Every summer, droves of eager beach-goers flock to the usual East Coast vacation spots. Whether that’s the Hamptons or Cape Cod, or perhaps Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, crowds descend upon these seaside towns en masse, drawn by the pristine beaches, charming shops, adorable restaurants and, of course, the natural beauty.
Unfortunately, the sheer number of visitors can often lead to oppressive crowds, resulting in a less than ideal setting for a relaxing getaway. So instead of spending your summer weekend scouring for a spot at the beach or struggling to get a dinner reservation, why not make an effort to explore more under-the-radar destinations?
Perhaps that’s why everyone from Chris Pratt and Oprah to James Jannard and Bill Gates have been swarming to the San Juan Islands, a gorgeous and peaceful archipelago off the coast of Washington State. It’s the West Coast’s answer to New England’s summertime mainstays, boasting a similar ambience of waterfront luxury, but with its own unique charm and serenity.
While there are 172 named islands in San Juan County, the vast majority are largely uninhabited and inaccessible from the ferry system that runs between the isles and the mainland coast. There are, however, three main islands frequented by vacationers, each with its own distinct character: Lopez Island, San Juan Island and Orcas Island, the last of which might be the best of them all.
From the pebbled beaches, clear cerulean waters and old-growth forests of towering pines and iridescent foxgloves, Orcas Island is defined by the natural beauty covering every bit of its 56.9 square miles. The island’s unique horseshoe shape has become something of a calling card to those in the know—around the Pacific Northwest, you’ll see the image adorning bumper stickers and t-shirts.
Whether you’re there for a weekend or a longer stay, Orcas Island is the perfect place to rest, rejuvenate and get away from it all. The views atop Mount Constitution alone are enough to convince anyone to book a flight, but that’s only the beginning of all Orcas has to offer. Hike, kayak and whale watch all day, then go for a swim or indulge in a massage. The island’s cuisine is sustainable and delicious, often sourced directly from the area. For more culture, the art galleries and boutiques on San Juan Island are just a short ferry ride away.
Despite Orcas Island’s laid-back vibes and tranquil atmosphere, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the myriad of offerings. There’s truly something for everyone, with a variety of resorts, hiking trails and restaurants as well as ceramics studios, farmers markets and wineries. Here’s everything you need to know.
How to get there
First, you need to figure out transportation. Luckily, the journey to Orcas is one of the best parts of the getaway.
The most popular option is the ferry system. From Seattle, drive about 90 minutes north to the small town of Anacortes. From here, you’ll board the ferry with your vehicle (an added bonus is that you’ll have your car for transportation once you’ve arrived). With air-conditioned indoor seating, wide open-air decks and ocean views, the Orcas Island vacation begins with the journey, rather than the destination. Turn your travel day into a scenic activity by booking a sunset ferry; just bring a blanket and snacks, watch the sun dip below the horizon. Gazing at the starry sky above the Puget Sound is the perfect start—or end—to your adventure.
Peak-season round-trip fares are about $15 per person, and $75 for a car with a driver. Tickets can be purchased online or at the terminal, but if you’re traveling with a vehicle, it’s smart to reserve a spot ahead of time, especially in the summer months. The ferries are also great for island-hopping, given that eastbound inter-island rides are free.
For the seasick or time-pressed, there are direct routes via small commercial planes from Seattle straight to Orcas Island. There are daily scheduled flights with San Juan Airlines from Anacortes, Bellingham and Seattle-Tacoma International, but those looking for a more unique (albeit pricier) experience should check out the scenic seaplane flights from Seattle offered by Kenmore Air and Friday Harbor Seaplanes. Landing strips are found in Deer Harbor, Eastsound and Westsound, as well as right on the waterfront of the Rosario Resort and Spa—talk about arriving with a splash.
Where to stay
1400 Rosario Road, Eastsound, WA, 98245
For those craving the full resort experience, look no further than Rosario. The waterfront property is home to three restaurants (the upscale Mansion Restaurant, the Moran Lounge and the more casual dockside Cascade Bay Grill—come on summer Saturday nights for live music), as well as three pools, a spa, a museum and a general store, plus a marina complete with whale watching, kayaking and day sailing. Rosario also benefits from a great location: it’s right outside Moran State Park, and a steep but short trail leads straight from the back of the property to Cascade Lake. While the resort is centered around the historic Moran Mansion, accommodations are spread throughout the 82-acre property, from the bayside and harborside rooms across the
For those looking to spend a little less, it’s also possible to rent one of the “residences,” which were previously owned by the Rosario but are now privately managed as Airbnbs. These give you the same views and easy access to the resort’s grounds and amenities. There’s also the added bonus of getting local tips; on a recent stay, our host told us everything about the island, including the best restaurants (and the best times to go), the most reliable whale watching vendors and detailed accounts of every hike—it was the perfect insider’s guide to Orcas.
107 Doe Bay Rd Olga, WA 98279
For a more rustic resort experience, try the Doe Bay Resort and Retreat. The 38-acre waterfront property is ideal for a serene, laid-back getaway, with soaking tubs, saunas, yoga classes and kayaking, plus a panoramic view of the Rosario Strait. Accommodations include private cabins, yurts, campsites and a deluxe bespoke treehouse. Their seed-to-table restaurant, the Doe Bay Cafe, even has live music on the weekends.
171 Main St, Eastsound, WA 98245
Outlook Inn boasts a prime location right in the heart of Eastsound, Orcas’ biggest town. The property offers a full acre of gardens, a quality restaurant in New Leaf Cafe, as well as its own chapel. Every room is equipped with a private balcony—if possible, try to snag one of the waterfront
1459 North Beach Road, Eastsound, WA 98245
The Kangaroo House is known for its cheerful ambience, warm hospitality and cozy furnishings. This charming inn dates back to 1907; it’s the longest-running B&B in the San Juan Islands. The property features lodge-style housing, a library, an open air garden and a hot tub. The food is another highlight, as the organic breakfasts are made from scratch. And yes, there is a story behind the name: back in the bungalow’s original stint as a vacation hotel, a steamship captain allegedly brought an orphaned baby kangaroo to stay with him and his family, leading locals to cheekily dub it the “Kangaroo House.” The name has stuck ever since.
What to eat
326 Olga Rd, Eastsound, WA 98245
No matter where you’re staying, try to carve out time for a meal at this waterfront eatery. Located in a renovated 19th century farmhouse, chef Geddes Martin’s innovative menu features fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, most of which come straight from Martin’s own farm or the ocean. The seasonal menu features the best of the San Juan Islands, including dishes like Lum Farm pork with black kale, sweet onion, fennel and nectarines, and Judd Cove oysters with citrus mignonette. Make reservations in advance, as it tends to book up.
171 Main St, Eastsound, WA 98245
Outlook Inn’s elegant New Leaf Cafe is a good option for brunch or a romantic dinner. If you’re here earlier in the day, order a cup of coffee and the warm smoked salmon toast, which you can enjoy while watching the sailboats float by—it’s the perfect start to any Orcas morning. Other menu highlights include splurge-worthy Belgian waffles and local delicacies like Dungeness crab cakes and seared black cod.
29 North Beach & Main Street, Eastsound, WA 98245
Owned by two retired Las Vegas architects, this French-inspired bakery is an Orcas Island must-visit. From the flaky yet tender kouign-amann and enormous sticky buns to the fluffy quiches, it’s hard to imagine better cafe fare. Stop by on the earlier side, as the pastries tend to go fast. It’s great for a pre-hike coffee and croissant, or a post-spa treatment indulgence. Between Brown Bear Baking’s pastries and the artisanal sandwiches and high-quality wine found in Roots right across the way, this street corner is the perfect spot to fill your picnic basket.
233 Prune Aly, Eastsound, WA 98245
For a quick lunch, stop by this pan-Asian-inspired garden cafe, where you can make your own bowl from the assortment of fresh ingredients. If you have the time, enjoy your lunch at one of the picnic tables outside, or take your meal to go.
382 Prune Alley, Eastsound, WA 98245
Matia, a recent addition to the Orcas Island culinary scene, is perfect if you’re in the mood for a fine dining experience, complete with craft cocktails, in a cozy and romantic atmosphere. This establishment has already been showered with awards, including a coveted spot on the 2022 New York Times list of the 50 Best Restaurants in America. Matia’s dinner menu changes daily, but everything is farm-to-table. Creative combinations abound in dishes such as salt-baked apples, terrine of winter chicories, blue cheese and maple-candied walnuts.
What to do
Hike, hike and hike some more
Whether you’re an experienced trailblazer or a first-time pathfinder, Orcas Island has hikes for all levels. An entire article could be spent detailing the different options, but there are three spots in particular that you shouldn’t miss: Moran State Park, Turtleback Mountain Preserve and Obstruction Pass State Park.
3572 Olga Road, Olga, WA 98279
If you can only hit one spot, make it Moran—the view from Mt. Constitution, the highest point of all San Juan Islands, is an absolute must. There are a multitude of hiking options at Moran, so you can personalize the experience to best fit your needs. Avid hikers will likely want to ascend the summit entirely on foot, but there are a number of shorter hikes for those less interested in rigorous uphill trekking. One particularly rewarding trail leads through the lush forest to Cascade Falls—it’s less than a mile, and absolutely gorgeous. There are also hikes to and around pristine Mountain Lake and Cascade Lake, but if you’re pressed for time, prioritize the falls and the peak, which can also be reached by car. There’s nothing like the splendid views from the peak of Mt. Constitution on a clear day: you can see Anacortes, Bellingham, the snow-capped peaks of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, Vancouver Island and more.
Turtleback Mountain Preserve is on the other side of the “horseshoe” of the island. Although locals and frequent visitors tend to disagree over the relative merits of Moran and Turtleback, both are terrific hiking spots, and offer vistas of the mountains and surrounding islands. There are fewer mini-trails at Turtleback than Moran, which makes it a bit harder to customize the experience, but for many hiking aficionados, Turtleback Mountain is even more beloved—and often less crowded. The hikes are longer, steeper and more challenging, but the stunning view of green islands, the glittering sound and Vancouver Island is more than enough of a reward.
A visit to Obstruction Pass brings you down to the
Set sail on a whale watching trip
Orcas Island’s name actually stems from Horcasitas, an homage to Juan Vicente de Guemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, the New Spain viceroy who commissioned the expedition that eventually set foot on the island. It’s understandable you’d think that Orcas’ moniker comes from whales, as there are, in fact, a ton of whale watching opportunities here. In peak summer season, whale watching vessels leave from the Rosario Marina, Deer Harbor and Brandt’s Landing Marina. There are a few companies to choose from, including Outer Island Excursions and Deer Harbor Charters, for which a whale sighting is guaranteed, or you get another trip for free.
Partake in local wine tastings
Orcas Island is known for its wine, and for good reason. Stop by Doe Bay Wine Co, also known as The Orcas Project Tasting Room, in Eastsound to see the project’s collaboration between the best regional winemakers and local artists. Each of the 10 participating winemakers has their own specialty, style and illustration, from Javier Alfonso’s Spanish varietals (and accompanying raccoon imagery) to Doug Tunnell’s in-demand Burgundy wines (and owl artwork). The curated tasting pairs a rotating selection of unique, regional wines with artisanal cheese boards, but you can also just grab a bottle of Cayuse or local beers to go.
For a more rustic experience, head to the base of Turtleback Mountain for Orcas Island Winery. The 16 acre property boasts an art gallery, wine garden and endless outdoor views, in addition to a tasting room. They regularly host art and music events, as well as a street food series every Sunday through August.
Head to ceramics studios and galleries
Pottery lovers will feel right at home at Eastsound’s Forest Ceramic Gallery. Both the pieces on display and the carving techniques used to craft them were created on Orcas; gallery owner Sean Forest Roberts invented the pottery technique himself, and has built up quite a social media following. In addition to ceramics, the gallery displays work from other local artists, including original paintings and art books.
There’s also Orcas Island Pottery, the oldest studio pottery in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not as easily accessible as Forest Ceramic, but the location is part of the draw. Perched atop a bluff overlooking President’s Channel, and surrounded by Douglas firs and old-growth cedars, OIP feels like a fairyland—just walking down the footpath from the parking lot and entering the gardens is nothing short of magical.
Indulge in a spa day
There’s no shortage of relaxation services on Orcas Island, from the Spa at Rosario, to the Healing Arts Center, to Massage by the Sea. Rosario is definitely on the pricier side, but is ideal for a self-care day, as in addition to a treatment, you get access to their entire spa, pools and hot tub.
Experience the local farmers market
203 N Beach Rd, Eastsound, WA 98245
If you’re on Orcas on a summer Saturday, make sure to stop by the farmers market for good eats, adorable crafts, beautiful jewelry and a taste of real local culture. The Orcas Island Farmers Market offers live music and performances, alongside vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables and gourmet olive oils, as well as Mexican, Indonesian and Cuban food stalls.