Friday Harbor and Other San Juan Island Adventures to Prioritize (Plus Free Ferry Rides!)
Updated: Aug 18, 2020
Way back in the day, the same year Washington became a state, Seattle’s "Great Fire" laid 25 blocks low, and The Canadian Pacific Railway was finalized, a ferry ride from Seattle to islands further west ran a cool 5 cents.
Ferry boats have been active on Puget Sound since that start in 1889. The state of Washington bought the line which owned the major routes, terminals and boats in 1951.
Its fleet is one of the largest municipal flotillas in the world, with 25 vessels serving nine routes and 20 terminals. Jumbo class ferries can carry more than 200 vehicles and 2,000 passengers.
But the coolest quality of the ferry system for people staying at Orcas Hotel is two-fold: Guests can use it to easily access three other islands without driving, with or without a bike, and they can do so for free. (Anacortes also makes for cool day trips, but is not free. More on that in a forthcoming post.)
In other words, it’s cheaper than ferry rides were in 1889.
Bank that nickel.
The boats are named, per the Seattle Met reporter Rosin Saez, in honor of Pacific Northwest heritage.
“It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes several months, many a proposal, public input, and a mighty authority to name a state ferry,” Saez writes. “The Washington State Transportation Commission…christens ferries with monikers that have cultural or regional significance—tribal names or bodies of waters—but also avoid commercial overtones and anything offensive.
"Nope, Boaty McBoatface won’t cut it here.”
That includes the vessels that circulate from Orcas around the islands—the Samish, the Yakima and the Chelan among them. Samish means “giving people,” and was built in 2015, making it the youngest of the fleet. The island-centric art inside adds to the freshness of a scenic stretch of sea.
Whatever bit of floating history you board, please retain this strategic tip: Check the WSOT's ferry website, which presents schedules and—just as importantly—lists how late ships are sailing, with GPS positioning updates via Vessel Watch.
Better yet, embrace delays. Grab another donut hole or craft cocktail while at Orcas Cafe.
And practice the locals' refrain: “Nah, the ferry’s not an hour late. It’s 23 hours early.”
The primary ferry destination from Orcas Harbor is San Juan Island.
San Juan claims the seat of the county’s government in Friday Harbor, and that it’s the largest island in the archipelago.
The latter is false—Orcas is a touch bigger by geographic area—but it definitely has the most people, infrastructure and commerce to capitalize on for a day trip or overnighter.
The ferry lets people off in downtown Friday Harbor, maximizing convenience and accessibility. A range of cute stores and savory restaurant spots all await within a few blocks—and so does Susie’s Mopeds, which in addition to motorized bikes rents Chevy Trackers (pictured), open cockpit three-wheeler "scoot coops," eBikes and more, allowing access to adventures further afield.
Some highlights to consider, within Friday Harbor and beyond, start with the Spring Street Area and pocket downtown. There are all sorts of adorable downtown souvenir shops, eateries—House of Jerkey! Van Go's Pizza! Friday’s Crabhouse! Golden Triangle!—and outposts like the Toy Box that seem beamed directly from 1889.
A half-dozen highlights in central Friday Harbor:
1) San Juan Island Brewing Co. • A five-minute walk straight ahead from the ferry landing, SJIBC's versatile menu features tasty pizza and poke, a big patio and lawn that are great in summer, an airy indoor space that's welcoming in winter and, most importantly, local craft beer and swag that are superb. My top non-bookstore spot near the Friday Harbor dock.
2) Griffin Bay Bookstore, an established-in-1979 old-school beauty chock full of wisely curated literature and related treasures. An hour disappears here quickly.
3) The Gourmet’s Galley, another family-owned, time-honored place—which started out of a bedroom in 1969—this specialty shop stocks a wonderland of local purveyor goods, foods, and keepsakes. When pressed to find a sushi rolling mat for Orcas Hotel's Sushi Saturday, this was the spot who delivered.
4) Madrone Cellars & Cider Tasting Room, a centrally located spot to sample the island's own boutique winemaking operation via wine and cider flights, glass pours, cider on tap and bottle sales, with a side of local cheese and salami.
5) Serendipity Used Book Store • Dripping with character, packed with discoveries and home to a friendly ghost, there's a lot to like here.
6) Herb's Tavern • The oldest establishment of its kind on the island, with solid burgers and fish and chips, plus sports on the many TVs.
Some other highlights, from Friday Harbor and beyond:
The Jolly Trolley • Touristy, yes. Worth doing, also yes. Delightfully open-air freewheel antique trollies leave four times a day from next to the Friday Harbor landing, stopping at 10 different destinations, with all-day hop-on-and-off privileges possible for $20. The guides are easygoing, informative and approachable. (Barb even brings her sidekick the Boston terrier Gracie; Tweety is up to her nickname in the best way.) The views are sublime. The stops include many memorable spots-to-see, from Crystal Acres Alpaca Farm to Lavender Farm to rustic Lakedale Resort.
The Whale Museum • One woman consulted for the purposes of this piece is an eighth generation local. This spot was simultaneously at the top of her short list of must-dos and biggest fears. “They made us sleep there for an elementary-school field trip," Cady Wilson says. “They would play whale songs and they locked into my mind.” She does add that the exhibits are comprehensive, with a lot more than orcas—including Native art and tons of non killer whale marine life insight.
Pelindaba Lavender Farm • Simply pretty in purple, with lavender cookies and lavender ice cream to boot. There's also a PLF gift shop in Friday Harbor proper, and a wildly popular annual summer festival at the farm when gatherings are again allowed.
Westcott Bay Shellfish Farm • Wine, oysters, seashore and more, well worth the ride north along the west coast of SJ. "It is a place to gather, a place to actively participate in a meal, whether selecting freshly harvested shellfish from our tanks to take home, or shucking and slurping your own oysters on-site at our picnic tables," the Wescott website reads. "The farm’s setting, directly above our cultivated tidelands on the pristine waters of Westcott Bay, offers a rare island experience."
Lime Kiln Point State Park • Celebrated as the best place to spot orcas—and listen to them through the on-site hydrophone—LL is legitimately amazing all by its lonesome. A short and mellow trail leads humans to startling views of the Olympic Peninsula and Canada across the sea. A lighthouse furnishes further eye candy.
The Local Dispensary • Not far outside downtown appears an airy and modern space with incredible art, a charismatic parrot named Sally, and an impressive inventory of cannabis tinctures, edibles, flowers, devices and more, with customer service to match. Friday Uth helps direct traffic. “I’m a firm believer that you should buy local,” Uth says. “When in Rome, smoke what the locals smoke.”
Roche Harbor • This picturesque pocket of coast on the east side of the island north of Friday Harbor presents a charming village on the dock with three restaurants, historic lodging and gardens, a cute village, an old limekiln that merges with foliage, and access to a selection of trailheads. Come sunset during summer (May to September) sailors and guests alike gather for the Colors Ceremony, which includes music and a cannon shot.
Sculpture Park • Five minutes up the road from Roche Harbor sits a confluence of poetry panels, idyllic ponds and spellbinding art that ranges from lifelike grizzlies the size of elephants to imaginative totems the size of grizzlies. There are a ton of abstract and impressionist installations and plenty of genres and styles that fall in between too, plus easy access to (yet another) a pretty harbor inlet. It all makes it my favorite place on San Juan—and I love a lot of places on Orcas' westward island neighbor.