Our last two nights were a festive end to the trip. At the Rosario Resort we treated ourselves to an all-the-trimmings feast that included trout, salmon, crab (not to mention Ron’s down-home meatloaf), plus desserts made with local berries. The next night, after returning the boat to AYC, we shoehorned into the very popular Adrift. Funky, collaborative, and relaxed, the place is unlike restaurants at home. Its mix-and-match recipes, high-quality local ingredients, and pioneering culinary flair are not only fun—for us they captured the feel of the islands we had just visited.
Other than Friday Harbor, we called at just three island towns. All very different, they illustrate the variety of places found on the three central (San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas) and over 80 secondary islands. Roche Harbor, on the northwest corner of San Juan Island, faces Canada and is the clearance port for customs and immigration. Above the maritime bustle on its docks, the town is stately, ornamental, and dignified. After developing the spot as a lime mining and smelting site, largest in the Northwest, in 1886 John S. McMillin conceived of the original Hudson’s Bay Trading Post as a resort. He built the ramblingly magnificent Hotel de Haro, a wooden ark that still houses guests and dominates the waterfront. Walks, gardens, restaurants, and shops sprung up around it. Roche Harbor became a garden spot of the Golden Age, and it retains the aura and appeal of that bygone time today.
Deer Harbor, a modest hamlet off West Sound on Orcas Island, is something else. The town, a cluster of houses around a marina dock, is hardly noticeable. A snack bar at the pier serves excellent chowder and good hot dogs, and the restaurant up the road looked promising but closed. The folks we met there were either, like us, sailors looking for a holding-tank pumpout (which, like the restaurant, was not working) or customers hoping to take a whale watch cruise.
Olga is almost as small as Deer Harbor. The sign on its rickety wooden pier says “Welcome to Olga,” and the place made us feel welcome from the moment we stepped ashore. From friendly service and delicious scones at the general store to expansive talks with a local gardener to a visit to a local sculptor who showed us his work while pushing his kids on a front-yard swing, the place embraced us.
Rosario Resort was our most memorable stop. “Unquestionably the most historic landmark of the San Juans, it melds the quiet grandeur of a turn-of-the-century estate with the posh of a modern resort,” said one of our guidebooks. Watching guests come and go via seaplane added to the resort’s luster, and hearing the story of its builder (who arrived in Seattle with just a dime in his pocket and rose to become a millionaire shipbuilder and mayor) deepened its history. What we took away with us (besides the sumptuous meal) was our tour of the Moran mansion. We learned that it took six years just to lay the teak parquet floors, and that when the entire 54-room house was completed in 1904, it cost $1.5 million. One of Moran’s ship-building coups was to secure the contract for the U.S.S. Nebraska, one of the Great White Fleet of battleships President Theodore Roosevelt sent around the world. Building and launching her on the West Coast was a civic triumph, and her 12-foot model stood out as one of the special attractions of our trip.
Good anchorages make for good cruising. We appreciate the step-ashore convenience and umbilical resources of marinas, but getting away from it all means getting the hook down in a safe and somewhat solitary spot. The San Juans offer a multitude of excellent anchorages.
Reid Harbor on Stuart Island was a must-visit recommendation from friends. Feathering our way down its winding entrance channel in a dying southerly and then rounding hard to port into its near-landlocked basin, we could see why. Slanting light from the setting sun put the near shore in shadow and coated the down-to-the-water trees on the far side with gold. Zephyrs on the beam wisped us across glassy water. Despite the 30 cruisers who had arrived before us, we were more than happy to find swinging room (in 15-foot depths) and settle in for an idyllic night. Spots like this are everywhere.
Rumor has it that the beach at Sucia, one of the northern “outer islands,” is where you can pick up oysters right off the sand. No doubt it was that vision that lured me into what became a desperate and pressing search for a good anchorage. As we powered the 15 miles from Deer Harbor, the wind doubled, tripled, and then some. Not only that, it was out of the east. Sucia Bay opens east. Suddenly our oyster feast had all the potential of a rough and rocky night in an exposed cove. Way out at the top of the archipelago, I could see no good alternative. Too shallow, too distant, upstream, equally exposed—the choices for places to spend the night were all bad. Then Carol picked out microscopic Fox Cove, a tiny opening between Sucia and Little Sucia. Big enough for three other boats on park-provided moorings, it gave us not only a secure and restful sleep but a postcard-perfect display of limestone cliffs illuminated in the morning sun. Phew!
One day we got word that a cold front would come through that evening. A slip in Roche Harbor Marina might have been wise, but there was none to be had. We chose Garrison Bay, notable in history as the site of the Anglo-American standoff over the border, as a place to ride it out; the hill-encircled basin was the closest thing to a hurricane hole we could find. Fifty-knot gusts confirmed the wisdom of surrounding ourselves with wooded heights, though the roar of the wind in the trees was unnerving. Fin-keeled with a shallow canoe body, our modern Beneteau did a lot of sailing on her anchor, and we were far from relaxed. Good shelter, good holding, and good ground tackle prevailed, however, and what might have been trouble left us simply sleepless near Seattle.
When someone asks “How was your cruise?”, I must admit my first response is still “cold.” But, as you can see, there was much more to it than that.
Robby Robinson, a former SAIL editor, is a lifelong sailor and writer. He is the author of the recently published International Marine Book of Sailing.
Contact: Anacortes Yacht Charters, www.ayc.com; 800-233-3004