After a number of Seattle winters, even hardened residents learn to escape to the islands in January or February. It brings no shame to fly to Hawaii and soak up the sun for a week or two, while perpetrating lavishly illustrated Facebook updates concerning beaches, mai tais, and glorious sunsets.
But let’s say you’re a descendant of Vikings. What then? You might choose to make the shorter trip to the San Juans for sunbreaks between squalls. At night, with the wind slapping rain against the windows, you can bed down in front of the gas fireplace with a mug of mead in hand and sing lusty tales of your battles with the superzoom that day.
It’s true, not much is open — it’s worth it to call ahead in many instances to check on winter hours — but you have the islands to what feels like yourself, and at winter rates. Early spring was usually sleepy, one proprietor told me, but January and February were more like a coma; he usually spent more time doing his taxes than welcoming guests. If you do arrive then, you can have all the personal service you want. The important thing is that Allium opens on Thursdays during the week, but more on that later.
Now, during the summer, the Victoria Clipper, which leaves from the Seattle waterfront, can drop you at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, eezy peezy. In winter, it’s more of an expedition. You’re likely driving north on I-5 for an hour, until you see the sign for exit 230, and Highway 20 West, which leads you in another twenty minutes or so to the ferry at Anacortes. (Kenmore Air can also get you there, but then you need to figure out how to get around. Bicycle and moped rental is available.)
The fare from Anacortes to Orcas Island for a standard vehicle and driver is about $35, extra passengers $12 — that’s round trip, fares aren’t collected eastbound. Ferries leave from Anacortes all day, 4:30 a.m. to 9:05 p.m., but not all make stops at Orcas; study the schedule. The ferry trip takes a very scenic hour, usually stopping at Lopez and/or Shaw Islands on the way. Be ready, because your wildlife adventure has already started.
An official and unofficial wildlife preserve.
The ranger at Moran State Park seemed a little crestfallen when I asked about where I might go to photograph birds. This time of year, he admitted, all the birds that were gonna fly south had flown. “Still, you might see…,” and he listed off a few minutes of the birds and waterfowl that were likely hanging around. As it turned out, bald eagles were a dime a dozen. Cormorants? You couldn’t take two steps without a cormorant giving you a once-over.
The road up Mt. Constitution was gated after Little Summit, due to snow. In a thick fog, I wandered into a group of grazing deer, who seemed less startled than I was. Lower down, cyclists were doing pre-race inspection of a course around Mountain Lake. You can walk the 3.9-mile loop easily; it’s mostly flat and mostly follows the lake’s edge, affording all sorts of perspectives. Cascade Lake is another vantage point that never seems to offer the same scenery twice.
Orcas is not a large island, and it’s split more or less in half by its East Sound, making the longest distances from Eastsound-the-village to anywhere else about 10 to 15 miles. Even though speed limits in the main range from 25 to 35 mph — and islanders respect them — you can still tool up and down the whole island in a day. With two days, you have time to get out of the car and traipse around a bit. Longer than that, and you can begin your downshift to island time, which is often the point.
I didn’t see any otters, though I was told the ones near Brandt Landing had been out earlier in the day. Waterfowl filled every pond on Orcas, which is saying something; I began to think off the island as the land of 10,000 ponds. Winter-fluffy rabbits poked their heads out of hedges. There may not have been that many people on the island, but I certainly wasn’t alone.
Orcas Island welcomes you and your appetite, year-round.
In the off season, Eastsound with its cluster of restaurants and cafés makes a good base of operations. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are more places to stay on Orcas (from resorts and hotels, to bed & breakfasts and cottages) than there are actual homes for residents.
But most importantly, if you like to eat well, Eastsound is where Allium is, run by chef Lisa Nakamura, formerly of Woodinville’s Herbfarm. Allium is Latin; if you pronounce it “all-yum” no one who’s eaten there will correct you. I was told I had to try the small plate of gnocchi, and I was glad I did. Now, I like to think I know gnocchi, gnocchi is a friend of mine — my last plate had been at Nice’s Restaurant du Gésu, a hearty plate of fresh, bouncing gnocchi bathed in a Gorgonzola sauce of such richness that I still sweat thinking about it.
But at Allium, the little pillows actually deserved that name, maintaining their petite oblong shape just long enough to reach the tongue, at which point gentle pressure changed them to the consistency of a whipped paté. Shiny with white truffle oil, earthy with chewy chanterelles, and speckled with bacon, the hearty moved up a few floors to heavenly. I’d preceded the gnocchi with a leek and roasted beet salad topped with a ricotta cream, crunchy with spiced hazelnuts, and piquant from a light vinaigrette. Is your mouth watering? If not, slap it around a little until you’re sure it’s paying attention.
On a related note, gastronomical tourists should make plans to pop into the Island Hoppin Brewery at the first sign of thirst. Their Old Madrona, especially if you know and love Maritime’s Old Seattle, will go down very easily.
I stayed at historic Outlook Inn in Eastsound, which is also the home of New Leaf Café (newly open for the year as of February 11). They offered me a ten percent discount, which anyone can get as a return guest (let them know when you book). For you, gentle reader, I shelled out for the luxury suites that are a little reminiscent of Las Vegas pampering, just in a rustic key. The king-size bed is so high you have to climb into it. The gas fireplace clicks on from a switch. You can watch the light on the bay from the sofa. Besides a jacuzzi tub, there are towel-warming racks in the bathroom.
The Inn offers a number of other varieties of rooms (the main building dates from 1888), and its location in Eastsound means that you’re a four-minute walk from Allium, or five minutes from anything else, including the down-home Lower Tavern and its assortment of BBQ-kicked-up-a-notch dishes (try them all), Mia’s and its comfort-food diner meals (with colorful twists, like a beet hash), and Island Skillet and its classic breakfasts and lunches. Pick up a loaf of fresh-baked bread or a bear claw at Wildflour Bakery. You have your choice of ATMs at banks and a Washington Federal Credit Union, and there’s a newer large grocery store as well. The Orcas Island Historical Museum is just off Main Street.
You can up the get-away-from-it-all factor easily, on the other hand, by skipping the Orcas and Eastsound villages (though even if you don’t stay at historic Orcas Hotel near the ferry landing, keep the attached café and its famous-in-Seattle burgers and pulled pork on your list). Simply ensconce yourself on another bay — you’re spoiled for choice.
The Rosario Resort & Spa is probably the island’s crown jewel — its centerpiece, in turn, is the Moran Mansion, an Arts and Crafts beauty, built by a former Seattle mayor, Robert Moran. That’s now part-museum (entry is free, and there are live performances in the music room, with its built-in pipe organ) and part-spa, and undergoing an extensive renovation that should finish around the beginning of April. The guest accommodations are elsewhere on the 40 acres of waterfront property, and are unaffected by the hammering and sawing.
You can also swim with the neo-hippies at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat, the home of the exclusive music festival and an assortment of cottages and yurts, or decamp to the tonier climes (for Orcas) of the Resort at Deer Harbor. For beach life, there’s West Beach Resort and at the “top” or Orcas, looking Canada-ward sits Smuggler’s Villa — you may not make use of the outdoor pool in winter, but there’s also a hot tub and sauna. Vikings will appreciate that Outer Island Expeditions leaves from there, as well.
Visit the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce to learn more about island life, accommodations, and things to do.