A Slice of Island Life

Travel Offshore to the Treasures of Puget Sound

The islands scattered throughout the Puget Sound epitomize Northwest charm. Little towns are set to the beat of little waves lapping along rocky beaches. Organic berry and lavender farms stretch across groomed hillsides. Orca whales breach not far from cabins nestled among the evergreens. And farmers sell their produce, fruits, and vegetables picked and pulled only hours earlier, to locals who know them by name. The islands are a dream escape for those in search of a quintessential Northwest vacation. While the pace is slower, the culture is rich. Set sail for a taste of island living.

Vashon-Maury Island

Photo: ©2013 Jeff Wilcox, Creative Commons

Vashon Island is about the same size as Manhattan but the furthest thing from a high-stakes metropolis. Located in the southern end of the Puget Sound, the island is home to a large artistic community that tends to enjoy the slower pace of island life. Farms founded in the 19th century are still in operation, and its tiny downtown is quaint and welcoming. While Vashon has its charm, it also has its quirks. It’s ideal for explorers looking for a place with personality.

Vashon Center for the Arts

In 2016, Vashon opened its $20 million facility, which includes an art gallery, classrooms, and a gorgeous 300-seat performance hall. It’s stunning! Classes range from Lego animation to cake decorating. This summer, tour the four gardens and working farm at the center. There are more than 100 fruit trees, beehives, and dozens of chickens and ducks that waddle around.

Bramble House

Top Chef contestant Lia Lira (a Vashon native) opened this seasonally inspired restaurant in a cozy 1943 house last summer. The goal of each menu is to highlight locally grown food. It’s a destination for those craving modernized comfort food in a space that feels like home.

The Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie

If you love coffee, a trip to this century-old building is a rite of passage. Jim Stewart, founder of Seattle’s Best Coffee, started his coffee career here. The Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie has remained committed to hand-roasting direct trade beans to flavorful perfection. Stop by for a cup and a trip back in time.

Visit the Bike in a Tree

Not far from downtown, you can hike to a bike stuck in a tree trunk. Legend has it that decades ago a kid left his bike by the tree and over the years it became embedded, rising into the sky as the tree grew. While visiting the tree may feel like the beginning of a Steven Spielberg movie, it’s not an unknown mystery. Expect lots of company.

Vashon Island Strawberry Festival

Strawberry fields used to feed the island’s economy. While there are fewer berry farms today, the community still honors its fruity legacy with this annual festival. Catch the parade — and sweet treats — July 21-23.

Point Robinson Lighthouse

It’s a picturesque lighthouse you’ll want to snap a family picture in front of. It’s also been leading vessels to shore since 1885. Want to stay the night? You can rent out the two restored keepers’ quarters. Proceeds go toward the park’s restoration and maintenance.

UFO over Maury Island

In 1947, Fred Crisman and Harold Dahl claimed they saw unidentified flying objects over Maury Island. Their story was quickly deemed a hoax by the FBI, but it lives on in local lore.

Who Knew?

  • Sawbones, a company that invents, designs, and manufactures bone and soft-tissue models, is one of the largest companies on Vashon.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt’s granddaughter, Edith Williams, lived on the island for almost 60 years.
  • Catherine MacNeal, who played Pat Hamilton on Days of Our Lives, owns Vashon’s Lavender Hill Farm.


Photo: ©2012 Kurt, Creative Commons

San Juan Islands

San Juan County is peppered with hundreds of islands and reefs. But the four ferry-served islands are San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw. Kayak past giant Douglas firs and rocky coastlines, and be greeted by a harbor seal or — if you’re lucky —an orca whale. The islands also are known for farming, camping, and dining. Don’t miss the majestic sunsets over the rippling water.

Pelindaba Lavender Farm on San Juan

Pelindaba Lavender’s tagline is “place of great gatherings.” The farm invites visitors and locals to wander through its maze of purple lavender bushes. In the summer months, owner Stephen Robins may tour you around himself. The flowers are in full bloom in July, and the farm store is packed with all things organic lavender, from cleaning supplies to cookies. Don’t miss the San Juan Island Lavender Festival on July 15-16 at the farm.

Stay on a Lopez Island Farm

Before Lopez Island was a tourist destination, it was a farming destination. Scandinavian farmers were lured to the island’s landscape and settled here as early as the 1850s. Farms still are a major part of the island’s identity. Everything from llamas to kiwis are grown here. If you want an island overnight farm experience, stay in the Midnight Farm’s Field House. The cozy 2-bedroom rental is secluded, but if you want to engage in the farming lifestyle, you can help move the cattle, feed the pigs, and harvest the garden. There also is a bakery and a yoga studio on the property.

A Whale-Watching Wonderland

If you want to see an orca whale, the

San Juans are your best bet. There are two sets of orcas that swim in these waters: Resident orcas that stay in the area from spring through fall, and transient orcas that travel through. While whale watching in the San Juans is incredibly popular, it’s also incredibly cool. Seeing these creatures glide, bob, and (if you’re lucky) breach is spectacular. There are whale-watching trips that depart from several San Juan islands, or you can take the Victoria Clipper from downtown Seattle.

Be a Foodie in Anacortes

On your way to the San Juans, stop in beautiful Anacortes. While many know it for its ferry dock, this little seaside town has some good food. The Skagit Valley produces some of the tastiest fruits and vegetables in the region. Don’t miss the Anacortes Farmers Market for some samples. In the mood for clam chowder? A’Town Bistro makes a delightful fresh cup of the seafood classic. The muffins at The Store in Anacortes are also delicious. They have flavors like butter pecan and rhubarb crisp. When you’re done noshing, walk it off with a trek up beautiful Mount Erie for a view of the islands.

Horseback Riding in Orcas Island Backcountry

Orcas Island is the hilliest of the San Juans. It’s not uncommon to see mountain bikers huffing it along the trails of Moran State Park. But for a different experience, try horseback riding. Orcas Island Trail Rides offers a variety of trips. Their two-hour ride along the South Boundary Trail is the most popular. You’ll trot along the mountainous terrain and through the damp forest. The sites are magical and you don’t need riding experience. orcastrailrides.com

A Small Slice of Solitude

Shaw Island is tiny. Stretching less than 10 square miles, it’s a place for those searching for quiet solitude. Because there are so few amenities, it’s a popular destination for day trippers. Walk on the ferry, or take your bike and pack a lunch. Shaw County Park is a pretty stretch of beach that you may have all to yourself.

The Jurassic Park of the West

There are some San Juan islands you can’t set foot on — one of which is Spieden. But from the water, you may notice the island’s exotic animals. Horned mouflon sheep and fallow deer prance around here. In the ’70s, the island was used for hunting. The animals were imported for the sport. Today it is privately owned by James Jannard, the founder of sunglasses company Oakley. It also has an interesting geography. Half of it is covered in trees; the other is composed of bare hills.

Who Knew?

  • The San Juan Islands get about half the rainfall of Seattle, thanks to the Olympic rain shadow.
  • An innocent pig started a war in the San Juans, now referred to as The Pig War of 1859.
  • Rumor has it that a woman in a duster coat haunts Serendipity Used Books in Friday Harbor. You may see her sitting in the store’s window seat.


Photo: ©2009 BionicBotonist, Creative Commons

Bainbridge Island

Among its many qualities, Bainbridge Island is easy to get to. You can go from the hustle and bustle of downtown Seattle to the quaint village of Winslow in about 35 minutes. It’s one of the easiest, prettiest day trips the area has to offer. You know it’s charming when Vogue magazine coins it the “Nantucket of the Pacific Northwest.” It’s also (in parts) pretty developed (psst … there’s a McDonald’s). But we promise that doesn’t take away from its natural beauty.

Bainbridge Vineyards

At Bainbridge Vineyards, every grape is grown, crushed, and bottled on the island. Visit the winery’s tasting room for a truly local glass of wine. During the week, the team is out in the fields, but stop by Friday-Sunday from noon-5 p.m. on weekends. They also have sheep!

Mora Iced Creamery

Mora Iced Creamery is committed to perfecting scoops of creamy deliciousness. The team hand-squeezes the citrus and roasts the nuts in house. They work with the best ingredients to produce local flavors like blackberry, mint chocolate, and Maraschino cherry. On a warm day, there’s nothing sweeter.

Fort Ward Park

Fort Ward is a 137-acre park along the rocky coast with a neat history. Park at the entrance and stroll along the road toward the water. On the way, you’ll notice old structures, including two gun batteries that were once used as a seacoast fort to protect the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. According to Bainbridge Island Metro Park and Recreation District, the fort was used as a Navy radio station and training school for communication personnel, and a submarine net was installed across Rich Passage.

Breakfast at Streamliner Diner

Love eggs Benedict? This place serves silky poached eggs to die-hard fans. Try the smoked salmon omelette for a classic with Northwest flair. If eggs aren’t your thing, they also have biscuits and gravy and bacon fried to crispy perfection.

Bloedel Reserve Gardens

Bloedel Reserve is home to some of the most beautiful gardens in the state. The site is named after Prentice Bloedel, the son of a wealthy lumber businessman, who envisioned the outdoor space, sometimes clearing new paths himself with a machete in hand. There is a stunning Japanese garden that features an approximately 150-year-old lace leaf maple and a moss garden that looks like a forest carpeted with glowing green moss. Also visit the 1920s-era mansion.

Who Knew?

  • Gov. Jay Inslee lives on Bainbridge Island.
  • Pantone color expert Leatrice Eiseman, who chooses the Pantone color of the year, lives on Bainbridge Island. She says the light there is perfect for studying color.


Photo: ©2017 Jerry Meaden, Creative Commons

Whidbey Island

Whidbey Island has a charm that sets it apart from its neighbors. The town of Langley is hopping with hundreds of bunnies. Seriously. In 2015, residents were wrestling with a bunny overpopulation crisis. But for visitors? It’s just more fluffy cuteness on top of an already-darling town. From Bellevue, it’s easy to cruise over to Mukilteo and board the ferry to Whidbey Island. But bring the car. Whidbey is long, with attractions scattered throughout.

Chocolate Flower Farm

The Chocolate Flower Farm started out as a specialty plant nursery featuring dark maroon “chocolate”-colored plants. But over time, this chocolate-loving team started making more chocolate products, like raspberry and chocolate jam, chocolate candles, and chocolate mint tea. The list goes on. You can visit the 1923 farm just outside of Langley, or visit the darling little gift shop in Langley — both are called Chocolate Flower Farm.

Visit the Farmers Markets

There are several farmers markets on Whidbey Island that sell fresh, island-grown produce. Snack on sweet cherry tomatoes or ripe berries as you stroll along.

Double Bluff Brewing

Named after the island’s Double Bluff Beach, this relatively new brewery is already a local favorite. Visitors come for the staple beers along with seasonal brews (try the Happy Monk for something refreshing). The laid-back space is also relaxing. Sip by the outdoor firepits on a warm evening. The brewery is also dog-friendly.

Whidbey Art Trail

Go on a self-guided artist tour that will guide you to inventive studio spaces like renovated barns or repurposed buildings in small towns. Visit painters, weavers, print makers, potters, glassblowers, and woodworkers. On the tour you can ask the artists questions and, of course, buy their creations.

Deception Pass

Deception Pass State Park is probably the island’s crown jewel of parks because there is so much to explore. The bridge that arches over Whidbey Island to Fidalgo Island is stunning. But below that, there’s shells to search for and coves to discover. Cranberry Lake is also a part of the park, and the perfect place to take a dip. It got its name from the farmers who used to grow cranberry bogs on the sides of the lake. And be sure to look up! The park is one of the best places to spot bald eagles.

Zipline on Nearby Camano Island

Glide along the treetops of the forest at Canopy Tours NW. The company offers six ziplines with certified guides. The ziplines are located on a farm. The family that owns it has roots on Whidbey that stretch back to 1912, and have stayed committed to sustainable forest stewardship. It’s a fun adventure in a truly beautiful setting. Also, its official greeter is a cat named Barney the Love Machine!

Who Knew?

  • For 34 years, Langley has hosted Mystery Weekend. The town pretends someone has committed a terrible crime, and for two days, it’s up to investigators of all ages to figure out whodunit.
  • Love clams and oysters? Whidbey is home to many. Check the Washington State Department of Health website on where and when to forage.



is the managing editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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