On a late afternoon on a clear summer day, the sun slants low, suffusing the scene with a golden light. The fresh salt breeze and the low rumble of the ferry's engine lull you into a dream state. All around you, rising from a shimmering sea, are emerald-green islands, the tops of glacier-carved mountains inundated with water at the end of the last ice age. A bald eagle swoops from its perch on a twisted madrona tree. Off the port bow, you spot several fat harbor seals lounging on a rocky islet. As the engine slows, you glide toward a narrow dock with a simple sign above it that reads ORCAS ISLAND. With a sigh of contentment, you step out onto the San Juan Islands and into a slower pace of life.
There's something magical about traveling to the San Juans. Some people say it's the light, some say it's the sea air, some say it's the weather (temperatures are always moderate, and rainfall is roughly half what it is in Seattle). Whatever the answer, the San Juans have become the favorite getaway of urban Washingtonians, and if you make time to visit these idyllic islands, I think you, too, will fall under their spell.
There is, however, one caveat: The San Juans have been discovered. In summer, if you're driving a car, you may encounter waits of several hours to get on the ferries. One solution is to leave your car on the mainland and come over either on foot or by bicycle. If you choose to come over on foot, you can then rent a car, moped, or bike; take the San Juan island shuttle bus; or use taxis to get around. Then again, you can just stay in one place and relax.
Along with crowded ferries come hotels, inns, and campgrounds booked up months in advance, and restaurants that can't seat you unless you have a reservation. If it's summer, you won't find a place to stay if you don't have a reservation.
In other seasons it's a different story. Spring and fall are often clear, and in spring, the islands' gardens and hedgerows of wild roses burst into bloom, making this one of the nicest times of year to visit. Perhaps best of all, room rates in spring and fall are much lower than they are in summer.
No one seems to be able to agree on how many islands there actually are in the San Juans; there may be fewer than 200 or almost 800. The lower number represents those islands large enough to have been named, while the larger number includes all the islands, rocks, and reefs that poke above the water at low tide. Of all these islands, only four (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw) are serviced by the Washington State Ferries, and of these, only three (San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez) have anything in the way of tourist accommodations.