AOPA Pilot Magazine
August 2007 Volume 50 / Number 8
Friday Harbor, Washington
Like a modern-day Brigadoon, the tiny town of Friday Harbor, Washington, rises from the mist off the right side of the Cessna Caravan as the Kenmore Air aircraft brings its passengers to this enchanted island. Friday Harbor is the largest town in the San Juan Island archipelago, a 170-island chain in Washington of which San Juan Island is the largest. There are a little more than 2,000 residents of Friday Harbor and the town encompasses just one square mile. But like the residents of the legendary Brigadoon, the residents of Friday Harbor like their small size and relative isolation. In fact locals say they are "going to America" when they leave the island.
Friday Harbor is very much a Pacific Northwest town. Towering Ponderosa pine trees surround the area, the skies are usually a brilliant blue (the San Juan islands receive half the rain of Seattle across the sound and the area is called the "Banana Belt"), and the land is lush and green. The port of Friday Harbor is situated at the base of the town on Front Street. A gentle climb up the main street, Spring Street, takes visitors to the restaurants, gift shops, and other quirky shops of this seaside village. The Orca whale makes its home in the waters here and its image is everywhere in town. There are several whale watching options and a small whale museum.
What to do
Friday Harbor has a beautiful waterfront park. This is where the ferries arrive and where Kenmore Air's seaplane base is located. Up the stairway from the park is the Whale Museum. Here visitors discover the Gallery of Whales, which offers a special focus on the orcas of J, K, and L pods living in the waters of the San Juan Islands. There is a fascinating collection of exhibits, artwork, models, and artifacts, including real whale skeletons and a family tree of the resident orcas. Visitors can listen to the songs of various species of whales in the Whale Phone Booth, and watch the free, 30-minute video on Pacific Northwest orcas.
While visitors should explore the town and island first, a whale-watching exhibition is not to be missed and should be booked right away. The trips take at least three hours and the various excursion companies all guarantee you'll see the whales no matter what it takes. My trip lasted nearly four hours in the driving rain (this was one of those days that it did rain in the San Juan Islands!) and we completely circumnavigated the island in search of the whales. We discovered them in the Haro Strait off Henry Island where the giant freighters pass from Vancouver and Seattle.
For thousands of years the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest have been the summer feeding grounds for several pods of killer whales. Pods J, K, and L, known as the Southern Resident Community, are generally found in the San Juan Islands/southern Vancouver Island area during the months of May through September. Researchers have been studying these wild whales in their natural habitat since 1976. Each orca can be identified by the shape and size of the fin on its back (dorsal fin) and the gray and white markings beneath and behind the fin (saddle patch). Each animal has been given a pod identification number and a common name, which reflects a bit of its heritage, personality, or circumstances of its discovery. Currently, there are approximately 80 whales in these three pods. I saw the whales of J Pod, which includes Ruffles, the oldest male and one of the orcas in the movie Free Willy, and Granny, the oldest whale in the pods, believed to be more than 90 years old.
There are more than 10 options for whale watching (as well as simply standing on the shore of the island) but my vessel of choice was the 65-foot yacht Odyssey from San Juan Excursions. The boat can hold 90 passengers but on this rainy day there were only 20 of us, two naturalists, and the captain. Our trip started south down the San Juan Channel until the radio chatter indicated the whales were to the north. So we turned and headed north up the channel, passing some of the small, uninhabited islands such as Yellow Island and Cliff Island. We rounded the top of the island at the only other town on San Juan Island, Roche Harbor. I had dinner there the night before at McMillin's Restaurant the special was Halibut cheeks.
When we encountered the whales there was great excitement. We crowded to the starboard side of the boat and watched as Ruffles, with his giant six-foot dorsal fin, broke the water and as Granny guided the pod's newest member, Eclipse, through the waters. The whales are feeding on salmon as they swim around the islands.
And now I will admit that I got seasick. This is highly unusual both for me and for the excursions the waters around San Juan Island are usually very calm. But we had pretty torrential storms and they kicked up the sea, as well as did the wake from the numerous freighters in the channel. Seeing the orcas breech and put on their natural display was worth it.
Where to eat
The drive to Roche Harbor is less than 20 minutes and it's an opportunity to see the interior of the island. It's green and lush, with rolling hills and farmland. Along the way you'll meet Mona. Mona the camel. Why there is a camel in the Pacific Northwest I do not know. Also along Roche Harbor Road is San Juan Vineyards and a cove where you can purchase Westcott bay oysters straight from the bay. At Roche Harbor is McMillin's Dining Room, a fine dining restaurant located in the former home of John S. McMillin, founder of the Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Company. It is perched on the waterfront shore, overlooking the quaint seaside harbor. The food is excellent, although I stayed safe and had salmon, as my dinner companion kept wondering what the halibut looked like without his cheeks. I found it a disturbing mental picture.
The restaurant in the Best Western was remarkably good. In fact many locals frequent The Peppermill. I had a hearty good breakfast at the Rocky Bay Café on Spring Street and locals told me that Duck Soup Inn, Downriggers, The Place, Café Vinny's, and Maloula's are all good.
Where to stay
There are several interesting places to stay in Friday Harbor. I stayed close to the airport in the Best Western Friday Harbor Suites. The hotel offers one- and two-bedroom suites with small kitchens, although there is also a complementary breakfast. Nothing is too far away in Friday Harbor, so the airport was a less-than-10-minute walk one way and the port was also less than 10 minutes the other way. The Friday Harbor Inn and Spa looked nice as did the Friday Harbor Inn. I noticed a number of bed and breakfast houses too, such as The Kirk House and Inn to the Woods.
Friday Harbor Airport (FHR) has a 3,400-foot runway and is not towered (the "tower" you'll see is the airport manager's office, converted from an old control tower). Summer can be extremely busy and private aircraft will compete with the air charter companies Kenmore Air, San Juan Airlines, and Island Air. There is a seaplane base at Friday Harbor (W33) and also at Roche Harbor (W39). Noise abatement procedures are found throughout the field; when departing, head straight out and do not turn until you reach 1,100 feet agl.