Though their exotic name might conjure up visions of tropical Caribbean beaches, the San Juan Islands are actually a remote archipelago found off the north coast of Washington State, near the Canadian border. Though far from tropical, these lovely, laid-back islands make up one of the best places in the world to spot mighty orcas (killer whales), plus offer amazing kayaking, cycling and hiking. Despite there being 172 named islands in the archipelago, there are just four main hubs; San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and the tiny Shaw Island. We suggest making San Juan Island your first stop.
This is the most populated of the islands and charismatic Friday Harbour – although it covers just one square mile – is home to numerous cafes, seafood restaurants, art galleries and boutique shops. While many visitors choose to visit the San Juan Islands on a daytrip, there's a good selection of hotels, B&Bs and quirky waterside cabins to choose from to turn it into a longer visit. Many of the major island activities depart from San Juan Island. An excursion out onto the surrounding water is a must and our favourite way to explore is on kayaking trip with an expert naturalist. While spotting resident wildlife kayakers will also enjoy views of the surrounding islands, the Olympic Mountains and Mt. Baker. Another highlight is Lime Kiln State Park where you'll have a high chance of spotting orcas from land, as well as dramatic views across Haro Strait towards Vancouver Island. If you've got the time, we also suggest hiking to the top of Young's Hill, beachcombing on South Beach, soothing the senses at Pelindaba Lavender Farm and sampling the local produce at San Juan Vineyards.
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Passenger ferries connect mainland Anacortes (a 90-minute drive north of Seattle) to all four of these islands every day, and there are numerous flying alternatives too, including travelling via seaplane. Importantly, this is one of those destinations where getting there really is half of the fun and the ferry or plane journey will undoubtedly offer some of the best views of these unspoilt mountainous landforms. It is also likely that you'll spot marine life on the journey over to the islands; species to keep an eye out for include bald eagles, harbour seals, Dall and harbour porpoises, Steller and California sea lions, a variety of marine birds, and (fingers crossed) orcas.
Activities on the other three islands are very similar to those on San Juan and, if time permits, we highly recommend spending more than a day island hopping around to enjoy the stunning scenery, quaint atmosphere and fantastic food and wine.