I’ve been finding myself saying “we need to do this more often,” to my husband recently. We have lived in Seattle for a little over three years, and this was the year I wanted to prioritize visiting “The Islands.”
Before this year, we had only stayed overnight on Guemes Island (an incredible place where visiting feels like you’ve stumbled into a secret). In January, we spent a long weekend at a relaxing Airbnb on Lopez Island. And most recently, we spent 24 hours on San Juan Island. Visiting the San Juan Islands in the winter is really a special experience.
We were a little constrained for time as we only had 24 hours, but thanks to a little planning ahead, plenty of options, and the freedom that the off-season warrants, we ended up feeling like we experienced a whole vacation in one night. I am thankful for that, because this trip showed me that even if we only have one night, there are incredible escapes within a reasonable distance from Seattle.
The winter season means smaller crowds (the population of Friday Harbor shrinks down to their 5,000 year-round residence in the winter), allowing you to score cheaper hotel rooms, enjoy quieter hiking trails, and plenty of open seats for dinner.
We spent our weekend getaway at Friday Harbor House, which is located in Friday Harbor, a small town on Washington state’s San Juan Island. I was excitedly awaiting our stay at Friday Harbor House, knowing we would have incredible views, local food, outdoor firepits, and in-room fireplaces to look forward to. We stayed in one of their Harbor View rooms, and while there is something to fall in love with in each of the 24 rooms at Friday Harbor House, I cannot recommend one of these rooms enough for the views. THE VIEWS.
The property is perched on a bluff above the San Juan Channel, providing unrivaled views of the marina, ferry landing and Orcas Island. The slower pace of the island in February gave us space to clear our heads and find a release after months of constant rain.
Friday Harbor House provides a host of desirable amenities, including a king sized bed, gas fireplace and an oversized jetted tub in each room. They recommend you, “Wrap yourself up in a blanket and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate next to an outdoor fire pit as you watch ferries come into the marina.” Could anything sound more dreamy?
Located centrally to all the town of Friday Harbor has to offer, a short walk from the hotel allows you to explore shops, restaurants and museums on foot. From Friday Harbor, you can also catch an inter-island ferry to Lopez, Orcas and Shaw Islands.
Since we only had 24 hours to spend on the island, we opted for the 9:25 am ferry out of Anacortes. We made reservations ahead of time—this is highly recommended when traveling from Anacortes to any of the San Juan Islands—and left Seattle at 7:00 am.
EAT + DRINK
Since we didn’t have time for breakfast, we were hungry when we arrived at Friday Harbor around 11:00 am. Our first stop was to The Bean Cafe, located just a 3-minute drive from the ferry landing—visiting in the winter also means plenty of open parking spaces! The Bean Cafe offers a selection of quick breakfast options and coffee. We opted to split the giant breakfast burrito.
Besides a stop in town for some black peppered salmon jerky and maple pork jerky from House of Jerky, the next time we ate was happy hour at the on-site restaurant at Friday Harbor House. This intimate restaurant offers outstanding views of the harbor and an indoor fire pit.
Happy Hour and Dinner service both start at 5:00 pm on the weekend at the on-site restaurant at Friday Harbor House. We ordered the Baked Oysters, three oysters baked with Nduja sausage smoked pork fat and house pickled sea bean, as well as the Albacore Poke, marinated in ginger and scallion with dried pickled wakame togarashi and Walla Walla onion. We paired these dishes with the Perfect Manhattan, with lapsang souchang whiskey and sweet and dry vermouth, and a Fireside Lounge, with scotch, port, sweet vermouth, and lemon, from the bar. Everything was so simple yet so flavorful; everything tasted like it had been crafted with care and quality ingredients.
Determined to visit every brewery in Washington, we walked to San Juan Island Brewing for some beers and food. The vibe is so welcoming at this brewery, with plenty of beer and food options to choose from.
With reservations for the 11:55 am ferry out of Friday Harbor on Sunday, we had a leisurely morning at Friday Harbor House, enjoying coffee from San Juan Island Coffee Company, freshly ground upon arrival, from our in-room Chemex pour-over carafe. Around 10:15 am we drove our car and got in line for the ferry, stopping by Salty Fox Coffee for a quick visit.
Salty Fox Coffee is right by the ferry landing, offering the best waiting-for-the-ferry food options I have seen yet in Washington. We ordered the breakfast burrito and the savory pesto bowl. I can’t believe how delicious and convenient our breakfast was!
There are the obvious must-dos on San Juan Island (hint: whale watching from the 1919 Lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park, considered one of the best whale-watching spots on earth), but there are also the less-known spots waiting to be discovered. Even though we only had 24 hours, we felt like we got to see and explore a variety of spots on the island. I should mention that during our stay on Guemes Island, we took an inter-island ferry to San Juan Island for a few hours, and during this visit we explored Lime Kiln Point State Park and the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, two locations that won’t be mentioned on this itinerary, but are still highly recommended.
After grabbing breakfast at The Bean Cafe, we took a short and scenic drive to Cattle Point and South Beach. Both of these spots offer easy access to spectacular views and trails that connect to the beachfront. From there, we took about a 30-minute drive to see Roche Harbor and hike to Afterglow Vista. I found out about Afterglow Vista on Atlas Obscura, so I knew it had the potential to be a bit unusual, but we never could have guessed what we discovered.
Parking by a small airport and a large sign that said “Mausoleum Parking,” we followed small signs marked with “mausoleum” or “M” through the woods. I read that the walk followed a trail leading through the local cemetery, so I was on the lookout for a wide open cemetery. Instead, we found fenced-off grave sights sprinkled throughout the woods, some with headstones dating back to the 1800s.
You can read more about the McMillin Mausoleum here, as Atlas Obscura describes it, “The so-called ‘mausoleum’ is actually an open air rotunda with a huge limestone table in the middle. Around the table are thick stone chairs not only representing the members of the McMillin family, but actually containing their ashes and acting as headstones.” I had never seen anything like it!
In addition to exploring some of the quirkier sides of the island, I also recommend a stroll through town to visit local shops like Pelindaba Lavender, the Griffin Bay Bookstore, and Deer Hazel. There are also plenty of galleries to browse and purchase local artists’ work, like Island Studios, Arctic Raven Gallery, and Waterworks Gallery.
The last place to add to your must-visit list is The Whale Museum. We only had an hour to visit before they closed, but we could have easily spent another hour exploring the stories, artifacts, videos, and bones on display. The Whale Museum opened to the public in 1979 as the first museum in the country devoted to a species living in the wild. I learned a ton about the species and their habitat, including efforts to save the Southern Resident Community of Orcas who live in the Pacific Northwest.
After a day of exploring and enjoying all that San Juan Island had to offer, we retreated back to our room at Friday Harbor House to enjoy the provided chamomile bath salts and oversized jetted tub.