San Juan Islands: Natural Beauty, History and Relaxation

Written by Elizabeth Rose

November 8, 2016
Home >> Destinations >> North America >> United States >> Washington >> San Juan Islands: Natural Beauty, History and Relaxation

The San Juan Islands, a group of islands in northwest Washington State, are a well-known destination for outdoor adventure lovers. While you can sail your boat into Roche Harbor on San Juan Island or take an adventurous kayaking trip around some of the smaller islands, there’s plenty to do for those who just want a little relaxation and pampering. We experienced some of the best of San Juan Island, one of the larger islands in the archipelago, in just three days

Getting To Friday Harbor on San Juan Island

A great way to start unwinding on your San Juan Island vacation is to take the car ferry from Anacortes. Washington State Ferries have comfortable seating and huge windows where you can take in the view as you pass by small islands on the way to Friday Harbor. If you are lucky, you’ll see a whale or porpoise. You can make a reservation at

San Juan Island Ferry

Ferries run several times a day from Anacortes to Friday Harbor. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

Consider starting your vacation in Anacortes. The historic Majestic Inn would be ideal. They have comfortable rooms, a spa and a Happy Hour menu to die for!

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Majestic Inn and Spa

Modern elegance with historical roots in Anacortes, WA Photo Courtesy: Majestic Inn

Even with a reservation, you’ll be lining up to drive on to the ferry. But there’s a relaxing aspect to that too. Have a picnic breakfast on your tailgate or stroll and take pictures of the ferry coming in. Soon you’ll start feeling that island vibe.

If you are coming from the Seattle area, Kenmore Air offers floatplane flights into Friday Harbor. Landing on the water is like flying into smooth, melting butter. The planes are small, but the trip is beautiful. No need for an airport. Kenmore uses the same docks as the boats. Through November 12th, Kenmore Air is offering a Savor the San Juans package promotion to help you enjoy harvest time and the film festivals.

Kenmore Air

Take a floatplane from the Seattle area right into Friday Harbor. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

No matter how you get to Friday Harbor, you’ll be in the middle of this quaint island town when you arrive. Restaurants, shops, stores, and museums are all within walking distance. In fact, some visitors just walk on the ferry. But for our relaxing itinerary, you’ll need your car.

Move INN

I recently had the pleasure of being a guest at Island Inn at 123 West, probably the most convenient, modern, and luxurious place to stay in Friday Harbor. When you drive off the ferry, just look to the right and you’ll see the large 123. Slip into your personal parking place in their underground garage and stop by the office to check in to this architectural marvel terraced into the hillside (thus, the great views).

San Juan Ferry

View of the ferry docking from Island Inn at 123 West. Photo courtesy Island Inn

The building’s colors of mustard yellow and rust blend with natural wood, cement and steel to create a very modern and intriguing look. Add in porthole windows and nautical looking decks for relaxing. Wide concrete stairs, lined with plantings and made interesting by artistic metal grating, takes you up from room to room. You’ll walk by the common room with harbor view used by those staying in the Euro rooms.

Island Inn

Island Inn at 123 West. Colorful architecture terraced into the hillside. Photo Courtesy: Island Inn

Visitors have the choice of small euro-style rooms, suites or larger penthouses. All are designed with European flair and then there is the view! Some of the penthouses have roof-top dining areas where you can watch the ferry come in and sip cocktails at sunset.

Island Inn Penthouse

A penthouse with a view at Island Inn. Photo courtesy: Island Inn

Penthouse #7, chosen because it was one of the three dog-friendly spaces, had a peek at the harbor, huge windows opening to the sky, and a quick, few steps up access to parks and restaurants. With over 1,000 square feet, we (my dog and I) enjoyed a living/dining area with a full kitchen and a relaxing fireplace. The spacious bedroom that said, “welcome home… now relax!” A beautifully tiled large bathroom with shower and Malin and Goetz natural bath products offered luxury at the end of the day. We felt at home immediately and the Penthouse was spacious enough that it really could have been home. Island Inn 123 offers a special puppy pass package for dogs. Cinnamon the Coonhound was impressed!

Island Inn Penthouse

Penthouse #7 was spacious and pet-friendly. Photo courtesy: Island Inn

Island Inn Penthouse

We enjoyed the flat-screen TV and fireplace. Photo courtesy: Island Inn

Pet Friendly Hotel

Cinnamon was thrilled with the Puppy Pass Package. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

Island Inn at 123 West is about design and detail. It is LEED-certified. All rooms are different but all have touches of Euro-chic furniture, some belonging to the designer/owner. The owner’s father has painted most of the artwork. He claims he is an amateur, they told me, but the artwork was lovely and provided pops of color. Our cupboards were filled with high-end kitchen items, Ikea white dinnerware, and everything you would need for a luxurious dinner.

Dining Island Style

If you are staying in a penthouse, you’ll want to cook in at least one night. In season, you can purchase your dinner makings at the Farmer’s Market. I opted for convenience and purchased meals from San Juan Island Cheese. Anything they offer is fantastic!

San Juan Island Cheese

San Juan Island Cheese is a great place to go for lunch or dinner. Many enjoy their take out box lunches. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

There is a range of restaurants in Friday Harbor from pub fare to chef-driven cuisine. One night we tried the new Blackfish Bistro …of course within walking distance. This two-level restaurant offers a martini bar and seafood, sandwiches, and steaks, all great Northwest cuisine with a continental flair. I tried a steak with Béarnaise sauce. It was perfectly cooked.

If you want elegance with a view, try the Restaurant at Friday Harbor House. It’s right next door to the Island Inn.

The Scenic Byway

If you are touring San Juan Island two different days, an ideal way to do it is by doing the North section of the Scenic Byway one day and the South and West sections on the other day. The scenic island roads are easy to drive, and, in season, many like to bike along the Scenic Byway.

Biking San Juan Island

Biking is popular on San Juan Island. Photo Courtesy SJIVB

Driving along the often rugged South and West sections, I was particularly impressed with the beaches, the lighthouse, and American Camp. There are short paths that take you to the historic buildings at American Camp. The views of the buildings and waving grasses reminded me of an Andrew Wyeth painting.

American Camp

The whitewashed buildings at American Camp. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

British and American troops jointly occupied San Juan Island from 1859 to 1872 in The Pig War standoff, while the two nations argued over ownership of the islands. U.S. Army troops lived at American Camp at the south end of the island.

The highlight for me on this drive was the Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Not only are the lavender fields with large metal sculptures beautiful even in the off-season, the shop, and informational displays are a must-do. I have never encountered so many enticing lavender products all made from plants on a certified organic farm. They range from luxury gift sets to dog biscuits and people cookies (I highly recommend the lavender shortbread!) I did a little Christmas shopping and noted that they have shops with their products in other locations as well as mail order.

Gift from Pelindaba

Gift box of lavender products from Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

There aren’t many places to eat on this route so it’s another opportunity to visit San Juan Island Cheese and pick up some box lunches. There are picnic tables at American Camp and at Pelindaba.

On a second day, I enjoyed the North section taking me from Friday Harbor to Roche Harbor. I was blessed with a gorgeous sunny day so it was a trip I didn’t want to end. There’s much to see and experience. One of the usual stops is San Juan Vineyard’s beautiful 30-acre vineyard, winery, chapel, and historic tasting room. You can sip from a line-up of award-winning wines including estate-grown Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine. It’s a picturesque hillside vineyard.

San Juan Island Vineyards

Go wine tasting at the San Juan Island Vineyards. Photo courtesy SJIVB

Take some time to explore historic Roche Harbor with old lime kilns and the Roche Harbor Resort. On the National Register of Historic Places, Roche Harbor’s centerpiece, the Hotel de Haro, was built in 1886. Several types of lodging, restaurants, shops, seasonal artisan booths, formal gardens, and one of the largest marinas along the byway make historic Roche Harbor a great stop for a meal and exploration. In winter, McMillin’s restaurant is open for dinner and you’ll find the Lime Kiln Café, a gathering place for boating types and locals for breakfast and lunch. The Madrona Café, on the open terrace, is closed in winter.

Roche Harbor Restaurant

In summer, enjoy a meal on the deck at Roche Harbor. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

The Hotel de Haro is in the middle of a renovation. They have finished one side of the hotel and the other is going to be worked on through this winter. Also on resort property is a spa and the historic Roche Harbor Company Store. The area has a village feel and is a beautiful place, especially in the summer.

Hotel de Haro

The Hotel de Haro is the state’s oldest continually operating hotel. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

Just outside the resort property, you’ll find another San Juan Island gem, the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, home to over 150 sculptures placed in an open, 19-acre, natural setting.  Walk through the sculptures (most are for sale) and enjoy the nature trail that takes you into the native forest and close to Westcott Bay, home of the world-famous oysters.

San Juan Island Sculpture Park

The sculptures were enhanced by the natural setting. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

I loved how the sculpture park is integrated into the natural setting. Down by the pond were frog and bird sculptures looking right at home. The park invites a $5 donation but otherwise is free.

Welscott Bay

There are trails in the sculpture park. One led me to this scenic bay. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Also on this route (I didn’t do the whole thing as I spent so much time at Roche Harbor), you can visit English Camp/San Juan Island National Historical Park and Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm. I hear the Alpaca Farm has a Country Store offering a wide selection of fine alpaca clothing, accessories, and gifts.

San Juan Island Beckons You to Return

During my three-day visit, I experienced the warmth of the people on the island and saw some marvelous sights but I also wanted to rest up and enjoy the ambiance of Friday Harbor. As I had my dog with me, we walked the docks, noticed a seafood market on one of them, and visited several local parks. There is much to explore in Friday Harbor… The Whale Museum and The San Juan Islands Museum of Art are attractions you can walk to. And there are shops and restaurants down every little alley and side street to discover.

Whale Museum

Within walking distance of Island Inn is the Whale Museum. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

When You Go

Be sure and make a ferry reservation and allow plenty of time to get in line. The scenic crossing is just about an hour. Pack casual clothing. You’ll need to dress in layers, especially during transition seasons. Bring comfortable walking shoes. For additional information check out Visit San Juan Islands Information

Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodations and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

*Updated to clarify that our wanderer visited one island in the grouping of San Juan Islands*

Written by Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose is back again in the Phoenix area after more than a decade living in New Mexico and Washington state. She travels throughout the West and beyond writing about destinations, accommodations, festivals, and restaurants, especially farm to table cuisine. As an expert in cultural tourism, her writing reflects that passion. She has won awards for her photography and accompanies her articles with her own images. She also provides photos for magazine covers, web sites and magazine articles (both print and online).

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