Where to go for whales, shellfish and to be selfish
written by Ryn Pfeuffer
Orcas Island is known for its natural beauty, rugged coastline, dense forests and stunning views of the surrounding water and mountains. Located in northwestern Washington, the 57-square-mile island is home to approximately 5,000 residents. Fun fact: Until 2021, Oprah Winfrey had a 43-acre waterfront estate on the island.
The best time to visit Orcas Island depends on your preferences and what activities you want to do while you’re there. Spring (March to May) is a bit quieter on Orcas Island, with fewer tourists and cooler temperatures. The weather, however, is still pleasant enough to enjoy outdoor activities, and you may be able to find better deals on lodging and activities. Plus, spring and fall are great times to see wildflowers and fall foliage, respectively.
From state parks and whale watching to cocktails and coffee shops, here’s the best three-day itinerary to get the most out of your island stay.
DRINKS • SHELLFISH • WATERFRONT STAYS
There are a few ways to get to Orcas Island. You can take a Kenmore Air seaplane for a quick 45-minute ride. Or the Washington State Ferry system provides regular service from Anacortes to Orcas Island. You can drive or walk onto the ferry; the trip takes about an hour. The ferry also stops at other islands in the San Juan archipelago, so check the schedule for specific departure times. Be sure to make a reservation in advance, as ferries fill up and wait times can be tedious.
When you land on Orcas Island, head straight to Island Hoppin’ Brewery. The popular craft brewery is a buzzing local hub, with its spacious outdoor seating area in full swing in warmer months. Try its award-winning K-Pod Kolsch, a light and refreshing beer with hints of honey and a crisp finish.
Next, swing by Girl Meets Dirt’s tasting room to pick up some fruit preserves, shrubs and syrups. The company is known for using locally grown and wild-foraged fruit to create unique, small-batch products like Shiro Plum with Lavender preserves and Wild Rose shrub. This vinegar-based syrup can be used to make refreshing drinks or added to cocktails.
While gathering goodies, pick up a bottle or two from Doe Bay Wine Company in Eastsound. Owned and operated by Cole and Stephanie Sisson, the small, family-owned winery is open for tastings Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you find a wine that you love, you can buy bottles to take home. Eastsound also has a farmer’s market that runs from May through September.
On a sunny day, there’s no better place to slurp oysters than at the picnic area at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm. The farm specializes in sustainably raised shellfish, including oysters, clams and mussels. Whether you opt for shucked-to-order Buck Bay oysters, plucked fresh from the property, or a creamy bowl of crab mac ‘n cheese, everything tastes better with local beer, wine and an incredible view. Of course, visitors can also buy fresh shellfish to take home.
Check in to Doe Bay Resort & Retreat, a beautiful waterfront property located on the east side of Orcas Island. Doe Bay offers a variety of accommodations, including cozy cabins, yurts and campsites. There is also a sauna and a hot tub available for guests to use, as well as yoga classes and other wellness activities. Its café is a culinary stunner, serving locally sourced ingredients and produce from its one-acre organic garden.
PASTRIES • WHALE WATCHING • SHOPS
Start the day with a trip to Eastsound. Then, fuel up for the day with a stop at Brown Bear Bakery. Its gorgeous loaves are made with a slow fermentation process, which gives us a chewy, flavorful crust and a tender crumb. It’s the bakery’s buttery pastries, however, that have locals lining up. Among those are the apple croissants, savory scones and pecan sticky buns.
Drive a few miles to the North Shore to meet up with Outer Island Expeditions for a day of whale watching on a brand-new “Orcas Only” tour. Outer Island Expeditions whale watching tours are conducted on comfortable boats equipped with indoor and outdoor seating areas designed specifically for wildlife viewing. The waters surrounding Orcas Island are home to various whale species, including orcas (also known as killer whales), humpback whales, gray whales and minke whales. In addition to seeing whales and other wildlife, members on the expedition are treated to an educational experience from knowledgeable guides. You will learn about the local ecosystem, marine conservation and the history of the San Juan Islands. Tours are between three and five hours.
Afterward, head back to Eastsound. Meander the stacks at Darvill’s Bookstore. The beloved local institution has been serving the community for more than forty years and focuses on promoting local island authors and books about the Pacific Northwest.
A few doors down, Sean Forest Roberts sells beautiful marbled and brightly colored porcelain cups, bowls and vases at his shop, Forest Ceramic Co.
Belly up to one of a handful of seats at Barnacle Bar for the best cocktails on the island. The jewel box of a spot seats only nineteen people. Order from a list of local ingredient-driven cocktails or ask the friendly bartenders to craft something on the spot. You won’t be disappointed. Then wander across the street to Prune Alley for your dinner reservation at Matia. Named for one of the small islands in the San Juan Islands archipelago, Matia Kitchen was recognized as one of the top fifty restaurants in the United States in 2022 by The New York Times.
HIKING • VIEWS • LOCAL HISTORY
After you’ve packed up and checked out of Doe Bay, head to Obstruction Pass State Park. It’s peak season for foraging for stinging nettles, and the 77-acre park is packed with small and tender plants. In addition to its natural beauty, Obstruction Pass State Park has several hiking trails that wind through its forested hillsides. The trails offer stunning views of the surrounding islands and waterways and opportunities to see wildlife such as deer, eagles and otters.
The park also has a small beach area where visitors can relax and soak up the sun and a rocky shoreline that is perfect for beach combing.
If the skies are clear, take a spin to the top of Mount Constitution. It’s the highest point in the San Juan Islands and part of Moran State Park. It covers more than 5,000 acres and has numerous hiking trails, lakes and campgrounds. (You’ll need a Discover Pass to visit—www.discoverpass.wa.gov.) The drive up the mountain is scenic, with several pull-off areas along the way where visitors can stop and take in the views. The road is narrow and winding, so drivers should be cautious and take their time. There is a small parking area at the summit, which can get crowded during peak season. You can also hike to the summit. The most popular trail is the Mount Constitution Trail. This 6.7-mile roundtrip hike begins at the Mountain Lake trailhead and ascends to the summit. Once at the summit, visitors can climb the stone observation tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Visitors can enjoy 360-degree views of the San Juan Islands, the Olympic Mountains and the Canadian Gulf Islands from the tower.
If time allows, make a quick stop at the Museum at Rosario Resort & Spa. The museum is housed in the historic Moran Mansion, built in the early 1900s by Seattle shipbuilder Robert Moran. The museum is dedicated to the history of the San Juan Islands and the life and legacy of Robert Moran. The exhibits include artifacts and memorabilia related to the Moran family, including photographs, documents, and personal items. The mansion is now part of Rosario Resort & Spa, a luxury hotel and resort that overlooks Eastsound.
Before you head to the ferry, grab a quick bite to eat at Madrona Bar & Grill. The Northwest Crab Melt, made with Dungeness crab salad served on grilled sourdough bread and topped with melted cheddar cheese, is popular.
ORCAS ISLAND, WASHINGTON
Brown Bear Baking
Buck Bay Shellfish Farm
Doe Bay Wine Company
Island Hoppin’ Brewery
Madrona Bar & Grill
Doe Bay Resort
Forest Ceramic Co.
Girl Meets Dirt
Mount Constitution at Moran State Park
Museum at Rosario Resort & Spa
Obstruction Pass State Park
Outer Island Expeditions
Washington State Ferries