“Wow, I know I sound like a broken record, but I can’t believe how amazing this place is,” I exclaimed (again) to my husband as I watched another seaplane land in the small, idyllic harbor bobbing with boats. True, I hadn’t arrived to San Juan Island by mistake – in fact, it took a bit of effort to get there. And, like all of the destinations I travel to, I researched the island extensively, so I wouldn’t have planned the trip had I not believed I would enjoy it. But there was something about Friday Harbor, and San Juan Island in general, which made me yearn to plan my return trip before I even boarded the seaplane to head back to Atlanta via Seattle.
Is Friday Harbor the Most Underrated Destination in the Pacific Northwest?
When you think of the Pacific Northwest, you probably think of Seattle, Washington, Mount Ranier and Portland, Oregon. But, have you ever considered a trip to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands? If you’re not from the Pacific Northwest United States, have you even ever heard of Friday Harbor or the San Juan Islands?
After visiting this past July, I believe Friday Harbor may be the most underrated destination in the Pacific Northwest.
Where is Friday Harbor?
Friday Harbor is a city on San Juan Island. San Juan Island, part of Washington state, is one of the islands that make up the San Juan Islands. The archipelago of islands are located between Washington state and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
San Juan Islands Visitor’s Bureau’s website reads “Getting Here is Half the Fun,” and I 100% agree. As much as I prefer “off the beaten path” destinations, places that are difficult to get to (read: cities where I can’t get a direct flight from Atlanta) can stress me out when I have a tight itinerary and feel the pressure to get back to the office quickly after a few days off.
By living in Atlanta, I’m spoiled when it comes to having an abundance of direct flight options. But there is no direct flight to Friday Harbor. And, surprisingly, I’m thankful for that. However you choose to get there, you won’t be able to ignore the breathtaking, mountainous scenery around you.
I would recommend that you take the Clipper Vacations Ferry to Friday Harbor. Why? Well, you can whale watch! (More on this below). But, it’s also very convenient – the Clipper leaves right from Seattle’s waterfront, meaning that if you’re a tourist, you don’t have to rent a car to make the two hour drive to the Washington State Ferry which leaves from Anacortes. I’ve also been told that the State Ferry is typically very crowded during summer, meaning that if you are unable to get one of the limited reservations, you may have to arrive to the dock hours ahead of the scheduled departure in an effort to travel as a “stand-by” passenger. (This said, I have not personally traveled by the State Ferry – I am only passing along what others have told me).
Based on my personal experience, I would also recommend that you hop a Kenmore Air seaplane flight from Friday Harbor back to Seattle. Why? Aside from the fact that the flight is spectacularly gorgeous (again, discussed in more detail below), it’s a super quick, convenient flight back to Seattle’s Union Lake. If you don’t live near Seattle and you have to hop a flight home from Seattle Tacoma International Airport, you can book a shuttle with Kenmore straight to the airport once your seaplane lands.
Why Should I Visit Friday Harbor?
There’s so many reasons to travel to Friday Harbor! To start with, the San Juan Islands are the best place in the USA to spot orca (or “killer”) whales and bald eagles, after Alaska. Orca whale watching is a huge draw to the islands, but they have plenty more to offer visitors – great food, outdoor activities and beautiful scenery.
When Should I Travel to Friday Harbor?
The best time to travel to the San Juan Islands is between mid-May and mid-October. These are also the months when the salmon runs are strongest, meaning you have the best chance to spot orca whales during this timeframe. However, since there are pods of orcas that live near the islands year round, you may spot whales outside of these months. July and August afford the warmest weather, but they will also be the busiest months on the islands.
How Should I Spend My Weekend in Friday Harbor?
Take the early morning Clipper ferry from Seattle to Friday Harbor.
Prior to this experience, I would have placed a lengthy ferry ride in the same category as a lengthy bus ride… meaning, I had close to zero interest in experiencing either. Clipper Vacation’s ferry was not what I expected. Not at all. It was really nice! The seats are comfortable, food and beverages (including wine!) are served, and most importantly, the company employs several naturalists to be on board the ferry. This was especially cool because when wildlife was spotted, the naturalists would tell passengers where to look, explain what we saw, and provide us with interesting facts.
With the naturalists telling us about the local population of orcas and other wildlife, the 3.5 hour ferry ride all but flew by. Even though it was a rainy day, we saw porpoises, seals and a slew of birds, including herons and bald eagles, en route to Friday Harbor.
Add on the “Whale Watching” Option to your Clipper ticket.
When booking your ferry trip with Clipper Vacations, you also have the opportunity to sign up for an optional whale watching experience. DO THIS. Depending on the season of your trip, whale watching will cost you an extra $18 to $66 in excess of your one-way fare, but is well worth it. After scouring the company’s website, I was still unclear what would differ between the transit ferry ride and the post-arrival whale watching. Although you have a chance of spotting whales while on the way to or from Friday Harbor, during the whale watching experience the company actually searches for the whales!
The whale watching experience with Clipper was not a routine, pre-determined route – the Captain headed straight in the direction that humpback whales had been spotted a couple hours prior. In fact, based on where the earlier sightings were, Clipper pushed back the whale watching a couple hours, hoping that the humpbacks would come within range to where the boat could spot them (and then be able to return back to Friday Harbor within the 2.5 hour timeframe allotted). At first, it seemed that the whale were going to elude us…
The whales remained slightly out of the ferry’s range, but instead apologizing to the passengers and sending them on their way without a sighting, the Captain “booked it” into Canadian waters in hopes of catching a glimpse of the gentle giants. Both of his decisions proved to be wise, because we ended up watching a humpback and her calf playfully swim throughout the waters around the boat for over 30 minutes. The carefully calculated itinerary changes made by the Captain and Clipper really seemed to prove that the company actually cares about the experience of their customers.
Initially, my trip to the San Juan Islands was motivated mostly because I wanted to spot a “Willy,” orca, or “killer” whale in the wild. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see an orca, but I wasn’t disappointed with my whale watching experience. Clipper did everything possible to make the whale watching experience as perfect as possible for their customers. (Plus, watching the humpbacks was really cool).
Explore Friday Harbor, relax and take in the views.
After your whale watching experience, the boat will drop you off in Friday Harbor. The town looks as though it could depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s adorable. The downtown area is filled with shops, restaurants and quaint B&Bs. You’ll want to take an hour or two to stroll down the picturesque streets and pop into the local shops before settling in.
While in Friday Harbor I chose to stay at the Tucker House Inn. The Tucker House’s location is excellent – just a couple blocks from the harbor and all the action downtown. I’d recommend the Four Winds Suite, which isn’t your typical B&B room – it’s HUGE and even has it’s own sitting room. Another thing that stood out to me about the Tucker House was the breakfast. The sit-down breakfast wasn’t just delicious, it was three courses of deliciousness, and breakfast came with a homemade dessert! There’s nothing not to love about Tucker House, and I would absolutely recommend the B&B to my readers.
After you check-in and drop your luggage off, head up to The Bluff for a pre-dinner cocktail (you can’t miss the restaurant’s orange sun umbrellas). As you may have guessed, The Bluff is situated above Friday Harbor and it’s outdoor terrace offers fantastic views of the harbor and beyond. It’s the perfect place to sip a libation (if you’re a bloody mary fan, their bacon bloody mary is excellent), relax, take in the view, and watch the seaplanes land gracefully in the water.
Take a sunset sea kayak trip.
After you grab a bite, head out on a sunset kayak expedition. I choose to book my sunset trip with San Juan Kayak Expeditions. Our guide, Alisha, was super knowledgeable about the local fauna and flora, which made our relaxing trip around Griffin Bay even more interesting. Throughout the course of our couple hour kayak trip, we saw harbor seals pop up around us and spotted bald eagles in the tree tops. A-mazing.
FWTG Tip: It’s important to note that if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of orca whales while kayaking, your best bet is to book a trip on the island’s west coast (not Griffin Bay). One of the other kayakers on my sunset trip had kayaked the west coast of the island the day prior and had a pod of orcas swim under her kayak! Can you imagine?! I’d probably drop my camera into the water (and wet my pants)!
Explore the rest of San Juan Island via moped.
Friday Harbor is lovely, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t explore more of San Juan Island. You’re going to want to get an early start on day two to pick up your moped (or coupe moped like we chose) from Susie’s Mopeds.
FWTG Tip: Make sure that you reserve your moped from Susie’s in advance. Reservations fill up during peak season, especially for the coupe mopeds.
I knew we had a lot of ground to cover if we wanted to see the whole island, so we chose a full day rental of a silly (but, fun) coupe moped, which set us back about $160 for the day plus the cost of gas. The coastline ride of San Juan Island takes about 2.5 hours if you drive straight through without stops… don’t do this! The island is gorgeous – you’ll want to stop frequently to explore and take pictures. The trip could easily take the entire day at a leisurely pace.
Susie’s will provide you with a map of the island and explain the points of interest, but here were my favorite stops:
American Camp – A park area with gorgeous beaches and grasslands. We were admiring the view and we had to stop our moped to allow a red fox to cross the pathway!
Pelindaba Lavender Farm – The Lavender Farm is worth a stop to frolic through the fields or purchase a lavender souvenir. (Seriously, it was amazing how many items they had which were made with or from lavender – really, most anything you can think of)! Also, across the street from the farm there was a man renting out tiny sailboats on a pond. They looked pretty cool and like a lot of fun (if you could keep them from capsizing), but unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to rent one and find out for myself.
Lime Kiln Point State Park – This park is a “must-do.” Not only does its craggy coastline and lighthouse make for stunning scenery, but the park is considered one of the best places in the world to whale watch from land. It’s not uncommon to spot orca whales, minke whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, otters and bald eagles from the shoreline viewpoint.
Roche Harbor – Roche Harbor isn’t actually a town, but a resort compound. While on your moped trip, it’s a great stopping place for a break or to grab an al fresco meal or refreshment at one of the harbor’s restaurants.
San Juan Vineyards – Before heading back into town stop by the vineyards for a wine tasting. Across the street from the tasting room you’ll find Mona the Camel who has become the winery’s unofficial mascot.
FWTG Tip: This trip (with stops) will take longer than you think it will. Make sure you plan accordingly since the only places on the entire island you can get a meal are in Friday or Roche Harbor, although you can purchase snacks at Lime Kiln Point State Park. I would recommend packing a picnic lunch and eating it at Lime Kiln while you enjoy the scenery and watch for whales.
Wind down back in Friday Harbor.
Unfortunately, if you’re only visiting for the weekend, it’s time to head back to Seattle (although I promise, you won’t be ready to leave). As mentioned above, I would highly recommend that you travel back to the mainland via a short, scenic seaplane ride what Kenmore Air. Unlike flying on a typical commercial airline, there’s no need to check in hours before your flight – just head to the marina 10-15 minutes before you’re scheduled to leave. The best part? Every seat on the plane is a window seat. And, if your plane is full, you will be able to sit in the “co-pilot” seat in the cockpit. (How cool is that?).
This was my first time in a float or sea plane, but it won’t be my last. It was a spectacular experience! The aerial view was a great way to understand the lay of the islands, and the scenery from above was even more breathtaking than from the land or on the water.
Equally as impressive and beautiful were the views from the plane as we approached Seattle and flew over the space needle. As sad as I was to head home, I couldn’t have thought of a better ending to a fantastic weekend.
So, is a trip to Friday Harbor, San Juan Island on your bucket list?
Disclaimer: Although I was a guest of the Tucker House, the Victoria Clipper and Kenmore Air, my love for their services and the San Juan Islands is all my own.