Washington Adventure: Orcas Island

Kayak's at Orcas Island
Kayak's at Orcas Island

Culinary and other experiences on Orcas Island

written by Michelle Hopkins | photography by Kevin Light

Orcas Island has a long tradition of farming, from produce to pigs and pretty much everything in between. For an adventurous eater, this spot is a dream come true.

Wearing waders, Mark Sawyer headed toward Buck Bay to harvest oysters. A while later, the proprietor of Buck Bay Shellfish Farms returned from the shell-strewn beach holding a bucket filled with enough oysters to satisfy residents, visitors and chefs alike.

Sawyer began Buck Bay in 2008 with his partner in life, Toni Hermansen. Together, they breathed new life into the 26 acres of tidal land and 20-plus acres of upland that have been in Sawyer’s family for three generations. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island, where people come to shuck freshly caught oysters or to purchase locally sourced seafood.

As we chatted, a blue serving tray appeared, displaying ten oysters. Holding onto the knife, I deftly poked each shell, coaxing them to yield their velvety flesh. These delicacies are fleshy, and with a little hot sauce, they tasted salty, fresh and slightly smoky.

I arrived on this quaint 57-mile horseshoe-shaped island, the biggest and most hilly of any of the San Juan Islands, ready to experience a culinary adventure.

Orcas, aka the Emerald Isle, is a farm-to-table devotees’ paradise, where farmers, chefs and ranchers are friends, partners and cohorts living the same ethos—permaculture (sustainable, self-sufficient agriculture). Restaurants were the obvious way to enjoy this bounty, and my culinary travels led me to several chefs who live the creed.

Overlooking Cascade Bay, my home for the weekend was a mountainside room with beautiful views of the bay at The Rosario Resort & Spa. It is home to the renowned The Mansion Restaurant. I sat overlooking a panorama of shimmering blue waters and outlying islands, with a vegetable omelet and housemade pork sausage patty for breakfast.

Not really a fan of pork sausages, I nonetheless was coaxed into trying it. The pork comes from the massive woolly Mangalitsa pigs raised on Orcas, offering up a fattier, more intense flavor, unlike I’d experienced before. I could have begged for more.

Vancouverite and executive chef Raymond Southern told me the menu is driven by seasonal ingredients he can source on Orcas and on the grounds of the resort.

“We have a greenhouse and garden boxes up on the hill and poolside, where we grow lettuce, basil, cilantro and more,” Southern explained. “Just before dinner service, I check to see what we have that I can include on the menu.”

After breakfast, I headed out to meet Sandy Playa, owner/guide of Spring Bay Kayak Tours, for a morning paddle. As she led me down to Spring Bay, she quickly dispelled a long thought myth—that Orcas got its moniker from the black and white killer whale.
“Orcas Island was named after a Spanish explorer, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, and Orcas is a short version of Horcasitas,” she said.

Soon, we paddled the glassy waters of this protected bay. It looked like a Monet painting with a kaleidoscope of maple and alder leaves, while firs blanket the background with their deep green hues.

Pointing out various wildlife, Playa said guests sometimes spot orcas, although you are more likely to catch sight of harbor seals and porpoises, and eagles swooping down in search of food.

Then, it was off to explore Eastsound, a charming historic village with great boutiques, shops, restaurants and waterfront pubs. My favorite find was Roses Bakery Café. With the scent of fresh baked crusty bread wafting in the air, I discovered wines, meats and a great selection of artisan cheeses. This was Mecca to a French-Canadian like me.

Packing my treasures in my car, I left for the Doe Bay Café. Executive chef Jon Chappelle and I wandered past the resident chickens to the edible flower and herb gardens, where he showed me produce that would probably end up on the dinner plates.

Chappelle’s pescatarian carte du jour depends largely on what the on-site organic gardener is harvesting. “We focus on high-end, unpretentious cuisine that is highlighted by everything we can grow or buy here on the island,” Chappelle said. “As a chef, nothing is more exciting than that.”

Once a hippie enclave, this funky waterfront diner served up one of the best burritos I’ve ever bit into. Layered with wholesome goodness and the right amount of spice, the burrito was big enough to share.

Upon my return to the hotel, the front desk receptionist told me I was just in time to take in a free historical narrative of this magnificent grand dame. As I walked into the Moran Music Room, my eyes were glued to the Aeolian player pipe organ, with exposed pipes handcrafted of mahogany. Between playing the organ, historian/musician/storyteller extraordinaire Christopher Peacock regaled the packed room with the fascinating history of how ship magnate Robert Moran constructed the impressive mansion back in the early 1900s.

The following day, more than one local told me no trip to Orcas was complete without a visit to Mt. Constitution in Moran State Park. With hiking boots tightly laced up, I started a two-hour climb along densely forested trails snaking through the old growth park. Feeling an endorphin rush, I got back in my car to reach the starting point to Mt. Constitution. The trek to the summit took minutes. At the peak, I was rewarded with sweeping views of the San Juan archipelagos from inside a stone tower replica of Russian watchtowers constructed during the twelfth century.

That evening, I traveled to the Inn at Ship Bay. Before dining outside the historic 1860s waterfront farmhouse, I roamed the acreage where vegetable and herb gardens and heirloom fruit trees abound. Sitting on the patio overlooking Ship Bay, I opted for the six-course special.
With the fervor of any organic food evangelist, celebrated chef Geddes Martin told me everything from the locally raised Wagyu beef to the kale salad, harvested earlier that day, is organic, sustainable and, most importantly, better tasting. Course after course was beautifully plated and bursting with flavors rich with the nuances of the earth.

As I left to catch the ferry to Anacortes, I was reminded that Orcas is truly a tight-knit community of dedicated foodies—where restaurateurs are lured by the local bounty, where farmers proudly exalt the island’s organic ethos and where chefs breed rare pigs—making dining on Orcas a memorable gastronomy escapade.

Next visit the San Juan Islands.

Try sinking into Island Time.

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