San Juan Island - Our Closest Island Neighbour, Yet So Far Away

Just eight kilometres off the east coast of Victoria sits San Juan Island. That is closer to downtown Victoria than Sooke or even Sidney, yet it is much harder to get to than Salt Spring Island. The easiest way to go is to take the Washington State Ferry from Sidney. It leaves once a day at noon (only April through December). The ferry is about an hour and a half and arrives at the south east end of the island at the town of Friday Harbor. From here the ferry continues on to Anacortes, which is about twenty minutes west of the I5.

Friday Harbor is the largest town on San Juan Island, or even in all of the San Juans. That said, it is still small and very walkable, though you will get a workout on the hills. For this trip though, we sped right past Friday Harbor and travelled the rest of the island first.

The Pig War

Despite the fact that by the 1850's the border between British North America and the United States had been defined. The delineation had ended at Point Roberts and from there was to follow "the strait to the Pacific Ocean. This left the San Juan Islands in limbo as there are two straits, Haro and Rosario. In 1859, an American settler killed a pig owned by a British farmer on San Juan Island and things quickly escalated to a armed stand-off. The dispute was finally settled in 1872. No shots were fired during the thirteen years, but it was the closest the US and Britain got to another war after the end of the war of 1812. 

For the first few nights we stayed in a small cabin just a couple of minutes walk from Roche Harbor. The small, yet beautiful little village of Roche Harbor is actually all part of a self contained resort at the north end of San Juan Island. Roche Harbor owes its beginnings to the Pig War of 1859, when the British set up large kilns to produce lime. After the the end of the Pig War, the harbour and lime operation was sold and for a time it was one of the largest producers of lime in North America. It is likely that much of the brick mortar in Victoria came from Roche Harbor. 

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In the 1950's the limestone quarries and kilns were closed and the land sold to the Tarte family who turned it into the beautiful resort that is there is now. The resort is still growing though it is being being done very tastefully. The harbour is full of beautiful yachts, there are a couple eateries and a general store that actually has an excellent selection of food for its size. 

Near the entrance to the resort is one of the most interesting sites on the island, The San Juan Island Sculpture Park. This place is huge, there are over twenty acres of grounds covered in sculptures both large and small. Most of the sculptures are for sale though a little out of my price range. Entrance is by donation. I would highly recommend setting aside at least an hour to wander the grounds and take in all the creativity and beauty. 

During the Pig War both the Americans and British set up encampments at opposite sides of the island. Together these two camps make up the San Juan Island National Historic Site, which is maintained by the US National Park Service. You can visit both sites for free and see most of the island while driving between them. The British camp sits on Westcott Bay near Roche Harbor and is a very picturesque setting, with large maple trees and beautifully maintained buildings. At the south end of the island, the American camp is set in a large field overlooking nearby Lopez Island. It is actually quite amazing how different the landscape is on such a relatively small island. 

If you do the drive between the camps, you can also stop at Lime Kiln Point State Park, which has a beautiful lighthouse and is known for being a good spot to see orcas. It is also a great spot to look back and wave at Victoria. From this spot it is easy to even make out buildings in our city. 

Friday Harbor

The last couple of nights we stayed in a very cool modern place in Friday Harbor, the Island Inn. As the town is built on a slope above the harbour, it feels like things are all quite compact and easy to walk to. Lots of places are connected by little passages and staircases. About the farthest you could walk in the town would be to the airport, which actually does have service to Victoria, and even that walk would only take you about twenty minutes. 

There are a quite a few restaurants in the town to choose from, though you should note that in the off season it seems that they all work to together to arrange when they will be open. This means that a restaurant might be open on Monday but closed Tuesday and Wednesday, just make sure you look ahead at menus. The best dinner we had was at the Backdoor Kitchen, which is right next to the brand new and also very good San Juan Island Brewing

For during the day, there are lots of shops to visit, most with a bit of island life flair. There is also an apparently excellent art gallery, though it was closed on the day we tried to visit. Just on the edge of town is the town museum, which is more of a historical park with a number of old buildings and farm equipment. 

In my opinion though, the best part of Friday Harbor was looking out over the bay at the boats and watching the ferries come in and leave. It is in a truly magical little spot, which despite living so close to it for the last twenty plus years, I had never visited. I would encourage you not to wait that long!