Fall is my favorite season, and it always seems to fly by in a whirlwind of activities– tons of family and friend birthdays and anniversaries, several holidays, hunting season, and the general flurry at work as everyone prepares for a strong ending to the fiscal year.
As much as I love the beautiful and crisp mornings where you can feel the weather beginning to shift, and the fantastic colors as everything turns and tucks away before the snow falls, I never feel like I get enough time to enjoy those days.
Fall is a little different in the Pacific Northwest– we don’t see quite the changing of the leaves we did in Ohio since we’re predominantly surrounded by evergreens, and while the mountains grow white with feet upon feet of snowfall, it’s rare to see flakes fly in Seattle or Lynnwood to indicate the transformation to winter.
This year we did a better job and enjoyed a few nice fall weekends exploring the Northern Cascades and the Yakima Valley. Things picked up after those adventures to the point we were simply barreling toward the end of the year. We both really needed a break– something low-key, something nearby, and something to get us in the winter and holiday spirit.
I remembered our weekend trip to Orcas Island last year in the cold and snow and decided we should look into another weekend getaway in the San Juan Islands, this time to San Juan Island itself. As luck would have it, I found several great hotel deals in Friday Harbor since it’s off-season. The weekend we were available, Friday Harbor was hosting its annual Lighted Boat Parade where Santa Claus arrives on the island. How fun is that?!
I made a reservation for the 9 a.m. ferry on Saturday, but we buzzed up to Anacortes so quickly we were able to catch an earlier boat. We had a beautiful ride through the islands to San Juan Island and drove to our B&B to check in and drop off our things.
I booked us overnight at a place near the ferry dock in Friday Harbor called the Tucker House, and it was lovely. Our room had a walkout porch, window seating area and gas stove, and everything was made all the more romantic when we looked outside to see snow softly falling down! The owners were very helpful, sharing things to do and places to go as well as a map of the island. Before I knew it, we had set off to walk around town and were enjoying a small breakfast at the nearby Cafe Demeter.
After our light breakfast we walked around downtown. Our first stop was the Indoor Holiday and Farmers Market to see if there were any local products we had to have. There were some incredible booths and while we thought hard about purchasing more San Juan Island Salt (I have a small container of the sea salt that I love!), we decided to keep exploring the town.
There were a number of other small shops open on the main streets, and we wandered in and out as we made our way down to the ferry and boat docks.
The cloudy skies began to open up to a little more blue and fewer flakes were falling by the time we got to the water. It was helpful seeing everything in the daylight, knowing we would be back in the evening for the parade and dinner.
Near the ferry docks was a little array of shops, including San Juan Cellars, where we couldn’t walk by the friendly old lab sitting in the doorway. She led us inside, and I did a quick tasting with her humans while we chatted about their brilliant strategy of using her to lure in passing foot traffic. We learned her name is Grace, and we shared stories about our own labs before returning to the streets.
A few hours had passed so we circled around to a nearby used bookstore where Brian found a title no longer in print that he’s been pursuing for a while. Afterward we made our way to San Juan Island Cheese for a light lunch. This place was amazing! We shared a sandwich, two wedges of cheese recommended by our waiter, and some mixed, marinated olives– all delicious!
On our way out, we stopped by the walk-up display to purchase a few blocks of other cheeses to try later. One was called Glacier Blue, and it was incredible. The first blue cheese Brian has actually liked, not just tolerated!
We walked back to our room to crash for an hour or so before hopping in the car and driving to the other side of the island.
Along the way we pulled over at San Juan Vineyards for a tasting. Our B&B hosts had made mention that we should slow down near the winery to check out the island’s resident camel.
We were sure we misunderstood, but sure enough, across the street from the winery, was a farm with a big brown camel walking around in the front field! We tried to get her attention, but she wasn’t having it.
We finally gave up and headed inside the winery, however we didn’t end up staying long–the two individuals working were preoccupied with a small group that was there as part of a wedding party sans the bride. Apparently she was running late so everyone was wine tasting and killing time before the wedding. It was very odd, and we were not remotely a priority.
In addition to being relatively ignored, we weren’t huge fans of the wines we tasted. We should have heeded our B&B owners’ recommendation and just focused on visiting the camel!
We continued on to the north end of the island to Roche Harbor. At the B&B they had mentioned the differences between Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor (namely the amount of money you needed to live in one v. the other), but I have to say I didn’t really prefer one over the other. They are both completely different.
Friday Harbor is home to a mix of locals who make do year-round and constant waves of tourists looking for a week or weekend of island life. It reminded us a little of Put-In-Bay or Kelly’s Island on Lake Erie– a little rowdy but very down to earth. Shopping, restaurants, bars, decent nightlife and some pride in place.
Roche Harbor is reserved and a second home to people who want a quiet and private getaway. The harbor is full of big yachts and the few shops and restaurants near the harbor are relatively upscale. The town is very put together, and I couldn’t help but find the historic buildings and the history of the limestone quarry intriguing. I wouldn’t mind staying at the Hotel de Haro next time we visit!
Because the harbor faces northwest, we were in the perfect spot to watch the sun sinking into the sea. We walked around and then drove to a nearby park to watch the end of the sunset. It was a little chilly, but it was beautiful.
It was dark out as we drove back to Friday Harbor, but we returned, bundled up and set off on foot to Friday Harbor’s boat docks to join the small crowd that was gathering to watch the Lighted Boat Parade.
A decent number of people were gathering– some families, some couples– and there was a small group of carolers out on the dock singing Christmas songs. People standing around would occasionally join in. Kids were running around trying to stay warm, and everyone was looking around trying to figure out where the boats would appear.
Brian struck up a conversation with one family and asked how many boats typically participate. I was shocked when they said last year there was only one! Ha! I was expecting dozens– an actual parade! We were both laughing and decided we would head off to dinner if the parade was a bust, but happily there were half a dozen boats this year so it actually looked a little like a parade!
People on the docks and on the boats were cheering, the carolers were singing, and the kids were all looking for Santa Claus. It was actually pretty fun and as we stayed until the last boat circled around before heading off to find food for dinner.
In addition to the boats, the entire harbor and downtown were lit up in holiday lights. It was a little overcast so although there were no stars, the dark sky really displayed the beautiful glow of holidays designs throughout the area.
We walked back up to the Cask & Schooner, an Irish pub on the corner just across from the docks. It was fairly busy but were able to get a seat and ended up sharing a small poutine for dinner. The atmosphere and drinks were lovely–it was a nice place to end our evening.
Just as I had planned, we were close to our B&B so it was a quick walk back to our room, an incredible bubble bath in the jacuzzi tub, and a blissful night of sleep. Truly a relaxing day away!
In the morning we had breakfast at our B&B, which was delicious. There was one other couple and a gentleman flying solo for the weekend, and we had a nice discussion over our coffee and food before going our separate ways.
We had a little time before we needed to get in line for our ferry back to Anacortes, so we drove outside of town to watch the after effects of the sunrise.
The Olympic Mountains were absolutely gorgeous and glowing in the morning light. We walked around a little cove for a bit, took a few pictures and then headed back to the ferry dock to catch our ride home.
We may have to make a winter weekend getaway to the islands an annual affair! If you’re looking for a simple weekend getaway, I can whole-heartedly recommend both Orcas Island and San Juan Island. Even in the winter, there’s plenty to see and do. And, if you want to simply relax and enjoy a change of scenery, they are absolutely perfect.