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Postcards: The San Juan Islands

Island-hopping in the Northwest

When you first tell people you're flying to the San Juan Islands, they might assume you're going to the Caribbean or maybe somewhere near Puerto Rico. They would be only a few thousand miles wrong. Located in Puget Sound, 80 nautical miles northwest of Seattle, the San Juans—one of the prettiest collections of islands you'll ever see—make a perfect family flying vacation.

The waters of the islands are home to more than 80 orcas (killer whales), as well as minks, otters, seals, and salmon. The air hosts 60 active pairs of breeding bald eagles, the great blue herons, and the 200- plus resident general aviation pilots.

In the summer, when we loaded up our Cessna 310N with gear for our baby and some stuff for us and headed for the islands, we knew the weather there was at its best, with temperatures rarely topping 80 degrees. Even in the winter, temperatures are moderated by the barriers created by the North Cascades, dominated by Mt. Baker to the east, the Olympic Mountains to the southwest, and the Vancouver Islands and Coast Mountains of British Columbia to the west.

Orcas Island

Departing Boeing Field/King County International in Seattle, we took an IFR clearance, because of low ceilings, to Everett's Snohomish County (Paine Field) for the $1.80-per-gallon fuel price (compared to $2.42 discounted at Boeing Field). From there, with the weather improved, it was a short flight to the 2,900-foot runway of Eastsound Airport on horseshoe- shaped Orcas, the largest of the four major islands among the 272. In the 310, we prepared for a short-field landing on Runway 34. Even though it's right traffic, we did the left because everyone else was, and the 2,409- foot Mt. Constitution doesn't give much room in which to swing around.

We touched down on the threshold with plenty of roll left without having to use brakes. Eastsound does have a hump in the middle, so it appears shorter than it is. The airport is basic, without fuel or instrument approaches, and "you need to be careful because lots of pilots don't bother with radios," advises Ric Sanchez, who, with his wife, Ann, fly the islands as proprietors of the Sand Dollar Inn in Orcas.

The weather is unpredictable as are the "squirrely" winds, adds Ann, but the winter temperatures rarely get below 30 degrees, and it's sunny. "Seattle people come up to visit us in the winter because they get depressed," says Ric. "They call us the 'Sunbelt.'" When the weather is marginal, the Sanchezes use the instrument approaches into Bellingham International to the east, to get under the clouds before flying the 15 miles to Orcas.

Our reservations were at the Rosario Resort and Spa, reputedly the premier lodging on Orcas. Indeed, the Bayside housekeeping suite in our unit for four offered a spellbinding view of Cascade Bay, with yachts and marina below, and the seaplanes landing on the Sound. Unfortunately, the decor and furnishings were only functional and mundane, not what one would expect for $182.50 per night.

The main building of Rosario, built at the turn of the century by shipbuilder and former Seattle Mayor Robert Moran, is a Victorian mansion in the National Register of Historic Places and represents the finer design and craftsmanship of the shipbuilding era. Rosario is good for a week's relaxation because, in addition to the view, the resort has a health spa, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an exercise room, and tennis courts. There are nightly concerts on the Morgan organ and historical lectures.

Rosario charges $2 per head for van service to and from the airport.

For less formal lodging, try some of the bed and breakfasts such as the Turtle Back, the Spring Bay Inn, the Kangaroo House Inn, or the Sanchezes' Sand Dollar. If you do choose the Sand Dollar, you might see nesting eagles through the spy glass they have on the covered porch where breakfast is served. You can tell immediately the Sanchezes are pilots by the shelves of aviation books in the upstairs guest room that overlooks Buck Bay. The souvenir chocolate sand dollars are a nice touch.

Ric and Ann, who fly their white, turquoise, and teal Piper Cherokee Six among the islands (even doing mercy missions for ailing otters and herons), understand pilots and are glad to act as hosts even if you don't stay at their place. (Don't be put off by the fact that Ann is a former FAA air traffic controller. She's really very nice.)

There is camping at the airport but no facilities once the Harbor Airline Island terminal shuts down at 6 p.m. local. A couple of fliers/campers had tents pitched under wings. Ground transportation is always an issue when you fly, so unless you have friends, the Sanchezes recommend renting a vehicle from Adventure (we hope not too much of one) Limo and Rental at about $47 per day, wet. A vehicle will take you to hiking in Moran State Park, trout fishing in Cascade Lake, and for a ride up Mt. Constitution for the highest perch on the San Juan Islands. From there you can see all the other islands, the Cascades on the mainland of Washington State and, on an especially clear day, Victoria, British Columbia.

Northwesterners pride themselves on their cuisine — especially with the bounty of seafood, exemplified by the Friday-night seafood buffet at Rosario. At $21 per head, you can eat mounds of tiger shrimp, oysters, mussels, smoked and fresh salmon, plus prime rib and chicken and a variety of fresh vegetables, salads, soups, and desserts, including chocolate- covered strawberries, in a setting of a large dining room that steps down so that every seat has a view of the bay. The only problem we saw was slightly dirty dishes on the buffet line. But the staff is pleasant and professional, reflected by our waiter, Steve, who was especially attentive to our eight-month-old daughter (teething, overstimulated, tired, but a smiling charmer in his presence).

Orcas Island's main shopping, dining, and entertainment district is Eastsound (population 1,500), and there, you have such restaurants as the Ship Bay Oyster House, recommended by the Sanchezes for the seafood and baby back ribs at reasonable prices, four-star Christina's, and the Italian and seafood of La Famiglia.

Because the docking facilities at Cascade Bay cater to transient yachts, a convenient provisioning store is on hand. Its companion Cascade Bay cafe has excellent hamburgers and fries without the price tag of Rosario. Enjoy them on the sunny deck.

At Doe Bay Village Resort, the staff offers sea kayaking and instruction tours. Pilots will recall fondly the comfort of their "flight extenders," as the kayaking trip lasts several hours, and there is no rest stop. The tour is informative on flora and fauna—less stressful than first-year biology—e.g., "This is a starfish!" Perhaps the last remaining hippie community of the 1960s, Doe Bay is a collection of cottages, camping sites, and services offering relaxation meditation, sauna, massage, and clothes-optional mineral baths, a fact to consider if you get too close with your kayak.

San Juan

A 10-minute flight southwest from Orcas is Friday Harbor Airport on San Juan Island, the county seat, the most populous island (population 9,600), and the historic site of what is called the Pig War between the British and the Americans. Friday Harbor's 2,900-foot strip is within walking distance of the town itself (or a $2-per-head cab ride) and has fuel and an airport surveillance radar approach. It serves as the port of entry for U.S. Customs, should you be flying in from Canada.

Largely farms surrounded by thick, green woods, San Juan Island has more public beaches than does Orcas: South Beach is perfect for a walk at sunset, and Jackson Beach is closer to Friday Harbor, an assortment of down-home bars, souvenir shops, espresso cafes, art galleries, and a museum dedicated to the killer whale. The orcas swim in Puget Sound from May until October, feeding on salmon.

Roche Harbor, with its own private-use airport, is a world-famous yacht resort noted as well for its fantastic flower gardens. There are also the historical parks, the American Camp and the English Camp, which tell the tale of a border dispute between the United States and England during the 1800s.

On San Juan, Clyde and Betty Rice operate the floating Wharfside bed-and-breakfast, a 60-foot traditional sailing vessel, Jacquelyn. Docked at K dock, slip 13, she offers two private guest staterooms, plus a common salon with Victorian antiques and a woodstove. The forward stateroom, for families, has two bunks and a double bed with a shared head and tiled tub and shower. The aft stateroom is more romantic, with its queen-sized bed, a settee, its own head with access to the shared shower.

Other "pilot friendly" lodgings on San Juan are the Duffy House and the Tucker House bed-and-breakfasts.

The Jacquelyn makes a nice counterpoint to flying, and Betty notes that they seem to get pilots fairly often "as they tend to be adventuresome and look for the unusual." Her breakfasts, taken on the aft deck under the wonderfully fresh morning sun and sky, consist of huge homemade muffins, omelets with homemade salsa and nasturtiums as garnish, fresh fruit, and excellent coffee. Little wonder people come back year after year. "People seem to want the breakfast they remember, so I don't dare change, even though occasionally, I'd like to try something new," says Betty.

Captain Clyde, looking every part the old salt, offers deep-sea fishing for all variety of salmon in his 32-foot Nordi, and Jacquelyn herself can be chartered for a group cruise. An especially popular one, say the Rices, is the "High Seas and Tea" cruise to Victoria.

Going up the hill on Spring Street from the marina are a variety of eateries popular with the locals: the new Front Street Ale House Pub, in the tradition of an English pub, with fish and chips plus American fare and stouts and ale brewed with natural ingredients; the Cannery House Restaurant, offering a great view of the ferry landing, crab cakes, Mexican food, and a tall glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade; Fords' Bar and Grille, a sports bar with live music in the evening; and the Springtree Cafe, which has an elm-shaded patio. For the local fisherman and roustabouts, there's Herb's Tavern, a workman-like establishment with no pretensions.

Don't overlook

Lopez Island, the least populated, consists mostly of farmers and fishermen, with some escapees from the city. The least geared as a vacation spot, it's perfect for bicyclists and hikers, because it's largely farmland with large shallow bays and a few tiny villages along the rugged bluff on the south—some 54 square miles of mostly level terrain dotted with sheep and cows, orchards, and weathered barns, with the Olympic mountains in the background. Lopez Island Airport is the basic VFR, 2,900-foot, 16/34 field.

While flying is the quickest form of transportation among the islands, it's really worthwhile taking some side trips on the San Juan Ferry system. The large, car ferryboats, run by the State of Washington, serve each of the islands on a regular basis. In fact, there is nothing more beautiful than taking one of these ferries at dusk. As the sun sets, the warm winds and the hum of engine below make for an inexpensive starlight cruise.

San Juan derives from the Spanish name, Juan De Fuca, of a Greek sailor, Apostolos Valerianos (don't ask how that happened), who was the first to spot the islands in 1592. They kept pretty much to themselves until the English Captain George Vancouver, along with his lieutenant, Peter Puget, began to map the area for years, with American settlers moving in during the 1800s.

The so-called Pig War centered on who owned the San Juan Islands and where the border between England (Canada) and America really belonged. The dispute started when early settler Lyman Cutler shot dead, in his potato patch, a pig that belonged to an English Hudson Bay Company employee. The English insisted that Cutler be sent to England for trial, whereas the Americans claimed jurisdiction. The contretemps took 12 years to settle and involved troop movements and some forays before Wilhelm I, Kaiser of Germany, was chosen to arbitrate the boundary dispute. He selected the Straits of Haro, where the boundary between the United States and Canada is today.

Besides attracting visitors from all over the world, Orcas is the home of Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Illusions, and other books about the exhilaration of flying. Also, famed aviation writer the late Ernest K. Gann was a resident of the islands.

If you're looking to buy real estate on Orcas or San Juan, plan on spending $300,000 for the average inland 10 acres and three quarters of a million for the waterfront version. Property on sale during our visit ranged from $22,000 to $1.3 million.

Peter Kingsley, AOPA 873420, and Ed Frost are members of a travel writing partnership. Kingsley holds an MEL commercial certificate and has been flying for more than nine years. Frost is proprietor of Glove Compartment Books and a former documentary film maker.

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