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March 19, 2008

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Where's Richard?                                 San Juan Islands



Destination: San Juan Island
Whatever your pleasure, rest and relaxation or soft adventure, you'll find it on San Juan Island.
By Richard Frinta

I had never been to the archipelago of islands smack-dab in the middle of the state of Washington and Vancouver Island, Canada. The three largest islands in the group are Orcas, Lopez and San Juan Island.

With only a day and a half to spend on one of the islands, I chose San Juan Island because of its two renowned towns: Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor. If you were to compare these two towns to a shopping experience ... well, Friday Harbor might be Wal-Mart and Roche Harbor, the equivalent of Tiffany & Co.

If you spend at least two days on this island, you'll most likely visit the American and British camps, which are located at opposite ends of the island. And you may want to know their shared history. The history they share is that of the sole military confrontation in which the only casualty was a pig. It was named The Pig War of 1859. The back-story is this: In 1818, both British and American settlers occupied San Juan Island jointly and they coexisted relatively peacefully until 1845 when both sides began to be disenfranchised with the arrangement and wanted one or the other off the island. Enter Lyman, an American settler who killed a pig belonging to the Brits. Well, the storyline races ahead as British authorities sought his arrest. The American side countered the arrest, additional forces where brought in and the drama was approaching its climax when the Commander of the British forces in the Pacific boldly walked downstage and in what one can only imagine was his best Shakespearian tone, advised that he 'would not involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig'. This however, was dictated in front of a backdrop of three British warships. If you are waiting for the climax, it was actually 14 years earlier when the pig was gunned down. The epilogue of the story is that the outcome of this conflict would lie in the hands of a German Kaiser for settlement, who then ruled in favor of the Americans. The skeletons of that bout remain as structures that today stand at these two camps.

It is relatively easy to get to San Juan Island. You can get there by air on Kenmore Air (Tel: 866-435-9524) and San Juan Airlines (Tel: 800-874-4434). By ferry from the US side, you can take the Washington State Ferry, leaving from Anacortes, WA arriving at Friday Harbor. From the Canadian side, you can take the Victoria Express (Tel: 360-452-8088) arriving at Friday Harbor and last but not least, the hassle-free boaters can anchor at Roche Harbor.

If you choose to take the ferry route, I would recommend leaving your car parked at Anacortes, as there are plenty of transportation options on the island.

There are many ways to get around the island:
1) by horse; visit for more information
2) by moped; Susie's Moped Rentals, Tel: 360-378-5244 or 800-532-0087
3) by boat; Mitchell Bay Landing, Tel: 360-378-9296
4) by kayak; Crystal Seas Kayaking, Tel: 360-378-4223 or San Juan Safaris
5) by bicycle

There are a host of fun activities to participate in on San Juan Island, including snorkeling and scuba diving, whale watching (San Juan Excursions, Tel: 360-378-6636), golfing and visiting art galleries and antique shops. You shouldn't miss the Whale Museum. If you're into getting pampered, you can treat yourself to a trip to Christy's Island Beauty Salon (Tel: 360-378-2222) or relax and soothe your muscles at Lavandera Day Spa. Lavandera Day Spa, 440 Spring Street, San Juan Island, Tel: 360-378-3637.

I chose to make a circuit of the island by car, stopping at the English and American camps. Between the two camps, on the Western shoreline, is a small stretch of the coast that could easily be ‘the Hana highway of the mainland', or at minimum, it was a deja vu experience! I stopped at the Alpaca farm (, and took in the wonderful, nose-cleansing fragrances of the Pelindaba lavender farm.

I stayed in Friday Harbor and dined in Roche Harbor. If you have limited time and cannot spend time in both places, then consider this a good guidepost: If you are after a 'touristy' feel, then Friday Harbor may be what you're looking for. Seeking a more 'exclusive' existence? Book a place at Roche Harbor. With that said, I stayed at the Elements Hotel and Spa in Friday Harbor (Contact: email or call 800-793-4756). The setting is the highlight, as the location is within a short walk from downtown, amongst a grouping of peaceful gardens. The rooms have been upgraded however, they are nothing special. More specifically, the washroom area could use an overhaul. But there are many positives ... the overall feel is trendy, the bed is large and comfortable as are the fluffy pillows and the furniture is solid and attractive. One downside was that I was unable to log on to the Internet from my room, though perhaps that was just a temporary glitch. There is a hot tub in the center of the property and a nice lounge area near the receptionist. Overall, the service was quite good.

The one meal I had of note in Friday Harbor was lunch at the DownRigger Restaurant, which is located on the harbor front. If you dine there, I recommend their deliciously prepared stuffed King Salmon Taco. I had dinner on the bayside porch of the Madrona Bar and Grill in Roche Harbor. The food was excellent as was the view. It was there that I happened upon one of the nicest sunsets I've ever seen. The orange, red and purple hues danced on the dark blue waters beneath ...

A major highlight of my stay on San Juan Island was my kayak adventure with the San Juan Safaris' kayak rental company. I departed in the late afternoon for a trek past a neighboring island. My kayak and two others sailed out of Roche Harbor. We saw quite a bit of wildlife, like eagles, deer and seals. In fact, we got very close to some baby seals. They circled our boats, dove under and tapped the bottom and sides of the boat before diving back under. All the while, their parents closely monitored all of their shenanigans! We waddled through kelp that was thicker than a rubber hose and on our way back, our guide pointed out to us the smallest state park in the continental USA. The state park was an island not much bigger than a one-bedroom apartment in a coastal community. He stressed that this fact is valid only at high-tide. I am still trying to comprehend a state park that small even at low tide!

In sum, I would highly recommend visiting San Juan Island. I visited in July and the weather was very pleasant. There is enough to keep even the most active families or singles engaged for a holiday weekend. If you want to just chill out and not do everything MTV-paced-style, you'll find a weeklong stay here very memorable.

This trip was sponsored by Visit San Juan.

Pictures From

The Trip


Friday Harbor


Roche Harbor


Street Detail: Friday Harbor


Kaying With the Seals


Kayaking at Sunset


Elements Hotel & Spa


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