Weekend Getaway: Roche Harbor Resort

Photo: Roche Harbor Resort

Escape to the San Juans when you’ve had enough Emerald City mayhem.

Picture a quiet isolated harbor with craggy outcrops of rock, encrusted with a thick belt of tall green firs and pines, descending to deep blue water with yachts gently bobbing alongside long narrow docks.

OK, so it’s not the ideal party destination many hip Seattleites are seeking. But every once in a while even the most extreme of socialites needs a sleepy getaway.Roche Harbor Resort emanates a gentle, isolated ambiance that offers a quiet haven for tired locals needing a few days away from bustling streets, honking horns and wailing sirens – or a no-fuss way to impress a new relationship.

Photo: Roche Harbor Resort

Renowned the world over for its breathtaking natural setting, located at the northern tip of San Juan Island, Roche Harbor Resort is only an hour’s drive away from downtown. And the smooth ferry ride drops your stress scale a couple of notches as the Salish Sea glides by, with playful black and white Orcas bursting through the surface and the occasional eagle soaring overhead – if you’re lucky.

The first thing that catches your eye when you arrive at Roche Harbor is the resort’s majestic centerpiece, stately white painted Hotel de Haro. Built in 1886, Hotel de Haro with its distinctive double tier of balcony terraces wrapping around it makes a gorgeous scene in spring and summer, fronted with immaculately maintained formal gardens and arbors of rose and clematis plants.

Photo: Roche Harbor Resort

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel has hosted some famous guests including President Theodore Roosevelt, who stayed in 1906 and 1907. You can see his signature in the hotel register, enclosed in a glass case in the lobby. John Wayne and Johnny Carson were also frequent visitors (ask your parents if the names aren’t ringing a bell).

The harbor’s history is palpable everywhere — it’s named after British midshipman and surveyor Richard Roche who visited the area in a 19th century expedition. The hotel itself is named after Lopez Gonzales Haro, a Spanish sailor who was the first European to discover the San Juan Islands in 1787.

In 1881 two brothers, Robert and Richard Scurr started the island’s lime industry, but it was John S. McMillin, a Tacoma lawyer, who discovered the large, richest lime deposit in Roche Harbor in 1884, and founded the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company. By 1890 the town had 800 residents, most working in the limestone quarries and kilns that were so productive. Warehouses stretched several hundred feet into the bay, holding 20,000 barrels of lime. The remnants of the limekilns are still visible, just a few paces from the hotel.

“Our ambiance, amenities and gardens are amazing,” says Hotel de Haro reservations specialist Brenna Woody, explaining why the hotel has been the favorite vacation spot of generations of families for more than 50 years. “We have beautiful suites with breathtaking views over the waterfront.”

“Many girls who stayed in Roche Harbor as children became emotionally attached to it, eventually choosing to get married here. We’ve even had repeat weddings with multiple generations,” Roche Harbor’s events manager Bully Cuddihy says. The resort also hosts corporate retreats, yacht rendezvous, and family and group reunions in addition to weddings.

For dining al fresco, the Madrona Bar and Grill is your go to. Photo: Roche Harbor Resort

Where to eat + drink.

The harbor features three restaurants. The outdoor Madrona Bar and Grill offers panoramic waterfront views while you eat. The Lime Kiln Café provides hearty breakfasts and burgers. And McMillin’s Dining Room is the place to go for fine dining in the evenings. The mouth-watering menu designed by Executive Chef Bill Shaw features distinctive Northwest flavors — dishes like flame cedar plank roasted king salmon, grilled oysters with garlic butter, baby spinach with smoked Westcott Bay mussels, fresh Westcott Bay Belon and Petite Oysters on the half shell, island-grown roast leg of lamb, and Dungeness crab stuffed hazelnut encrusted cod.

The extensive wine list also centers on the Northwest palate. Respected wines like Yakima Valley Lone Canary Sauvignon Blanc, Willamette Valley Torii Mor Pinot Gris, and Columbia Valley Beringer white Zinfandel, round off a perfect meal.

What to do.

There’s more to this idyllic scene than its beautiful harbor and hotel.

Take a sunset kayaking tour of the harbor. Photo: San Juan Outfitters

For the adventurous and energetic, San Juan Outfitters offer guided tours in Kayaks taking in such marine fauna as seals, otters, sea lions, bald eagles and even orca whales.

If you don’t want to do a 3-5 hour kayak-paddling trek, you can always glide your leisurely way around the harbor in pedal kayaks.

Or, experts narrate during whale-watching excursions on the 42-foot vessel, Sea Hawk, offered by San Juan Outfitters. On these tours you get up close and personal with these behemoth giants of the deep.

Hiking trails wind through the old limestone quarries on the hillside for those who prefer dry land. The trails take in spectacular views of the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island across the strait. You’ll also see minks and flying squirrels if you keep your eyes open.

Closer to home, tennis courts and a swimming pool help you burn some of those calories you’ve added from your indulgent dinner the night before.

Roche Harbor Sculpture Park
Stroll through the Sculpture Park for an outdoor art experience. Photo: SJ IMA

Art aficionados love the IMA Sculpture Park. A 10-minute stroll up the gently sloping road from Roche Harbor gets you to a rolling 19-acre reserve with more than 100 sculptures. Walking along a grass trail, around a large pond, you’ll find sculptures to suit all artistic tastes. Here you’ll appreciate the talent of notable Northwest artists as you admire their bronze, stone, metal, glass and ceramic creations. All sculptures are for sale if you’re looking for a new art piece for your entry.

And while you’re there, walk across the road up a narrow dusty dirt trail among the firs and pines to the surreal McMillin family mausoleum.  Somewhat reminiscent of Europe’s funerary monoliths, McMillin’s seven-pillared mausoleum is a testament to his love for his family. Its towering concrete pillars and limestone chairs and tables display symbols from the Masons, Sigma Chi fraternity, the Bible and McMillin’s views of life and his family. The chairs contain the ashes of family members, so be careful where you sit.

Renting mopeds is an adventurous way to get around San Juan Island or further afield to Friday Harbor, just 15 minutes away. Here, browsing bookstores, souvenir shops, seven art galleries, the Whale museum, the Historical museum and the American Legion museum will easily keep you entertained for a day

History buffs can visit the site of the last territorial dispute between British and American troops in the mid-1800s at San Juan Island National Historic Park. The dispute was finally settled in 1872 with the island being awarded to the U.S.A. by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, the arbitrator — the whole affair eventually became known as the Pig War.

An attraction for plant lovers is the scenic Pelindaba Lavender Farm, about ten minute’s drive from the harbor. The farm’s shop offers all things lavender: perfumes, oil, soaps, candles, plants and more

Photo: San Juan Vineyards

If you’re a wine aficionado, the San Juan Vineyards, about midway between Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor, offers some great tastings, a gift shop in its historical 1896 schoolhouse, or a stroll through their vineyards. Try their acclaimed Syrah, Gewurtztraminer, Merlot and Chardonnay.

If it’s merely a weekend of detox that you’re seeking, Afterglow, the Roche Harbor Spa, located in the new Quarryman Hall building next to Hotel de Haro, offers an outstanding array of ways to be pampered. Subject yourself to the luxurious rigors of facials, citrus manicures, marine pedicures, herbal and mineral therapeutic bath hydrotherapies and four different types of massage.

By the time you leave, you’ll be prepped and ready for another round of city party hopping.