Low-key adventures loaded with scenic views and an internationally acclaimed food and wine scene, make Orcas Island the ideal testosterone-free, comfy jean destination.
Even those born and raised in the Pacific Northwest may not have heard of the San Juan Islands. I hadn’t until my mid-20s when I took my first seaplane ride. The remote archipelago sits as close to Canada as it does to the lower 48. Like a marooned captain’s daydream, the roughly 175 forest-covered rocky inlets feature lush farmland, freshwater lakes, and protected coves.
The pristine beaches and 247-days with sunshine make this the ideal vacation for families and couples. But, the San Juans are also the perfect place to relax, unwind, and catch up with your best girlfriends — especially Orcas Island.
In fact, the Emerald Isle (as it’s fondly nicknamed), was recommended by The New York Times as one of the top 52 Places to Go in 2019 for its “impressive tide-to-table culinary scene and experimental wines.”
Shaped like a horseshoe, Orcas is the largest of the San Juans. The topography is as varied as the culinary selection, ranging from windswept meadows and rocky beaches to a small mountain summit and lush rain forest. Here crops thrive, artists abound, and rental cars are left unlocked with the key inside waiting for the next fare.
Where to Eat on Orcas Island
Orcas doesn’t have traffic lights or fast-food restaurants. There are no chain establishments, unless you count the Chevron and Key Bank. Nor will you find the region’s biggest bowl of pho or fanciest fine dining. Rather, the thriving food scene is a veritable ode to Mother Nature.
Menus at the island’s top eateries change with the seasons, highlighting the freshest from the land, sea, and shores. And no chef does so better than James Beard-nominated Jay Blackinton. He’s the mastermind behind Hogstone, a nose-to-tale pizzeria, and Aelder, offering hyper-local cuisine in a set tasting-menu.
The chefs at both the Outlook Inn’s New Leaf Café and Rosario Resort’s Mansion Restaurant defy the classic idea of ‘hotel fare.’ Their exquisite menus are served with a humble sense of warmth and comfort that makes you feel almost like you’re family.
The southern edge of Eastsound can thank Brown Bear Baking for its fragrant perfume of buttery kouign-amanns and gooey sticky buns. We found this to be an ideal place to grab treats for the day’s adventures.
Starting in May, you’ll want to visit Buck Bay Shellfish Farm. The third-generation oyster farm sells oysters from a shack overlooking the bay where the oysters were just harvested. Bring a bottle of wine and grab a picnic table. Don’t know how to shuck an oyster? Have no fear; they’ll teach you!
Photo provided by Girl Meets Dirt
And for a sweeter twist on the island’s harvest, be sure to visit Girl Meets Dirt. The local jam producer was founded by Audra Lawlor, an ex-Goldman Sachs New Yorker, who ditched Wall Street for an orchard — the sweetest decision she could have ever made. Sample the preserves and stock up at the Eastsound store, where you can also see the jam making process.
Where to Drink on Orcas Island
Perhaps it’s that the locals sometimes consider Orcas as their own country. Or maybe it’s the pristine air. Either way, the island has allowed the subtle nuances of infused liquors, fermented fruit and boiled hops room to take root. Showcasing full-bodied flavors loaded with complexity, the local spirit artisans offer pours and drinks that will make you want to toast, again and again.
Despite being the new kids on the block, Cole and Stephanie Sisson’s wine shop, Doe Bay Wine Co., is attracting a loyal patronage both on and off island. With their extensive wine expertise, the Sisson’s offer a carefully curated bottle selection. However, it’s their humble approach to sharing insights that makes you want to come back. That, and the chance to buy bottles of the couple’s newest venture — The Orcas Project. In a unique collaboration, acclaimed winemakers and vineyards in the Pacific Northwest are creating limited production bottles available in the couple’s Eastsound shop (109 North Beach Rd., Suite D1) or online.
On the hoppy side of things, the folks at Island Hoppin’ Brewery, are crafting wheaty brews inspired by their love of both beer and the island. Founded by three friends (Becca Gray, Nate Schons, and Jim Parker), the brewery’s signature beer — Old Madrona Imperial Red — was inspired by a friend who loved mixing barleywine with IPA. What resulted is a full malt red that offers a hoppy body and smooth finish regulars and new patrols crave.
On the late-night side of things, there’s no better destination than The Barnacle, where craft cocktails are made with house-infused bitters and liquors. Except, of course, if you’re looking for a lively round of karaoke. Then you’ll want to head to The Lower Tavern on Friday nights.
Where to Play on Orcas Island
There are dozens of different hikes on Orcas, ranging from gentle strolls to serious climbs. The half-mile hike to Cascade Falls offers by far the biggest reward for the least amount of effort. In the sun-dappled forest floor, the well-maintained path follows Cascade Creek past a series of waterfalls. It leads to the biggest of the tumbling displays — a stunning 40-foot rock cliff.
Its longer, though still gentle, sister hike continues on around Cascade Lake in a three-mile loop. During the summer months, the freshwater lake is a favorite for swimming and wave-free paddle boarding. Playful teens and adults can often be seen jumping from the 20-foot bridge that separates the lake from the lagoon.
Venturing up, you’ll find strenuous hikes, like the Mount Constitution and Mountain Lake hike that spans 6.7-miles with a 1,500-foot elevation gain. Resting at 2,409 feet, Mount Constitution is the tallest peak in the San Juan Islands. It offers glorious panoramic views of the Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier, and Mount Baker. On clear days you can see as far as Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia.
Those not up for the 13,000-plus-step accent, have no fear. You’re not alone. My girlfriend and I opted to save our muscles too. You can reach Mount Constitution’s peak by car.
And whether you made the trek or not, all are welcome to savor a scoop (or two) of the best San Juan crafted ice cream at Sugar on Top. Housed in a vintage Airstream, the walkup ice cream parlor serves sweet scoops and savory sandwiches one smile at a time.
Should you venture to Moran State Park’s eastern side, keep an eye out for the Aproximada, the 80-foot ship that rests 400 feet above sea level.
The Aproximada is nestled between trees on the side of Mount Pickett. It has never seen the sea. Built by App Applegate, who hoped to one day sail the vessel to Cuba, the decaying forest ornament has become one of the ‘7 Wonders of Orcas Island.’
Where to Relax on Orcas Island
Despite having a population of less than 6,000, Orcas is home to three different yoga studios, including Orcas Mandala (138 North Beach Rd.), Alexander Studio (109 North Beach Rd.), and Doe Bay (107 Doe Bay Rd., Olga). Each offers a range of classes focused on stretching and strengthening the body.
Photo Provided by Doe Bay
When we visited, we opted for a morning class at Doe Bay. The intimate studio featured waterfront views. It also gave us close proximity to the resort’s luxurious spa. The clothing-optional, wilderness retreat offers three outdoor saltwater soaking tubs and a sauna. Overlooking a small, protected cove, it allows you to fully immerse yourself in nature while letting your body relax.
In addition to stretching and soaking, be sure to spend some time exploring the island’s hand-crafted wares. Pots, plates, and decorative pieces are thrown, glazed, and fired on premise at Orcas Island Pottery. The studio opened in 1954. It was originally housed in a log cabin. While it’s long since outgrown the rustic beginnings, the cabin remains — a testament to the studio’s beautiful history.
Though many of the island’s artisans enjoy their quiet solitude, you’ll also find them in Eastsound, the island’s ‘downtown’ of sorts. Among them is Atelier, a lifestyle boutique featuring Orcas inspired graphic tees designed by owner Nicole Kraayeveld; Material Wit, a breathy jewelry store featuring island-inspired minimalists jewelry designed and made on-island by Jessie Morrow; and the Peter C Fisher Gallery, where exhibits feature current and historic photographs of the San Juan Islands.
MORE FUN THINGS TO DO ON ORCAS ISLAND
In a variety of delectable flavors and sizes, Brown Bear Baking on Orcas Island serves pastries worthy of praise.
In a sun-dappled forest grove, a fresh-water creek tumbles down the 40-foot rock cliff and runs beneath fallen tree trunks.
There’s more to Rosario Resort than its picturesque setting. Moran Mansion is home to both a 1913 Aeolian pipe organ and a 1900 Steinway grand piano, where free public concerts are regularly offered.