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Orcas Island Trip Planner

Updated on October 9, 2014

Visit the gem of the San Juan Islands

In 2011 National Geographic named the San Juan Islands as #3 of all World Travel Destinations. While there are over 170 islands in this group, less than half of them are named and only 4 are served by the Washington State Ferry System. Many visitors agree that Orcas Island is the gem of them all.

Fondly called "the gem of the San Juans" or simply "The Rock" by islanders, Orcas Island is an emerald green getaway that you may find difficult to leave once you've experienced its beauty and serenity. Step into a world of charming hamlets and rural countryside with no stop lights, and an extensive coastline from which to view stunning sunrises, gorgeous sunsets, and marine life, including orca whales.

By all means start your armchair Orcas vacation with a visit to the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce website. You'll find everything you need there to answer your questions about how to get around the island, where to eat and stay, what to see, what to do, where to shop, and where to be entertained. Maps, an Events Calendar, a Visitors Guide, and more can all be yours.

I'm going to treat you to some of my favorite places to visit while escaping to this bucolic island that's home to some of the friendliest people on the planet - for U.S. residents, no passport is required and you don't even need to bring your car. Come along as I disclose my favorite hang-outs on this gorgeous island. You'll learn how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, and a bit about sightseeing, entertainment, shopping, and more.

Photo Credit: Meridian West Designs

Where Is Orcas Island? - here's a map to help you find your way

map of San Juan Islands, Washington
map of San Juan Islands, Washington

Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands, in the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington State, in the United States of America.

Here is a link to a Visitors Guide that includes an excellent map of where to eat, sleep, shop, hike, and more. You are...in your chair, staring at your computer. Don't you wish you were HERE? on Orcas Island?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons Images

How to Get to Orcas Island - Whether you live in Washington State or anywhere else in the world

photo courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
photo courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

For those living out of state, either drive to Anacortes, Washington and drive your car onto the ferry, or fly into SeaTac airport and choose from a variety of travel options. You can rent a car and drive, catch the Island Airporter or Airport Shuttle Van, or be adventurous and fly to the island. Flight options include Kenmore Air (a float plane, how cool is that?), San Juan Airlines, Northwest Sea Planes, West Isle Air, and Island Air.

I love the idea that I can take an island vacation without getting on an airplane and flying all day. I can even leave my car at home.

My favorite way to get to Orcas Island is taking the ferry from Anacortes. It's about an hour and a half of winding between emerald islands, and I fall in love all over again each trip I make. The scenery is gorgeous, and you're immediately transported to an entirely different world. You can walk around the passenger decks, walk outside and brace yourself against the winds, enjoy beverages and snacks, meet fellow travelers, and sometimes see seals, porpoises, and whales, not to mention birds such as herons, gulls, and eagles.

photo courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

P.S. Here's a big secret -- I live on an island in Washington State (not Orcas Island) and Orcas is STILL my favorite island. It's that beautiful.

Now that's an Orcas Island arrival to remember!

biplane
biplane

Photo courtesy of Kenmore Air

What's the best month to visit Orcas Island?

one family has tracked the weather there for 122 years

A typical late summer day will have a high of 70 degrees and a low of 50 degrees F. How do I know that?

The Willis family had recorded rainfall, snow accumulation, and temperatures on their farm on Orcas Island for 122 years, and they're still going strong. The Signal Corps put out a call for volunteers to track local weather back in the 1800's and the Willis family responded.

Here are the results of their years of dedication:

Olga, WA Monthly Climate Survey, 1891-2005

Second Annual Orcas Island Shakespeare Festival - featuring the Seattle Shakespeare Company

Shakespearean street theater
Shakespearean street theater

Orcas Island is gearing up for this year's Shakespeare Festival, the entire island becomes Shakespeare's Isle! The Festival runs Thursday, Friday & Saturday, March 21, 22 & 23, 2013. Come join in the fun as costumed locals interact with performers, taking to the streets with a community parade (all are welcome to join in), street theater, and wandering minstrels.

On Friday, the theater group will work with local high school students, teaching and performing with them. On Saturday night, the Orcas Center will be transformed into the Globe Theater as the troupe performs "Julius Caesar". All day Saturday the Stage on the Green in Eastsound will offer up performances and music of the period.

Local artists and galleries get in the spirit of Elizabethan England for the occasion, local restaurants offer mead and other Elizabethan fare, and other businesses offer special deals for festival goers. Turtleback Farm Inn, for example, is offering two free performance tickets to each couple who books a room for the night of March 23.

Don't let the Ides of March scare you away, come eat, drink and be merry! This is Shakespeare VERY up close and personal!

Photo credit: Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce

In the photo, Puck is engaging with young costumed Orcas Island residents. The Orcas Island Shakespeare Festival has a Facebook Page with all the info, past and present.

Where to Stay on Orcas Island - Turtleback Farm Inn B&B

Turtleback Farm
Turtleback Farm

There are lots of ways and places to stay on Orcas Island -- you can camp at Moran State Park, stay in one of many inns, cabins, rental homes, and so forth -- but nothing matches Bill and Susan Fletcher's hospitality and the ambiance of the Turtleback Farm Inn. Turtleback Farm is a working farm in Crow Valley, in the shadow of Turtleback Mountain, and is home to sheep, chickens and wild birds including Canadian geese, ducks, hawks, and eagles.

When you arrive, you'll be greeted warmly and escorted to your room. After answering a few questions about any food and beverage preferences or allergies, you'll be left to settle into your room with a pastoral view. You have the entire farm to explore, all 80+ acres including several ponds and meadows. Or you can hike up Turtleback Mountain, the trailhead is just feet from your door. Or ask the Fletchers for their map of the island complete with their suggestions of what to see and do. Bill can tell you about how to have a rental bicycle delivered to the Inn if bicycling is your thing.

After a sound night's sleep under your wool comforter stuffed with wool from the farm's own sheep, you'll awaken to a gourmet breakfast served on the deck or in the dining room (breakfast in your Orchard House room is available seasonally). You'll choose between Susan's acclaimed homemade granola, farm-fresh eggs, fresh local meats or salmon, fruit in season from their orchard, and garden fresh vegies from their own garden or from the local Farmers Market. Their coffee is strong and ground right there on the premises. And while he's serving you, Bill can fill you in on the history and current events of the island.

If you love breakfast as much as I do, and find it next to impossible to choose from the selections (the fruit-filled oven baked pancakes are to die for!), then take a copy of the Turtleback Farm Inn Cookbook home with you. My copy falls open on its own to the Double Fruit Torte page. I wonder why...

Want a 5-minute tour of the island including a visit with the Fletchers? Check out this KING5 TV Orcas Island video, it's fantastic.

Photo courtesy of Turtleback Farm Inn

Fall at Turtleback Farm

misty Crow Valley
misty Crow Valley

Any Season is a Great Time to Visit Turtleback Farm - Winter welcome to Turtleback Farm Inn

winter welcome to Turtleback Farm Inn
winter welcome to Turtleback Farm Inn

Photos courtesy of Turtleback Farm Inn

Orcas Island oyster
Orcas Island oyster

Where to Eat on Orcas Island

Gourmet or down home, farm or ocean-fresh, it's all here

Whether you want to dine near the water at the Deer Harbor Inn Restaurant, dine on homegrown organic produce at the Doe Bay Cafe at the other end of the island, or something in between at Olga, Eastsound, or Orcas Village, there's a huge selection of eateries on the island to choose from. To choose one as a favorite is too difficult, so I'll just refer you to the Chamber of Commerce's list. But rest assured, whether you want Asian, Mexican, Italian, or any type of food whatsoever, it's here. Trust me. Ice cream? Fresh fruit pies? Chocolates? mmm yes everything.

What's special about dining on Orcas Island is the combination of gourmet, down-home, specialty, or family fare with locally grown and harvested meat, dairy products, seafood, and vegetables. Woodfired pizza from the folks who raise the pigs and make the sausage, seafood right out of the boat, Thai cafe with fresh local greens, or garden-to-table at Doe Bay -- you'll find it all on Orcas.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Images

sea kayaking poster
sea kayaking poster

What to Do on Orcas Island

Do I have to choose just one thing?

There's lots to do here on Orcas Island. First, let's dispel some Northwest Rumors concerning the weather. There are on average 247 days of sunshine a year and half the rain of Seattle or Portland. So no, it doesn't rain on Orcas Island every day, by a long shot. It is possible to bicycle almost every day of the year on the island, according to Susan Fletcher. She and Bill do just that every day except when it's icy.

So, what's to do beside bicycling? There's hiking, swimming, kayaking, whale watching, shopping, museums, arts and crafts studios and galleries, movies, theater, music performances, sailing, fishing, beachcombing, and just plain relaxing. The pace is slow on Orcas Island -- there are no traffic lights, and people are friendly -- you'll get a wave, a smile, and a welcome from most everyone here.

What's my favorite thing to do on Orcas? I'd have to say ocean kayaking. It's something I am too nervous to do on my own, but what a way to view the coast and the wildlife! There's Spring Bay Kayak Touring out of Olga; Shearwater Sea Kayak Tours out of Eastsound; Outer Island Expeditions out of Eastsound.

Photo: Buy sea kayaking poster from Allposters.com

Kayaking off of Orcas Island can be this good

Eastsound shops
Eastsound shops

Shopping on Orcas Island

This could be the mellowest shopping experience anywhere

Eastsound is the epitome of "quaint hamlet". The shops are just so sweet, and they showcase so much of what the island has to offer by way of crafts, homemade foods, artwork, wines, and lots of eco-friendly options. It's such a nice escape from malls and mass marketing. Come savor the islands, look and linger.

There's a lot to see in Eastsound yet it's all in a compact village designed for a leisurely walk-about. Prepare to be enchanted by colorful artwork, yummy food, and the friendliest people anywhere.

Photo courtesy of Tom D. Ringold

Orcas Island is home to artists and artisans

If you can only stop in one gallery, then make it Orcas Island Artworks in Olga. OIA is home to the works of over 50 local artists and artisans. Enjoy paintings, photography, pottery, jewelry, fiber, wood, and more. This is one of the oldest art cooperatives in the U.S., a must-see. Since the Artworks is owned and operated by the artists themselves, you'll get the chance to meet at least one of them. And if you time your visit right, you can enjoy lunch at the Cafe Olga in the same building.

Photo courtesy of Orcas Island Artworks

Update: Last summer the Artworks and the Cafe were partially consumed by a suspicious fire. Work is underway to rebuild; meanwhile, the Artworks has a temporary home in Eastsound. Please stop by and support these artists going forward in the restoration of a historic treasure that is integral to how they make their living on the island. The Cafe plans on reopening soon.

Orcas Island Ferry News - rates and schedules change seasonally

Orcas Island ferry
Orcas Island ferry

The Fall 2014 ferry schedule to Orcas Island from Anacortes, WA is in effect from Sep 21, 2014 - Dec 27, 2014. Run by the WA Dept. of Transportation, the ferries are clean, efficient, and seldom vary from their schedules, truly amazing for one of the biggest ferry fleets in the world. Find out more about the schedules from the DoT site

Want to know all your transportation options? Airlines, car rentals, taxis, bicycle sales and rentals, and more: Orcas Island Transportation

Savor the San Juans Festival in the San Juan Islands - for the entire month of October

Orcas Island crab
Orcas Island crab

Visit Orcas Island in October and Savor the Tastes of the San Juans. Enjoy the unique culture and history of farming and gourmet food preparation on the island, where fresh is always best. From wild edibles to fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood, celebrate island culture of good friends and good eating. You can visit the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce website to see all activities on the island, and also check out the Savor the San Juans celebration on the Visit the San Juans website for all the goings on throughout the archipelago.

Many businesses offer discounts and bonuses during the festival so be sure to contact the Chamber of Commerce and ask. Turtleback Farm Inn celebrates the harvest season by giving away one of its cookbooks to each guest during October.

The photo of the crab is in honor of the reopening of sport crabbing season in the San Juans. Expect to see crab on menus everywhere.

Photo credit: by Ciar via Wikimedia Commons.

country road
country road

Some things change, while quite a few remain the same

An old NY Times article about Orcas Island

Amazingly, this NY Times article about a trip to Orcas Island in the '80s is still relevant today, speaking to how tenaciously residents have held on to their particular brand of island living.

Today as then, the pace is slow, the vibes are laid back, and there are no traffic lights. This is partly due to the reliance on small propeller planes, state ferries, and private boats for getting you there. You have to slow down and probably stay longer than you would if you could drive there over a bridge, like you can to the island where I live.

I notice the difference on my island. We are about an hour from Seattle, including the 20-minute ferry ride that leaves every half hour. If you miss the ferry, you barely have any wait at all. You can even skip the ferry, drive north on the interstate, and drive across the bridge at Deception Pass. The pace is slow here, but still faster than on Orcas.

Getting to Orcas Island truly is the beginning of your adventure. Ferries go to several islands, and each ferry rations a certain amount of space for each island. It's possible for a ferry to not be full, but not loading any more cars for Orcas Island. You have a few ferries to choose from each day, in each direction, and that's it. Miss a ferry and you wait for hours or until the next day.

Patience and waiting make for a very different sort of vacation. Orcas Island, its inhabitants, its roads, its attractions, force you to slow down if you aren't already chillin'.

So take a break for an armchair visit to my favorite place, Orcas Island. Just relax with the natives for a while. Feel the difference.

Photo Credit

San Juan Islands map
San Juan Islands map

New map app for Orcas Island

available for free at the Apple Store

You can download this app for free and instantly access full color maps and all the info you need for finding great places to eat, shop, and stay plus art galleries and other things to do and see on Orcas Island.

Of course, there are lots of friendly locals willing to suggest activities, sights, and places to dine in style or informally, as well as give directions. But with the app you can start planning your journey on the ferry or at home in your armchair and have the map with you every step of the way.

Map App

When do you think you'll be ready to visit the Emerald Isle?

Thanks for visiting Orcas Island with me - Shall we make it a yearly date?

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    • MJsConsignments profile image

      Michelle 5 years ago from Central Ohio, USA

      Great job on this lens! It makes me want to go and I'm a few thousand miles away in blistering hot Ohio. Tomorrow we'll catch a break. Today 102 degrees, tomorrow 86 and rain (finally). Enjoy island living in the Pacific Northwest!

    • rallo-smith profile image

      rallo-smith 5 years ago

      Breathtaking! What an amazing place to visit. Thanks for sharing I enjoyed the information and photo's.

    • microfarmproject profile image

      microfarmproject 5 years ago

      Turtleback Inn looks like a lovely place to visit. I enjoyed your beautiful photos and information about Orcas Island.