The sun is starting to make its triumphant reappearance here in the San Juan Islands! Thanks to the “rainshadow effect,” we enjoy an average of 250 or more sunny days every year, and receive only about half of the rainfall that our friends to the south in Seattle receive! The “banana belt,” as our area of Washington is called, is protected on one side by the Olympic Mountains and by the Cascades on the other. So the worst of the rain, wind and general grayness is swept up over those peaks and kept away from us.
As fortunate as we are to get so much sun, we do get our share of cloudy days, especially in the off-season. If you’re visiting us during this time, I’m here to help you figure out what to do so you make the best of your vacation! Don’t forget, there are plenty of good points to visiting a summer tourist destination in the fall and winter – less crowds and lower prices, just to name a few! So check out our Top 10 list and check some of them off on your next trip. And as always, we’d love to be your home base for your adventure!
1) Catch a film or play in town.
Every Tuesday night at the San Juan Island Grange through May 20, check out a provoking new film for free! The folks at the Friday Harbor Film Festival will be showing a selection of films from the very successful 2013 festival. All films show at 7 p.m. For a full schedule, click this link.
You can also take in a play or even the opera, or maybe take an art workshop and learn a fun new skill! The opportunities for a little culture are endless. Take a look at our events calendar for ideas!
2) Go bird watching.
Birding is a hugely popular activity all year round on San Juan Island, and with good reason! There’s no shortage of amazing, beautiful flighted creatures to spot. Bald eagles are our classic, but you can also see red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, rhinocerous aucklets, great blue herons, and so much more! My personal favorite winter bird has to be the breathtaking trumpeter swan. Here’s a tip – the last few weeks, they’ve been hanging out in a field near a pond on Douglas Road. Just follow Spring Street out of town; that turns into San Juan Valley road, and Douglas is your first left. You’re likely to spot the swans just down that road to your right! But they can be spotted in many lakes on the island, notably Sportsman’s Lake (on the way to Roche Harbor).
3) Curl up with a good book in front of a crackling fire.
In a world of big-box bookstores and the E-reader craze, I’m grateful for the Griffin Bay bookstore, located on Spring Street. You can browse the latest new releases or old favorites, and they’ll order anything you’d like for you while you sip on an amazing cappuccino. Grab a great read and retire to your room at the inns – chances are, it has a fireplace or wood stove, and I think that losing yourself in a great story while your toes warm by the crackling flames is a top way to pass any cloudy afternoon.
4) Visit the Whale Museum.
Nearly every day of the year, you can dive into the world of Salish Sea marine life with a visit to the Whale Museum. For
just $6 general admission, you’ll be able to explore amazing exhibits, hear the calls of our resident orcas, watch thrilling videos of shore encounters, even touch a whale bone or harbor seal fur. There are plenty of activities for the kids, too – keep them busy coloring their favorite sea creatures while you tour the museum. Downstairs, there are even a few totally free exhibits – most notably one on L-112, or Sooke, who washed ashore completely intact in 2012. The gift shop is my personal favorite, with hand-crafted jewelry and accessories, books and videos, toys, apparel, and so much more – all benefiting research on our southern resident killer whale community.
5) Have dinner at Coho Restaurant.
Right now we’re open Wednesday through Sunday at Coho, and we have plenty of specials to keep your palate guessing! Visit us on Wednesday for Global Cuisine night; we’ll explore a different country through its local culinary specials every week, with great wine and spirits pairings to boot. Or make a reservation for one of our exciting upcoming wine dinners – there’s one next week! Enjoy a sampling of a local Washington winery and a 5-6 course meal structured around those wines. There’s always the chef tasting, daily from 5-5:45, for one of the best dinner values on the island. Our intimate atmosphere and seasonal, hand-crafted gourmet cuisine is sure to please every member of your party. Check out our menu and specials and call us to book your table!
6) Explore your sophisticated side with a little wine and cheese.
There’s a new place to get your wine on, right around the corner from the inns. San Juan Island Cheese is both a cheese/wine shop and a cafe. Owner Richard Daly and his friendly staff are always ready with a smile and a pairing recommendation. I can also personally attest to the mouthwatering deliciousness of their sandwiches (the grilled cheese is a favorite). You can enjoy a cheese plate with a friend or take home a chunk of your own to try. They also host regular wine-tasting events. They’ll be reopening for the season April 1!
7) Treat yourself at the lavender shop.
Pelindaba Lavender Farm is famous in Washington for its fresh-grown lavender, stretching out in brilliant purple waves as far as the eye can see in the summer. A visit to their farm might include a musical performance, the chance to pick your own bunch of lavender, a lesson on how its grown and harvested, and of course, plenty of free samples of lavender ice cream, iced tea, cookies, and more. But you can also visit the retail store, right in the center of town on First Street. Pick up some bubble bath, all-natural cleaning products, dog treats, gourmet sauces and chocolates, stuffed animals, clothing items, and so much more – all infused with lavender! (My mom bought me a lavender orca plush when she was here in the summer of 2013, and he still smells of lavender every time I hug him!) Go pick up something for everyone on your list.
8) Relax in a hot tub.
There’s something so luxurious about being caressed by warm, bubbly water, even on a chilly or cloudy day. Add a few jets and lights, a glass of wine or two, and a blissfully soft towel waiting, and you have yourself a totally relaxing afternoon. Many of our accommodations come equipped with two-person jetted bathtubs or outdoor hot tubs. What are you waiting for – the water’s fine!
9) Find a treasure in a thrift shop.
As many stores and items that are priced for those well-off folks as there are in Friday Harbor, there’s something for the frugal shopper too! Just a block away from Friday Harbor Market Place on Mullis Street, you’ll find the Thrift House, with an ever-rotating selection of glass and kitchenware, clothing, outdoor supplies, even Christmas decorations. If it’s something stylish you’re craving, check out Girlfriends’ Consignment or Second Act, both located in town. I’ve scored so many cute tops from both places at jaw-dropping prices. Funk ‘N Junk, right across from Coho, is an antique hunter’s dream. Finally, Consignment Treasures, located just a ways out of town on Roche Harbor Road, is another fantastic place for deals, most notably on furniture and home furnishings. You can easily kill a whole day wandering the aisles of these shops!
“Hold up!” you’re thinking… “Whale-watching is the number-one thing to do there, and you can only do it in the summer…right?”
On the contrary, many whale-watching operators on San Juan Island go out all year. Two of the best guys I know, and most
reliable as far as sightings, are Captain Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters and Captain Hobbes Buchanan of San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours. They will both take you out almost any day you’d like to go, and if there are orcas anywhere near the islands, they’ll find them! And of course, the orcas don’t care what the weather up here is like – in fact, I’ve noticed that they are often more active on cloudy days, perhaps because the rain brings out their favorite food, salmon! Even if you don’t see orcas, you’re very likely to see a huge variety of other wildlife, including steller sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, multi-colored starfish, and the exotic sheep and deer of Spieden Island. It will be an adventure you’ll never forget, sun or no sun!