If you’ve ever dreamed of having a sailing adventure, but the Caribbean just a bit out of your reach, there’s a group of islands just south of BC that give you all the sailing adventure without all the cost. They have a complex history and adventures can easily see old forts, quarries, cemeteries and unmatched wild beauty. If the season is right, whales migrate through the waters and lucky boaters have a first row seat to their antics.
When arriving from the north, this is port on San Juan Island is usually your first stop where you check into customs. Boat buffs will love the mix of vessels in the harbor, and the sight of the historic Hotel de Haro is a great introduction to the island. A self-directed walking tour (get the brochure at the Haro) takes you to the remains of the lime kilns, the quarry, a very old cemetery and the mammoth mausoleum just past it.
The tiny cabins used by the workers are now rented out to visitors although sometimes one of the older buildings are open to peek into. Hunt around the area below the cabins near the water and you may find the remains of shipwrecks or other leftovers from the seafaring heyday.
On the other end of San Juan Island, Friday Harbor is one of the largest communities in the island group. This is the best place to stock up on provisions although you’ll need to walk up the hill to get to grocery store with better pricing. Most of what is interesting can be seen with quick walk around town and there’s a great coffee shop near the ferry dock that seems to be filled with people who have known each other for years.
Just a short hop across the San Juan Channel, Lopez has less of a hub and is more of a place for hikers and cyclists. Fisherman’s Bay is the closest to any real amenities if you need to stock up, or just travel around the many little bays and enjoy the scenery.
A rural, hilly island that offers a great cycling break from those long days on board. The scenery as you travel takes you back in time to the days when orchard farmers did their own pressing and drying of fruit. There isn’t a lot of traffic but what there is often comes on you unexpectedly from a bend in the road or over a hill. Pull over to take in the scenery rather than cycle distractedly. When talking to locals, remember that the name of the island is pronounced OR-kus, not OR-kaz as it is named for a person, not the lovely whales.
Eastsound, Deer Harbor, Olga and Doe Bay are charming hamlets that are near solid anchorages. Orcas tends to be the preferred island for the art community and each of these little villages has art shops and outdoor pieces that are fun to visit. There are frequent art walks and if possible, sail past Rosario’s, one of the most beautiful resorts in the northwest. Call ahead and you may be able to use their marina long enough to visit the historic Moran Mansion and take a stroll around the grounds.
Several of the islands are state parks and wildlife refuges. These have enforced restrictions and you’ll need to pay a fee to use a mooring buoy or tie up at the dock. The fees help maintain the parks so please don’t try to dodge the fee – plus there’s a hefty fine if you’re caught.
Clark Island is small and has no dock. Some areas are off limits for hiking and there’s no water available. The harbor is a bit rocky but has good hold for anchoring.
Matia has a very restricted loop for hiking and limits mooring to three days only. A small campground looks inviting but no fires unless there is a firepit available and you brought your own wood.
Sucia has several good bays to anchor in and space to tie up at Fossil Bay. There’s great hiking here that gets even more interesting at low tide. Leave any fossils you may find but enjoy the occasional dreamcatcher that’s been woven onto a fallen branch.
Stuart has a small permanent population and great hikes. Don’t miss the one room school house (still in use) on your way across the island to see the lighthouse. If you happen to run into one of the residents, ask about the wild cow herd; it’s a great story.