By Matt Villano, on July 23, 2015

Summer in the San Juans

“Dorsal fins!” my older daughter shouted as an Orca whale surfaced 40 feet in front of us, traveling south in the chilly waters of Haro Strait. “They’re everywhere!”

From our perch at Lime Kiln Point State Park, one of the best places in the San Juan Islands to see whales from shore, it really did seem like the animals were everywhere. We had come to the park with a picnic dinner in the hopes of spotting a few. What we got, however, was a front-row seat to a very different kind of family travel—an entire clan of whales named J-pod was passing by, right before our eyes.

Over the course of an hour, we spotted more than 25 animals, including two babies. It was, without question, one of the best whale-watch sessions of my life. And one my daughters—ages 6 and 4, respectively—will remember forever.

I had wanted to bring them to the San Juans since the older girl was born. When I was younger, this cluster of four major islands about 90 minutes north of Seattle was the place that prompted me to fall in love with the west, the very region that inspired me to give up my apartment in Manhattan, buy a car, and head for the Pacific.

During the summers of 1999, 2000, and 2001—summers I spent on San Juan Island and Orcas Island in particular—I swore someday I’d introduce my kids to this special place.

This summer was that time.

Marine mammals galore

The scene at Lime Kiln, on the west side of San Juan Island, characterized a good portion of our trip—the islands are great for whale-watching, and we spotted Orcas almost every place we went.

Watching Popeye


We also spotted them when we didn’t go anywhere at all, since the vacation house we rented looked out on the confluence of Haro Stait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a popular spot for whales to feed. I’ll never forget the first night I spotted the whales from the house; I was washing dishes, the kids were getting ready for bed, and, all of a sudden, there were the whales! After I ushered everybody outside onto the deck, we were able to hear the whales surfacing. That moment was the first time my girls ever had experienced Orcas in the wild. We spent a good 30 minutes on the deck taking it all in.

There are other marine mammals in the San Juans—dolphins, other species of whales, and seals galore. Perhaps the most famous of these critters makes its home near the marina in Friday Harbor: a local celebrity known as Popeye.

Popeye is a seal who is blind in one eye. She doesn’t get around too well. Thankfully, humans have adopted her as their own, and feed her fish from a local fish store.

My girls fed the seal on two occasions. Both times they did it, their love for the creature grew exponentially. They drew pictures of the seal. They insisted on getting stuffed seals. They even created little games during which one of them pretends to be a blind seal and the other pretends to be a chef who makes special seal food. In short, Popeye was almost a bigger deal than the whales themselves.

Beach time

Another common activity on our San Juan Islands getaway was beach time. Every morning after breakfast, the question wasn’t, “Are we going to the beach today?” but instead, “Which beach are we visiting today?”

In 14 days on San Juan Island, we hit about 10 different beaches in all. Our absolute fave: Eagle Cove, a small pocket beach on the southern tip of the island, less than two miles from the house we rented.

Teepee on Eagle Cove


What made this beach special was the vibe. First, because the parking lot for the beach is unmarked and smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood (you hike down on a trail; see my wife and kids hiking the trail in the image at the top of this post), the place seemed popular only with locals, giving it an intimate and in-the-know feel. Second, because the beach itself is so small, being there makes you feel like part of an exclusive club—almost like you’re a member at a private beach club.

There were other reasons we loved Eagle Cove. Unlike most Northwest beaches, which have rocks instead of sand, this one was almost exclusively sand, making us feel like we had teleported to Hawaii. At low tide, the tidepools there were amazing; one day my older daughter and a new friend found a pink sea star the size of their heads.

The beach also had great driftwood; every day the girls and I used this detritus to build forts and teepees and other shelters. What’s more, there was tons of beach glass.

Roche Harbor

San Juan Island has two major cities (if you want to call them that; there are no stoplights on the island): Friday Harbor, in the south, and Roche Harbor, in the north. Friday Harbor is where the action happens—this is where car ferries from the Washington State Ferries system dock, and where the Victoria Clipper, a passenger ferry, comes every day. It also happens to be where most of the island’s restaurants are located.

Ringing bells at the San Juan Island Sculpture Park


Roche Harbor, on the other hand, is a self-contained resort. Which makes it a terrific place to explore for a day.

We actually spent two days in Roche. The first day, my wife got a spa treatment while I took the girls to the San Juan Island Sculpture Park, an expansive (and free!) wonderland of art that comprises more than 150 sculptures in all. I wasn’t sure how the kids would feel about this—art can be boring when you’re under the age of 10. Yet both kids LOVED it, marveling at the kinetic sculptures and reading the poetry on placards that dot the path.

(There also is a starfish-shaped area at the park where kids can use driftwood pieces to build sculptures of their own.)

The second day, we blew up our floaties and splashed around the resort pool, a spacious and sunny spot that is open to the public (for US$8 per person) throughout the summer (until Sept. 7 this year).

In between, we walked the docks ogling at boats, ate local ice cream under the shelter of huge umbrellas, and played on a small playground open to the public. We also enjoyed a meal at the more casual of two restaurants, the Madrona Bar & Grill, which has a deck that looks out over the marina.

And on a day when the kids were sleeping, I dragged everyone to the San Juan Island Distillery, where I spent 20 minutes tasting locally produced apple cider and gin.

Viewfinder Tip: For an indoor spin on traditional playgrounds, check out A Place to Play in downtown Friday Harbor. One hour is only $7 per child.

Orcas Island

Finally, no trip to the San Juans is complete without visiting at least one of the other islands, and we spent a day of our trip this summer exploring Orcas Island, the largest of them all.

(In case you’re wondering, the other two major islands are Lopez and Shaw.)

Orcas is about a 45-minute ride on the Washington State Ferry system from Friday Harbor, which means it’s the perfect place to visit for a day. From the ferry terminal in a town called Orcas, we drove straight to Cascade Lake. Here, the girls spent about an hour playing on the playground (and working up a sweat) before they donned their bathing suits and jumped in the lake itself.

After a long swim session, we drove back to Eastsound, the island’s biggest town, for a healthy and organic lunch at Mia’s Café. Then we swung by Clever Cow Creamery, a brand-new ice cream shoppe that scoops homemade flavors from Lopez Island Creamery. (Word to the wise: Try the blueberry.)

We ended our day on Orcas at Crescent Beach, a long, U-shaped beach on the outskirts of Eastsound that is regarded as the most kid-friendly beach on the entire island. Here, under the heat of the blazing sun, the girls and I scoured the rocky shoreline for flat rocks—specimens I used to teach my kids how to skip stones. They skipped about half the stones we selected, and kept the rest. My Big Girl says she’s saving the collection for our next visit; as far as I’m concerned, that can’t come soon enough.

Where is your favorite spot to spend family trips and why?