Washington’s San Juan Islands are about as romantic as you can get. They lie in Puget Sound and mark the boundary between the United States and Canada (just beyond them in Canada is an equally gorgeous group of islands called the Gulf Islands), and I was lucky enough to be there recently.
The islands get all the tourism they can handle, but if you take the ferry with your car and go on a weekday you can miss the weekend congestion. If you must go on a weekend and take the ferry from Anacortes (about an hour and a half from Seattle) or from British Columbia, prepare to wait in line a few hours. Locals know to get their car in line for the ferry early, spend time doing something else, and then have a friend drop them at their car before the ferry arrives.
Puget Sound is full of islands with character — high bank, low bank, small coves, big agricultural expanses, small houses that blend into the trees, trophy houses that have architectural bragging rights — and somehow it all hangs together. The ferry ride shows you a sampling of terrain and lifestyles as it moves past various islands, stopping at several of them (San Juan, Lopez, Orcas) and giving glimpses of many more in the distance, many of which are only served by private boats or smaller Ferry services.
I stayed on Orcas Island. Orcas has a charming, New England quality and 2,409-foot-high Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans. It was colonized by Robert Moran, one of the Captains of Industry of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Moran State Park is named after him. The mountain has a demanding climb to the top and moderate auxiliary trails for unambitious hikers like me. Expansive water views are everywhere and the island is dotted with wonderful places to stay and explore.
I usually stay at the Inn at Orcas, which is a short walk to the Deer Harbor Marina, about a fifteen minute drive to the town and quite a distance from the park. It’s a formal sort of house (think Charleston) near a cove that fills in when the tide rolls in from the nearby bay. Jeremy is your host and his partner in life is the cook for breakfasts that are wonderful as long as you aren’t on a diet or have a high cholesterol reading. These guys are warm and engaging hosts in a gorgeously decorated inn. Each room has its own theme, some nautical, some floral, some more English than others, all luxurious.
There are also two more private buildings — one of which is a small cottage that is quite cozy and has a great view of the inlet. I stayed there once when I went to a wedding and roomed with another good friend from out of town. We almost burned down this adorable hideaway when Adrienne rested her suitcase on the gas fireplace and it melted and started to smoke. The acrid smell woke me up, and I grabbed the suitcase and tossed it outside. Fortunately, nothing but the suitcase was damaged and the cottage is still there for you to enjoy. A mark of Jeremy’s hospitality is that he has been kind enough to allow me to stay at his place many times since then.
If haut Charleston is not to your taste there are other romantic choices. The Kingfisher is beautifully located across the street from the water’s edge and they provide kayaks and other watercraft for experiencing the sound. They have a few rooms, sweet, simple and some with a great water views. The inn is very reasonable and has terrific breakfasts and seriously good food for other meals as well. Another choice if you want a farm-like experience is the Turtle Back Farm. It has beautiful pastoral views and is compelling and cozy inside. Like the Kingfisher, its close enough to town to bicycle in.
One reason I stick to the Inn at Orcas (or my friend Cynthia’s place nearby) is because it’s a short walk to Deer Harbor — which is such a perfect setting that it looks like it’s waiting to be discovered as a movie set. Kenmore Air can drop you off there, and circling around before you land in the water is just so beautiful it makes you want to fall in love with the person sitting next to you (this means it would be a good idea to know the person sitting next to you…). The picturesque cove also has a great little stand for lattes and sandwiches that can be your reward after you complete the absolutely stunning walking and running trail that starts after the harbor and goes forever along the water’s edge with many lookouts.
As for uber romantic things to do: Get a small boat and motor over to San Juan Island and eat at the Backdoor restaurant (wonderful food); have lunch at Roses, which has delectable chicken salad and just about everything else they serve will have you mindlessly happy. You can also just get stuff at the deli section of the restaurant and create an instant picnic on the nearby beach. If you want a fantastic dinner for your second night, drive (or cab) over to Ships Bay — which is a lovely place to stay as well.
It’s all informal here on this island, not too touristy even in the summer. There are good quality shops in town and several surprising places (like Art Galleries and Pottery Shops) to discover throughout the island. Exploring here is a good idea. So is just reading on the beach, and cuddling at night when the temperature usually dips a bit.
Orcas is definitely a place for lovers — but it is such a quiet and beautiful place that it’s also a place a single person could go to find a dramatic vista and meditate. Families love it too. Many sailors come here with their kids and fish and explore several of the islands and inlets. (Few will swim however. That water is cold!) There’s no doubt that many different kinds of people can enjoy this island world. Still, I think of Orcas as the kind of place that will make you wish you were with your honey — or motivate you to find one.