After a rather restful sleep in my comfy bed at Elements Hotel & Spa, a few short blocks from downtown Friday Harbor, I boarded the 46-foot Western Prince in search of J- and K-Pods, who had eluded me the day before at Lime Kiln Point and had headed farther north than usual. Owner/captain Ivan told me how he’d come to own his business, after relocating from sunny San Diego to the rain shadow of the San Juans. (I also learned that the Weather Channel had recently visited to discuss this weather phenomenon with San Juan residents.) As we chatted on the bridge, Ivan took us past a small islet — little more than a sandbar with a large piece of driftwood, really — where a bald eagle perched majestically, as if posing for the tourists aboard, and a harbor seal bobbed in and out of the water in the foreground. Ivan displayed his facility for multi-tasking by manning both the radio and his cell phone in order to find the whereabouts of the pod, and moments later six-foot fins could be spotted in the distance.
Ruffles, the patriarch of J-Pod, led the way, along with Granny, believed to be either his mother or grandmother. We watched the pod make their way back toward San Juan Island, the bursts of their breathing still very audible even from the maritime-law-imposed distance of 100 yards (Ivan normally gave them berth of even more than that, just to be sure). My little point-and-shoot digital couldn’t sufficiently capture their grace from that distance, but the memory remains.
Since I’d only had a scone before my three-hour tour, I trekked back into Friday Harbor with a grumbling belly and satisfied it at the Front Street Ale House, the local brewmaker conveniently located just strides from the dock. After downing a decent veggie burger and two well crafted pints, I headed back to my bed for a cat nap (I was still recovering from the 6-day visit with the niblings), then awoke in time to be chauffeured to the island’s north shore by my gracious host Robin, from the visitors’ bureau. We made a pitstop at Lakedale Resort, which was in the midst of prepping for a lakeside wedding that evening and so was decked out in rustic splendor.
After our drop-in, we headed up to Roche Harbor, a favorite vacation spot of both Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne. Roche Harbor is less resort and more “community,” as the property manager explained it, and I’d agree — not only because of his convincing stories but because of the palpable aura that surrounds the many conjoined properties. Families roam the grounds — sculpture garden, marina, artists’ bazaar, mausoleum trail — as if it were part of their own estates, and indeed some may think it is, since they’ve been returning to the same vacation spot for decades — the same week and cabin each year, next to the same family who does likewise.
After getting an abbreviated tour and history lesson (Note: Is this really the only privately owned Catholic chapel in the country?), I hopped into a San Juan Safaris kayak for a sunset tour around the island. I was paired with a high school student who, from what I could gather, had never traveled far from his Ohio hometown, based on his frequent remarks (“This is the first time I’ve seen a real crab.” “I’ve never kayaked before.” “Are those mountains real?”). When our path put me downwind, I endured the spray from his paddles, but cringed whenever he spat chaw over the side. He was friendly enough though, and obliged by taking over all paddling duties whenever the urge to take a photo struck.
Although we didn’t have the colorful sunset we’d hoped — we were, in fact, drizzled on — we were rewarded with several wildlife encounters, including a close encounter with a harbor seal and her pup that brought us within feet of both. We had stopped paddling as soon as we realized they were in our path, and with the current at our backs, we soon drifted so close that when Mom opened her eyes, she quickly shooed her charge underwater and both disappeared. Not long later, we spotted not one but two bald eagles communing in a tree, bringing my baldy tally to five thus far on the trip.
The San Juans being the laidback place they are, not an eyebrow raised when I strolled into the romantically lit dining room of McMillin’s with the bottoms of my khakis drenched. Sam, Robin’s step-son and long-time employee of the Roche Harbor properties, laid out the fixin’s, including a deliciously bold, local red wine and a cheese plate that made me rethink my aversion to blue cheeses. Mushrooms, raspberry salad, and veggie-filled lasagna stretched my stomach to its limits — and dessert was still to come. Since Robin and I had opted for creme brulée the night before, we went all out this time with chocolate decadence. As she drove me back to my hotel, I was already falling into a food coma. From the little I’d sampled of Seattle cuisine, I have to say the San Juans beat the Northwest’s metropolis hands down.