Since I read an article in an in-flight magazine about The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, and a work colleague said that Orcas Island was the best place she’d ever been, I’ve wanted to plan a trip to the San Juan Islands.
The reality is that from flying into local airports, sorting out point-to-point car rental, and navigating confusing ferry timetables, organizing a trip to the San Juan archipelago is not for the faint-hearted but it is absolutely worth the effort.
Getting to Lummi Island from the Bay Area
Although it’s possible to fly to Seattle (or Vancouver) and drive 2+ hours to get the Whatcom Chief (ferry) over to Lummi Island, I managed to find a flight from Oakland to Bellingham airport on Allegiant Air that worked.
We flew after work on a Wednesday and booked to stay at the Bellingham airport Holiday Inn when we arrived to save on accommodation costs and a days car rental. I was very pleasantly surprised by the Holiday Inn, it was brand spanking new with a swimming pool and decent bar food. The next day (Thursday) we picked up our car and set off for Lummi Island.
Boarding the Whatcom Chief felt like the start of an adventure. The ferry is quick and you stay in your car (unless you’re on a bike or on foot). There’s no need to book, but it’s advisable to arrive early because there is only one ferry and you’d have to wait for it do a round trip to get the next one.
Our One Night Stay on Lummi Island
We wanted to explore the island before checking into The Willows Inn and so had left ample time. After we drove off the ferry, we set off to drive around the island which took under an hour. We were going to need to slow down. Lummi Island has a couple of preserve trails and we chose to walk in the Baker Preserve. The trail was completely deserted and weaves through beautiful woodland. We actually didn’t get too far, as it’s a steep uphill climb and it didn’t seem sensible to push myself too far (being 18 weeks pregnant).
Of course, we hadn’t completed this epic journey to hike, we were here for the food. The Willows Inn is a small hotel and restaurant with a big reputation. It somehow manages to be the perfect blend of small, cozy, and intimate, whilst still feeling high end and special. The staff are mega passionate about what they do (whether talking about food, wine, or the juice pairing I had as an alternative to wine). They were also completely accommodating of my pregnancy dietary requirements.
We started the meal outside on the beautiful terrace as the sun set, later moving inside to the living room area before settling in the dining room. It was truly an epic meal, and breakfast the next morning was (if it’s possible) even more spectacular. They really do showcase the best produce from the area, taking advantage of unusual and seasonal ingredients.
Aside from The Willows Inn, there isn’t a lot to do or see on the island, and I suspect the locals would like to keep it that way. The island is beautiful, although one night was definitely enough for us. We hopped back on the Whatcom Chief mid-morning to drive down the coast and continue our Pacific Northwest adventure.
Arriving at Orcas Island
We spent a leisurely day driving to Anacortes for our next boat ride to Orcas Island. We stopped at the tiny town of Edison which has a couple of cute places to eat, drove over to Deception Pass State Park, and wandered around the independent shops in Anacortes town before our early evening ferry reservation.
This ferry does need to be booked in advance and is about 100 times the size of the ferry to Lummi Island. We got there a couple of hours before our reservation which wasn’t terrible because there is a beach next to the terminal to walk along.
The ferry ride over to Orcas Island is a treat in itself (although the food available on the boat was pretty awful). It takes just under and hour plus queuing time to disembark. Orcas Village Store is a great place to pick up supplies for a stay on the island and is located at the ferry landing.
We’d booked to stay at the opposite end of the island from the ferry landing at Bayside Cottages. The early evening drive was gorgeous, we saw deer and fawn all along the road (which meant we had to drive pretty slowly). Our arrival at Bayside Cottage was just in time to venture down to their private beach for sunset.
What to do on Orcas Island
The only thing on our agenda for Saturday on Orcas Island was to enjoy the outstanding natural beauty of the place. This began with an easy 4 mile walk around Mountain Lake in Moran State Park followed by a drive up to the summit of Mount Constitution to admire the panoramic view across the San Juan Islands. It’s possible to cycle or hike all the way up to the top, but with a car park right there we didn’t bother!
Eastsound is the main town on Orcas Island. It’s relatively small but packs in lots of little gift and speciality shops so it’s easy to spend a few hours wandering around. And, like any good town, Eastsound has an Irish pub. The White Horse has a lovely view overlooking Indian Island, great service, and (most importantly) decent fish and chips.
Given we’d booked another big meal that evening the fish and chips perhaps weren’t the smartest idea. Lucky I was eating for two! We ate at Hogstone but did a tasting menu. The website is a little confusing and I’d originally made the assumption that two separate restaurants exist. Aelder is in the same space as Hogstone, but offers a set tasting menu that’s way more ambitious than the seafood and pizza on the Hogstone menu. Either option is a good one. We loved the tasting menu as it showcased the local food in a way similar to The Willows Inn, but was also fun and unpretentious (including a beer and pizza course). Again, they were totally accommodating of my pregnancy.
By our last morning on Orcas Island we’d completely relaxed into the Pacific Northwest pace. We had a take-out breakfast from Doe Bay Cafe and stroll around the bay before heading for our return ferry at midday.
The journey back to San Francisco took almost the entire day, and if I were to plan this trip again I would have booked at least one night in Seattle at the end. It was a shame to drive via the city without being able to enjoy it.
San Juan Islands Itinerary
This trip took a lot of planning, here’s how we did it:
Allegiant Air flight from Oakland > Bellingham. Stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn.
Picked up a car at Bellingham airport and drove to Gooseberry Point to get the ferry to Lummi Island. Stayed at The Willows Inn.
Caught the ferry back to the mainland and drove to Anacortes for the Orcas Island Ferry (1 hour 4 minutes with no stops, we spread it over several hours). Arrived at Orcas Island and drove for another 45 minutes to reach our accommodation at Bayside Cottages.
Day exploring Orcas Island.
A day spent traveling. Drive to ferry (allow 2 hours including boarding). Take ferry from Orcas Island > Anacortes (1 hour). 2 hour drive to SeaTac for return flight to SFO (2 hours).