick ride back to Anacortes. But that didn’t mean we were up for leaving the room too quickly. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the foggy bay had a charm that said everything we needed to know about Orcas Island.
We headed out for breakfast, deciding to stop for a tasty salmon quiche and coffee at Brown Bear Baking. We had just enough time for another stroll through the village, Stacey stopping in at an art gallery for one last piece of local art, Colby and I enjoying the beauty of the leaves scattered across the sidewalks.
We also stumbled on a labyrinth at Emmanuel Episcopal Parish overlooking the bay. Colby thought it was a maze. There actually were a couple of women reflecting on their path. He decided it seemed like a good road to play on with the toy truck he had just purchased.
We all joined back up at Outlook Inn where we sadly loaded the car for the short drive to the ferry terminal, and the end of our day in Orcas Island. Twenty-four hours was long enough to get a taste of Orcas Island, but next time I think we might decide to stay for a week to truly discovery the relaxing vibe of this Pacific Northwest escape.
Editor’s Note: We were hosted by the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, and our stay at Outlook Inn was complimentary. As professional journalists, all statements and views are our own.