June 5th, 2012
This past May Long Weekend, I had the opportunity to revisit a childhood haunt of mine - The San Juan Islands. Chatting with Victoria locals after the fact, I've come to realize that the San Juans are another gem close by that get overlooked by the Victoria crowd. So, without further ado, here's what you need to know.
The San Juans have not always proudly flown the stars and stripes. Following the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which established the 49th parallel as the border between Canada and USA, there was some contention over where the border lay between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. Both the British and the Americans laid claim to the San Juan Islands, creating some regional tension which would eventually escalate into the Pig War. In reality, it's a bit of a joke to call it a war - the only casualty was the pig, owned by an Irishman working for the Hudson's Bay Company, and shot by an American farmer when it was found eating his potatoes. Following a military standoff, the task of dispute arbitration was given to Kaiser Wilhem I of Germany, who eventually established that the border should run through Haro Strait (the body of water East of Sidney, BC) in 1872. Everybody...BE COOL!
Fast forward to the modern day, and the San Juans are a sleepy agricultural mecca nestled between Vancouver Island, the Canadian Gulf Islands, and the mainland. The archipelago consists of six islands: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, Shaw, Blakely, and Decateur. My personal experiences on the islands consist of visits to the three most populous islands: San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez. Serviced by Washington State Ferries, the San Juans are accessible from Sidney BC once a day with a 12:05 sailing.
Once stateside, visitors can enjoy free inter-island ferries, which sail quite regularily. Coming from Canada, your first stop is San Juan, the largest of the islands. Highlights include San Juan Island National Historic Park (where you can learn about the Pig War, and meet some friendly foxes), Roche Harbour (lots and lots of yachts!), Lime Kiln State Park (hey look, orcas!), and Friday Harbour, the town surrounding the ferry landing. While in town, be sure to check out the Rocky Bay Cafe (best breakfast on the island, try the Chicken Fried Steak if you're feeling bold), and the Hungry Clam for legit fish & chips.
If you're doing the San Juans by bicycle like yours truly, there is a state campground with hiker/biker spots at San Juan Park, located at scenic Smallpox Bay (I didn't pick the name). During my last visit to this spot, I was woken up by a noise which turned out to be J Pod (a big pack of orcas) cruising by my tent in the morning sun. Too cool!
Once you've explored San Juan, you're ready to take your riding game to the next level on Orcas Island, the one sort of shaped like a whale. Orcas' topography resembles our Canadian Gulf Islands - lots and lots of hills. The biggest and baddest of all, Mount Constitution, is a climb not for the faint of heart. I have a childhood memory of driving to the top and watching my mom sit on an anthill, apparently of the fire ant variety. Good times...In terms of dining on Orcas, my only recommendation is Chimayo - a cool Mexican/Italian restaurant with a great outdoor patio located in Eastsound.
Lastly, let me tell you about my favourite of these three, Lopez Island. Seemingly the flattest, Lopez is also fairly small, meaning easy circumnavigation on a bicycle. And for you cycle tourers, Lopez holds a real treat - The Lopez Islander Bay Resort - a hotel and restaurant with a recently redone outdoor pool/hot tub area, and tent spots for $25/night. Speaking from experience, getting off the saddle, setting up shop, and heading to a hot tub with a tall cheap can of American beer in hand is hard to beat. The staff was very friendly, and helped us determine that we had one chance to get back to Canada, and that chance was leaving at 7:10 AM the next morning. The 6 AM wake-up to a wet tent wasn't one of my favourite holiday moments, but as we say in Canada - 'you've got to take the hit to make the play'.
In brief, that's the San Juan Islands (or the big ones anyways). I know very little about Shaw Island, aside from the fact that it's tiny, and the ferry landing is run by nuns, which is pretty cool if you ask me. This summer, try a gulf island that doesn't fly the maple leaf - it's a slice of rural Americana that's pretty damn tasty. One last reason to get over there - you can see Victoria from a neat angle from both the southern tip of San Juan and Lopez. If you make it over there and wave, I'll return the favour from the roof of Executive House.
Enjoy all the San Juans have to offer this summer Executives, and as always....