The benefits of travel go far beyond a simple change of scenery or the ability to engage in non-routine activities. One of the greatest appeals of travel is the chance to experience an entirely different way of life. But you don’t necessarily have to leave the country or, for that matter, go very far to gain an outlook overhaul. Take, for example, a trip to Orcas Island, nicknamed the “emerald Isle” and “the gem of the San Juans” for good reason (and no, this island group of four is not in the Caribbean; they’re in Puget Sound in Washington).
Just 57 square miles in size with few cars, limited digital connectivity, varied typography, endless recreational activities and waters teeming with orca whales, a trip here will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into an earlier century. With its slow pace; safe, rustic, off-the-grid atmosphere; relatively small number of residents and visitors and majestic natural settings, Orcas Island offers a rare and powerful opportunity to shed life’s complications and truly recharge and reset.
Small but Big on Options
Many travel destinations have a predominant character that can be captured in a couple of straightforward labels—mountainous, desert-like or coastal; pastoral, small town or urban; flat or hilly… Stunningly, almost all of these descriptors apply to horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island, despite the destination’s diminutive size—which means there’s something for just about everyone.
The east side of the island is mountainous and provides thrilling hiking and cliff-jumping opportunities. The central part comprises rolling farmlands dotted with weathered barns and grazing sheep and horses, and so lends itself well to rumination and relaxation. The western section, with its scenic coastline and beaches, will make you feel as if you’re visiting a Mediterranean nation, with all the beautiful sights and water activities that implies: guided excursions ranging from whale watching (spring and summer) and fishing to wildlife viewing and kayaking, plus boat tours (group and private) through the San Juan Islands.
Eastsound Village—Orcas Island’s Dining and Retail Hub
Orcas Island has long attracted artisans, craftsmen and musicians. Events, studios, galleries and shops provide plenty of opportunities for visitors to satisfy their cultural and artistic interests and discover unique creations, including homegrown products from island farms and orchards. Restaurants here take advantage of all that fresh bounty and the area’s amazing seafood, too, so you’ll definitely be able to enjoy great food during your stay.
Moran State Park—Highlight of the East
One thing you’ll definitely want to do on the east side of Orcas Island is visit 5,579-acre Moran State Park, the fourth largest state park in Washington. It contains five freshwater lakes, over 30 miles of hiking/biking trails of varying degrees of difficulty, many campgrounds around Cascade Lake and Mountain Lake (for primitive and RV camping, as well as glamping–book), boating, fishing and swimming spots and jaw-dropping vistas—luminous waters, waterfalls and old-growth forests are just some of the things you’ll see. The park’s top destination is a stone observation tower atop the 2,409-ft.-tall Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. The 360-degree views from here encompass the various islands, the Cascade Mountains and several American and Canadian cities.
See Orcas and More
While whale sightings are never guaranteed, the San Juan Islands are among the best places in the world to spot orca (aka ‘killer’) whales, known for their giant size and black and white coloration. Take a charter tour during your Orcas Island stay and you’ll have an excellent chance of seeing these magnificent creatures out in the wild, as well as humpback whales, minke whales, gray whales, fin whales, otters, sea lions, eagles and various other shore birds.
Getting to Orcas Island
To reach the island, fly into Seattle-Tacoma airport, rent a car and then drive northward to Anacortes (about 100 miles) where you can catch a Washington State Ferry to Orcas Village (explore the shops when you head back)—ferries accommodate RVs, motor homes, trailer campers and boat trailers. Be sure to make a reservation at least two weeks in advance in the summertime. Take a Kenmore Air seaplane if you want to get to the island more quickly.