by Dave Monk, The Telegraph, January 8, 2020
You might be only 40 minutes from Seattle as the seaplane descends and gently glides to a stop in the waters off San Juan Island, but you’re a world away from the Space Needle and Pike Place.
This archipelago is sparsely populated, green and open. Away from the port of Friday Harbor, the roads on the 20-mile main island blur into the horizon with no traffic lights anywhere and barely another driver to be seen. The pace of life is slow, there’s a friendly community spirit and the shoreline remains unspoilt.
Yet here, 60 miles from the US northwest coast, was a border dispute which saw the armies of Britain and America nearly come to war – over a dead pig.
Nowadays, the islands are great whale-watching spots, especially on Orcas Island, even though it isn’t named after the local pods.
Some cruise lines, such as American Cruise Lines and UnCruise, call at San Juan Island. But with their stunning scenery, charming seaside villages and whale watching, the islands are also a worthwhile extension to a Seattle cruise.
Flying to the area, either before or after a cruise from Seattle, gives the bonus of a bird’s eye view of the 400 islands – some of them just the size of a picnic table – shimmering in the Pacific.
Don’t make the mistake one visitor did, though, and turn up expecting salsa classes. This island group is not to be confused with San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.
What to see and do
The American and English camps (and that pig)
Thirteen miles apart, these opposing military bases lived peacefully on the same island for 12 years – so peacefully that the two sides held combined track and field races and the English had time to establish formal gardens, which you can still visit today. The redcoats even used to attend Independence Day celebrations while the Americans turned up to toast Queen Victoria’s birthday.
And not a shot was fired – apart from the one aimed at the pig. That boar escaped in 1859 from a farm set up by the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company and strayed into the potato patch of an American settler, who shooed it off a couple of times before killing it. He apologised to the owner but they fell out over how much the pig was worth – this escalated because both the Americans and the British claimed ownership of the islands and the right to enforce the laws.
When the US military sent in 60 troops, the English retaliated with a warship full of men. The Americans backed up with 450 more troops, the British sent two more warships. It became so serious that the US president sent the head of the army to meet the British and they decided on a joint occupation. Eventually, an independent arbitrator, Kaiser Wilhelm I, held a ‘trial’ in Switzerland, which came down in favour of the Americans. The British were gone within two weeks. Now, both camps stand as a tribute to the victory of peaceful negotiation over violent conflict.
Lime Kiln Point State Park
Known as Whale Watch Park, this lies between the two camps. Keep your eyes out for orcas as you follow the shoreside path to the picturesque 1919 lighthouse, a base for whale-watching enthusiasts known here as orca-holics.
Roche Harbor and sculpture park
This stunning waterfront, with its 1886 Hotel de Haro, is a magnet for weddings. Nearby is a sculpture park with bizarre and intriguing contraptions that move and spin in the wind.
The biggest town of the San Juan Islands, with just over 2,000 citizens, is home to a whale museum and boat trips to see orcas, humpbacks and seals. The clifftop restaurant at Friday Harbor House is a mecca for foodies.
Oddly enough, not named after the passing whales but a very shortened version of the name of a sponsor of one of the Spanish explorers who first named the archipelago. A ferry ride or short plane hop from Friday Harbor, Orcas Island is centred on the historic village of Eastsound with its charming collection of galleries, parks, boutiques, restaurants and cafes.
There are delicious fresh treats at the Brown Bear Bakery and beer from the Island Hoppin’ Brewery. A historical museum recreates life for pioneer families up to 150 years ago and a weekly farmers’ market offers fresh produce. For awe-inspiring views, drive (or walk or cycle if you’re hardy) up the 2,409ft-high Mount Constitution, part of Moran State Park, stopping off to view the Cascade Falls on the way. Stay at the Rosario Resort & Spa and you can hear recitals on the historic pipe organ. Just off the coast is the 10-square-mile Shaw Island with a 1924 general store at the ferry landing.
Just 29 square miles big, this island with a population of 2,350 offers great cycling and hiking trails. It, too, is served by Washington State Ferries.
How to get there
A three-night trip to Orcas Island and Friday Harbour from Bellingham, Washington, costs from £415pp, including flights, ferry and hotel stays (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com).