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A Mini-Vacation in a Neighboring Nation

Skip your stone across the Salish Sea from Vancouver Island to Friday Harbor for a couple of nights away in a foreign land

When I lived in the San Juan Islands, I would look longingly over at Victoria—I had a sweetheart there—from the western side of San Juan Island. More recently I came to live in Victoria with the aforementioned sweetheart, and now the tug of the San Juans pulls back at me across the water. The islands worked their magic, and part of me is always wanting to find time for another visit. You can see San Juan Island from many places around the edge of Victoria, with the United States looking so close that it makes you want to kayak right over to it. But I’m not the most seaworthy nor paddle-ready among us, so when I yearn for a two-day getaway, I can easily head a little up-island to the Sidney ferry ramp to board a boat which sails daily to Friday Harbor (from March through December, find out more at Getting Here). 

 

Getting There

Lately, some Canadian friends’ reaction to traveling into American territory is, “Really?! Why? Why now? Really?!” For any Canadian hesitant to venture into … um, how should I put this—troubled U.S. waters?—rest assured that dipping a toe into Friday Harbor is different. The San Juan Islands seem to sit at a Shangri-la-like remove from some of the recent, more *ahem* colorful goings-on dans les États-Unis.

Getting from Victoria to the Sidney ferry

For $2.50 CAN (a loonie and two quarters), you can catch the #72 BC Transit bus in downtown Victoria on Douglas at Courtney and ride to Fifth Street at Ocean Ave in Sidney, which is about a half-kilometer (or 7-minute) walk from the ferry terminal.

Cyclists can use the Lochside regional trail to get from Victoria proper directly to Sidney, and bikes are welcome on Washington ferries. (San Juan Island is super bikeable, with manageable hills and friendly, accommodating drivers sharing the roads. A taxi from Victoria Harbour to the Sidney ferry will cost you approximately $45 CAN, currently. You can also fly straight from the Sidney airport to Friday Harbor on Northstar Air Tours, to experience the United States' shortest international hop to a country that’s, like, right over THERE!

 

American Pub Culture

Right at the bottom of Front Street sits the Cask and Schooner Public House & Restaurant, and it’s the place I will most often meet folks for drinks or dinner. Well, either there, or at Tops’l Seafood & Sushi, just upstairs. Both are cozy, both can easily accommodate vegetarians, and the Cask has a good selection of beer and ale on tap, while the carrot cake at the Tops’l is amazing.

If I’m alone, I’ll sit at the bar at the Cask and kibbitz with the bartender. Or, I’ll aim for a table upstairs where I can see out onto the marina, order a Pressure Drop and daydream about my alternative life as a freewheeling sailor man. If I lived in Friday Harbor, I am 97% sure I would eat or drink at each place at least once a week.

Somebody Ring the Cheese Alarm

I like San Juan Island Cheese because it gives the feel of stopping into a friend’s house for a quick bite, if this particular friend happens to know some great riffs on a classic grilled cheese sandwich: beets/chopped herbs, bacon/fig, or smoked coho/capers/red onion. Their cheese counter offers great selections for an island picnic, and they have two house-made signature sweet treats worth tasting: chocolate truffles, one type made with savory chèvre and one with a smoky blue cheese. (I usually prefer my sweets and savories separate from each other, but the blue cheese truffle haunts me to this day with the salty tang of its dark funkiness.) And we usually stop at Kings Market before we get back on the ferry to head home, to snag some American sweets (we like to see what new Oreo fillings there are), ciders and microbrew beers that we can’t get in the True North (strong and free!), and hefty blocks of good American Monterey or Pepper Jack cheese—quite a deal compared to cheese prices north of the border.

Steller Sea Lions, Photography by Ken Rea

 

Sea Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

It was at Lime Kiln Point State Park that I saw my first sea lion swimming in the Salish Sea, large as a sea serpent, poking its huge head out of the water with its family sleeking alongside. At the Point there are: easily walkable trails hugging the rocky coast that, at lower tides, offer pocket tidal pools; a picturesque lighthouse; gorgeous stands of madrone trees with colorful gold and reddish bark, and you can wave back across at Vancouver Island's Oak Bay—just 12 miles away—what’s not to love?

 

Magical Beauty at South Beach

I’ve spent more time in the American Camp section of the San Juan Island National Historical Park than in English Camp, mostly because I prioritize visiting South Beach (at the end of Pickett’s Lane) each time I am on SJI. There is a bend-and-arc to the light and the land there recalls Cape Cod on the East coast, but rather than sand and sawgrass it’s all gravel and driftwood. A very PNWesque decorative scheme of weathered old-growth logs, polished stones, and kelp is how South Beach dresses along its curve from Grandma’s Cove down to the Cattle Point lighthouse, and I love to see it under summer-blue skies, pearlescent sunsets, or the misty grey winds of winter.

 

Mixers and Elixirs

If we’re going out to Roche Harbor, we’ll stop at the San Juan Island Distillery to ogle the shiny copper stills and to either stock up for ourselves or pick up gift bottles for friends. Their gins and brandies are entirely apple-based (rather than from grains), which suits my tastes, but my favorites are their Pommeau (a magical apple eau de vie enhanced with apple juice), the Madrona brandy (sweetened with blackberries and flavored with bark and blossoms of arbutus, or madrona as it is known south of the border), and the Lavender and Wild Rose liqueur, which uses local Pelindaba lavender and island-foraged wild Nootka rose petals.

 

Plan Your Stay

Find a quaint bed & breakfast inn, a historic hotel or rustic-chic glamping spot for your San Juan Islands visit.