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San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula: Insider’s Guide to Washington

by Sheri Doyle | September 30, 2014

The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for the Pacific Northwest: Sheri Doyle of Pacific Northwest Journeys.

Trusted Travel Expert
Sheri Doyle

A former corporate attorney, Sheri Doyle brings her legal-eagle eye for detail to the itineraries she crafts. She plans urban and adventure trips all over the Pacific Northwest—in both the United States and Canada—as well as the northern California coast and parts of the Canadian Rockies. Her self-drive itineraries typically run to 20 pages, covering everything from detailed driving directions to activity suggestions and restaurant recommendations in each location. Geared to your interests and preferences, each itinerary is a personalized guidebook to save you hours of research time. As a resident of Seattle for nearly three decades, Sheri has traveled extensively within the region; she’s repeatedly hiked the trails, kayaked the waters, slurped the oysters, and attended the jazz concerts at every place she recommends. She has slept at most of the hotels, too, and gets preferred rates at many of the top properties, which saves her clients a bundle—especially in the popular summer months. Sheri was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.

Travel arrangements start at $300 per day for two travelers.

Where to Stay and Eat

Breaching orca

Breaching orca. Photograph by Jim Maya.

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Inn at Ship Bay on Orcas Island. This is the best value in the islands in summer: water-view rooms for just $195 a night. They are comfortable rather than swanky, but when you’re able to enjoy the view from your balcony—and then walk a few steps to the hotel restaurant, which is one of the island’s best—you won’t worry about the motel-style bathrooms.

Restaurants the locals love
In Friday Harbor: Backdoor Kitchen is tucked away from the town’s main area, but you won’t regret making the effort to find it. I love the lamb chops topped with a peppery goat-cheese sauce, but everything I’ve eaten here is fantastic.

In Sequim: Alderwood Bistro is the best restaurant on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s known for wood-fired pizzas, but they do local fish very well too. Save room for the carrot cake, an almost-healthy organic version made with carrots and flour from the nearby Nash’s farm.

Meal worth the splurge
Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Chef Blaine Wetzel trained at Noma in Copenhagen. If I had to eat only one dish for the rest of my life, it would be his lightly smoked, locally caught salmon. It isn’t easy to get here—Lummi isn’t part of the San Juan Islands ferry system, and dinner and inn reservations can be hard to secure—but it’s well worth planning ahead to include this on your itinerary.

What to Do and See

Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington. Photo courtesy Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau.

Don’t miss
Port Angeles, on the Olympic Peninsula. It still shows its blue-collar logging and fishing roots, but it’s grown into a town worth spending some time in. The waterfront is refurbished and the Feiro Marine Life Center is worth visiting for its interactive aquariums. Next Door Gastropub serves pub cuisine made with fresh local ingredients, pours local craft beers, and hosts local bands.

Don’t bother
Friday Harbor. This town in San Juan Island is nice enough and has excellent restaurants, but I don’t go to the San Juans to stay in a town—I want to be out in the countryside.

Hidden gem
Dungeness Wildlife Refuge. Between Sequim and Port Angeles, this five-long sandspit is a well-kept secret, teeming with birds and marine mammals including seals. There’s a lighthouse at the end that you can visit or, better yet, man: Volunteers can play lightstation keeper for a full week.

Contact Sheri

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Best Times to Go

September. This is a great time to travel to both the San Juan islands and the peninsula. The weather is usually still very nice, but there are fewer tourists around than you’d find in July and August.

June. The best time to see the resident orca whales in the San Juans. The weather can be iffy, but that can be a plus on the Olympic Peninsula (see “Worst Times to Go”).

Worst Times to Go

July and August may bring the clearest skies but also the crowds. The temperate rainforest in Olympic National Park is also likely to be dry then; it’s at its most atmospheric when the ferns and other vegetation are dripping with moisture during a wetter month.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

Not allowing enough time for Olympic National Park. It’s huge and you can’t drive through it; only around it. The ideal strategy is to stay in two locations within the park for several days each.

Being afraid of the ferries. People get freaked out when they hear about long ferry wait times. The ferries are part of the Pacific Northwest experience, and we’ll help you organize your logistics to minimize waits. (But do your best to avoid the very busy Sunday ferries from Bainbridge Island to Seattle on your way back from the Olympic Peninsula.) Thankfully, the San Juans ferries in 2015 are finally taking reservations; you can reserve a spot starting 60 days ahead of your travel dates.

Instagram Moment

The view from the top of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island at dusk. Walk down one of the trails to get away from any crowds clustered at the top and to get the best photo of the surrounding islands, with the Cascade Mountains in the background. On your way back down, stop at the west-facing viewpoint to get a sunset shot.

Perfect Souvenir

A piece of jewelry or art from Olga Artworks on Orcas Island. A 2013 fire destroyed the Olga Artworks building past Moran State Park, and the gallery and its adjoining Café Olga have temporarily relocated to Eastsound, the island’s main town. Supporting either will help them rebuild and get back to their original location.

Must-Have App

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) app gives you ferry schedules and traffic updates.

Airport Intel

If you choose to fly to the San Juans on a Kenmore Air seaplane, be warned that you can only bring 25 pounds of luggage per person.

Don’t Forget to Pack

A wind-breaking rain jacket. You’ll need this in summer, too. Forks, on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula, gets well over 100 inches of rain a year (compared to Seattle’s 45 inches or so). Some of that rain has to fall in summer too. And even if it doesn’t rain, you’ll need a good windbreaker when you’re out whale watching.


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