Chartering in the Pacific Northwest: the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands are a part of the San Juan Archipelago in the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington state. You could spend a lifetime exploring the 450 islands, most of which are uninhabited, but on a weeklong charter with these five highlights on the itinerary
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 The view north from Anacortes

The view north from Anacortes

The five best stopovers in the Pacific Northwest

The San Juan Islands are a part of the San Juan Archipelago in the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington state. You could spend a lifetime exploring the 450 islands, most of which are uninhabited, but on a weeklong charter with these five highlights on the itinerary, I’ve found I can’t miss.

To set the mood, start with Friday Harbor on San Juan Island (23 nautical miles from charter bases in Anacortes) where friendly staff at the marina will find you a spot even if it means being side-tied three deep. Walk up to town with its variety of great restaurants, bars, and art galleries. Friday Harbor has a true Pacific Northwest vibe with live music pouring out of coffee houses and culture that is obviously tied to the water. It’s also an easy overnight stop with everything available that you might have forgotten to provision.

Next, I like to head north about 12 miles to Orcas Island and the historic Rosario Resort and Moran Mansion museum. A local once told me, “If you haven’t been to Rosario, you haven’t been to the San Juans.” I aimed the bow in that direction and, boy, was he right.

 Crow Valley Pottery is just one example of the many hidden gems found on these islands

Crow Valley Pottery is just one example of the many hidden gems found on these islands

Shipbuilder and one-time Seattle mayor Robert Moran purchased 7,000 acres here in the early 1900s and built an Arts and Crafts style residence that is now a museum and open to the public. Moran’s nautical background is evident in the furnishing and fixtures, and the house tour is exceptional. The famous music room features an Aeolian pipe organ, a Steinway grand piano and two mezzanine libraries overlooking a Tiffany chandelier. Christopher Peacock, accomplished musician and Rosario historian, presents a free concert a few days a week which includes music and original silent film footage from the Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney.

Now, let’s turn back and head about 15 miles to the northern tip of San Juan Island to Roche Harbor, a marina with 377 slips. Listed on the National Register of Historical Sites, the Hotel de Haro, built in 1886, serves as the center of “town,” which is only a few buildings. The hotel lobby is filled with old photographs that tell the story of this former lime-quarrying center, and in summertime the grounds are bursting with flowers. The local cuisine includes fresh fish, shellfish and crab, and if you’re dining during the late summer sunset, you’ll note that everyone pauses for the striking of the colors outside and to watch the sun dip over the horizon. Evening activities include performances in the open-air amphitheater, and during the day I like the self-guided tour through an outdoor sculpture garden and the McMillin Family Mausoleum.

From Roche, take a daysail out on the Haro Strait that separates the United States from Canada. This is an excellent best place to spot a pod of orcas as these beautiful animals travel up and down the channel, feeding and splashing. Local laws require that boats stay at least 100 yards away, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, they’ll swim right up to and around your boat. People line up in Roche to pay for whale watching tours, so if you see one of the boats, you can cozy up to them assuming they know where the orcas are that day.

Finally, I like to spice things up with a trip through Deception Pass, which separates Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island about 28 miles from Roche. Although it’s advisable to transit the pass only at slack water due to the strong currents, a thrilling ride is to be had if you go in with the current a few hours before. It’s like rafting the Colorado river as the water boils around you and the boat speeds up to 10 or 12 knots while nearly in idle. This is not a place to go sailing; you’ll definitely want to make your transit under power. Once through the pass, you can tie up at a dock at Cornet Bay, where in August, you might catch a glimpse of the tall ships Hawaiian Chieftain and Lady Washington engaging in mock battles on the bay.

Chartering in the Pacific Northwest can be challenging, because the season is short, the wind is fluky and fog can show up any time, including in mid-August. For a quick jump into the action, it may be best to charter out of Anacortes, which is close to these islands but a long ride from Seattle airport. Chartering out of Bellingham may be more convenient for anyone flying in, but you’ll spend a few hours getting down to the cruising playground.

The San Juans are compact, so you could ostensibly hit all five highlights in five days. But oh, what a fun five days those will be.

Photos courtesy of San Juan Islands visitors bureau

Read about more charters in the United States:New England, San FranciscoGrand Traverse Bay, Chesapeake Bay

For highlights, advice and charter company links go to:Five Charter Destinations in the United States

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