Doe Bay has a tasty pescatarian restaurant serving organic food and produce from an on-site garden, along with an egalitarian array of accommodation options: yurts, domes, cabins and a treehouse. Travelers can also pitch their own tents. You’re as likely to meet a bike messenger as a tech entrepreneur.
Like Ireland, Orcas Island is often called the Emerald Isle. It is one of 172 named islands and reefs that are collectively referred to as the San Juan Islands. Orcas — arguably the most beautiful of the San Juans — is shaped a bit like a basset hound’s droopy ears. Orcas attracts plenty of visitors in the summer, but it retains a quiet, pastoral vibe that hints at the island’s agrarian roots. There are no traffic lights, no fast-food restaurants, and no chain establishments unless you count the Chevron station and a Key Bank location.
Joe Symons is an Orcas resident who moved to the island in the mid-1980s to escape what he calls the “madness on the mainland.” He said he has mixed feelings about the way tourism has exacerbated income inequality on the island and created a housing shortage for seasonal workers. But he still relishes the island’s unique charms.
“It’s still very much like another country,” said Symons, author of “Potholes in Paradise,” a book about life on Orcas. “When I’m in line for the ferry and someone asks where I’m going, I say, ‘back to America.’ ”
In fact, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Orcas and the other San Juan Islands would be a part of the United States until a German arbitrator settled a boundary dispute between the United States and Britain in 1872. Thirteen years earlier, the two nations nearly went to war after an American settler shot a pig owned by an Irishman who worked for the Hudson Bay Co. The so-called Pig War set in motion a process that eventually placed the border at the Haro Strait, which separates San Juan Island from Vancouver Island in Canada.
The geography of the place still creates a sense of space, a physical and psychological separation from the mainland. For those who are short on time, you can bridge that gap in a half-hour on seasonal Kenmore Air flights from Seattle. But I took the hourlong ferry from Anacortes, Washington (a 90-minute drive north of Seattle outside rush hour), and stood outside, relishing the fresh air and intimate views of Lopez, Decatur and Blakely Islands.
Bruce Pavitt, the founder of the Sub Pop record label, has lived on Orcas since 1997 and now commutes to Seattle regularly for his new job at 8 Stem, an interactive audio format that allows listeners to remix music. “As soon as you get on that boat a weight lifts from your shoulders,” he said. “When I come here there is zero stress.”
Orcas can indeed be quiet but it’s not without cultural offerings. There is a growing food scene that includes a Saturday farmers’ market in the summer, and popular establishments like Brown Bear Baking, where you can feast on artisan bread and pastries, and New Leaf cafe at the Outlook Inn, which has seafood omelets and fresh seafood pots. And on the music front, there are the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival and the Doe Bay Fest, both in August, and the Imagine Festival, which is focused mostly on electronic music, in September.
Orcas is popular with hikers, who are rewarded with sweeping sea views at the peak of Mount Constitution in Moran State Park and on Turtleback Mountain, among other places. Cyclists frequent sleepy, relatively flat Lopez Island. San Juan Island is a bit more mainstream than Lopez and Orcas and tends to attract tourists who like more action and amenities.
If you want a taste of one of the uninhabited islands, book a charter excursion to Sucia Island, which is just a few miles north of Orcas and has more than 10 miles of hiking paths, along with places to camp.
I did a bit of hiking at Moran State Park on Orcas but I was mostly content to lounge around in Doe Bay’s soaking tubs, walk the trails in the area and eat the kind of ridiculously healthy vegetarian fare I rarely consider ordering on the mainland.
Orcas is a seductive place and many are tempted to extend their stay on the island. Symons prefers to politely steer people away.
“Of all the places on the planet, this has got to be one of the sweetest places in the world,” he said. “But if you print that, we might have too many people coming here.”