Winter months are called the quiet season in the San Juan Islands. It’s that time of year when things slow down, and the locals enjoy their home free of the tourists that swarm the island in the summer. This bucolic island stuns with gorgeous scenery which includes views of the San Juan Islands, Mt. Baker, lakes, forests, and Mt. Constitution the highest elevation in the San Juan Island chain. Benefits abound when you visit Orcas Island in the winter. Fewer people visiting makes it less crowded to visit the sites and dine in local restaurants and lodging rates are less.
I was hosted by Visit San Juan Islands, but all opinions are my own.
1. Ferry Reservations
In the winter months, it is easy to make a WSDOT Ferry Reservation a week or two out from your travel date. Reservations for the ferry are released 2 months, 2 weeks, and 2 days from the date of travel, and this is 90 percent of the ferry’s capacity. Only 10 percent is reserved for day-of travel. During the summer months, you must start to make reservations 2 months out the minute the reservations are released. You can risk a drive-up, but I recommend making reservations. Paying for the ferry does not give you a reservation, so make sure you are in the right window online to make a reservation. You can prepay online or when you get to the ferry terminal.
2. Orcas Island Pottery
Have you ever wanted to visit a magical fairyland? Well, Orcas Island Pottery fits the bill. From the parking lot, follow the footpath which brings you into the garden where quaint cabins filled with pottery beckon. Bubbling fountains, an eclectic garden, and peekaboo water views are all part of this whimsical place. It is much less crowded in the winter. The combination of indoor and outdoor spaces is nice during the rainy months. You can step inside one of the buildings to view the property when deluges occur.
3. Moran State Park
Moran State Park is a very popular state park, and the summer crowds can be daunting when you are trying to take a nature break. In the winter months, it is easy to find parking at the trailheads and the more popular areas. Take the drive up to Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. On the way, stop at the Cascade Falls parking area. Discover four different waterfalls in less than a mile on an easy trail as well as large old-growth trees. During rainy winter days, the tree canopy keeps quite a bit of rain off hikers.
Next, continue to the parking lot atop Mt. Constitution to visit the Observation Tower. On a sunny day, you can see Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, the San Juan Islands, and Canada. This is arguably one of the best views in Washington, and I am stunned at the views each time I visit. The crowds dwindle in the winter, so I was able to visit the tower with just one other person. It was nice to be able to linger and take it all in without jostling crowds trying to take photos.
Pro Tip: Yes, we do have sunny days in Washington in the winter. Check the weather and adjust your plans based on if the sun is out. On my recent trip to Orcas Island, we arrived on a gorgeous sunny day, so we rearranged our itinerary so we could visit this park.
This darling historic village looks like it was plucked straight out of a Hallmark movie. Overlooking Fishing Bay, it is a beautifully scenic, walkable town. Centered in the middle of Orcas Island, visitors will enjoy the art galleries, shops, restaurants, and historic sites. Because it is the largest town on the island, visitors gravitate here. In summer months, it is impossible to find parking, and shops and restaurants are packed. On my recent visit in January, the slowest winter month for visitors, I had no problems eating at the restaurants I wanted to visit or finding a place to park.
Stop by the Orcas Island Historical Museum to learn about the history of the area. The Emmanuel Episcopal Church overlooks the bay and has an intriguing labyrinth with waterfront views. I always take time to make a purchase at an independent bookstore when traveling. Darvill’s Bookstore has a wonderful selection and I found some cute note cards to take home with me.
Eastsound has the most restaurants on the island. I ate at the Madrona Bar and Grill which is located directly over the water. Almost every table in the restaurant has a waterfront view. The interior is rustic and the restaurant unpretentious. The food is fabulous. Even the basic salad is elevated to a level of deliciousness with fresh produce. The fried fish was crisp but not greasy, and the linguine and clams is a standout dish. Local Manila clams are served in a white wine butter garlic sauce with a toasted baguette perfect for dipping into the sauce. It was so nice to enjoy a meal of this caliber in a relaxed, casual atmosphere.
Pro Tip: Get to Brown Bear Baking early as it is insanely popular and often sells out of its popular items pretty quickly. I think it is one of the best bakeries in the state and based on its popularity, I am not the only one.
5. Orcas Island Market
I am not sure I’ve ever included a grocery store in a travel article, but the Island Market is special. It is a family-owned business established on Orcas Island in 1897. Visitors will find a full-service grocery store with many products geared to convenience for visitors. The full-service deli offers a variety of sandwiches and other prepared meals for takeout. There is a hot bar and a salad bar.
This grocery also has Woody’s Taphouse, where you can hang out with a glass of beer, wine, or cider. Teezer’s Coffeehouse & Cookies is famed for its cookies and is an island favorite. They also carry a wide selection of local San Juan Island products for one-stop shopping. Well worth a stop especially with fewer people shopping. Visitors are less likely to encounter shortages.
6. The Rosario Resort
One of my favorite things to do on the island is to visit the Rosario Resort and Spa and the historic Moran Mansion. Unlike many exclusive resorts, the Rosario welcomes visitors to come in to tour the museum on the second floor of the Moran Mansion. You’ll find original furnishings and original photographs. Each Saturday during the winter and every day during the summer, the incredible Christopher Peacock holds a piano and organ concert while highlighting the history of the property. The highlight is the showing of a silent film, The Phantom of the Opera, while Peacock performs the original score on the historic Aeolian pipe organ — such a one-of-a-kind experience.
The Mansion Restaurant is in what was the original veranda of the Moran Mansion. Waterfront views of Cascade Bay enhance the dining experience with a menu of fresh, locally sourced cuisine. The lounge is a perfect place to drop in and grab a cocktail or glass of wine to enjoy while watching Christopher Peacock’s concert. The resort also has a full-service spa with an indoor therapy pool.
Pro Tip: During the quiet season or the winter months the Rosario Resort and Spa offers a special book for 2 nights and get the third night for free from the end of October to the end of March, allowing visitors to enjoy island time a bit longer.
7. Orcas Island Distillery
The award-winning Orcas Island Distillery is a local treasure. Owner Charles West is handcrafting spirits that have a cult following. His apple brandy is a rare opportunity to purchase something really special. Before Prohibition, there were over 76,000 apple trees for cider on Orcas Island. Today, only remnants remain of this once vast crop. West’s brandy is made from apples picked from heirloom orchards on Orcas Island. It gives the spirit a unique flavor profile that can’t be found anywhere else.
If you wish to visit the tasting room during the winter, call to make an appointment. The benefit of a winter tasting is you will have the place to yourself. Tastings are $15 which goes towards the purchase of a bottle. I purchased the apple brandy as I like to buy things I can’t get anywhere else. His single malt whiskey and the rye whiskey are also stellar spirits.
The organic grains used in production are from the Skagit Valley. All distilling is done in small batches. West is a font of knowledge about the distilling process and the business requirements to legally produce spirits. What started as a retirement hobby has grown into a successful business.
8. Doe Bay Resort And Retreat
Wow! I arrived at the Doe Bay Resort and Retreat about an hour before dusk. This allowed me to check in and get my bearings before dark. It is extremely dark on the islands, so for your first visit, make sure you travel in daylight. This quaint resort harks back to older times of rustic beachfront resorts. I found it charming from the friendly greeting when I checked in to exploring the beautiful beachfront as the sun began to sink in the western sky. With the sun out of view to the west, the waterfront took on a peachy glow that was just lovely.
This is a place you go to disconnect, with no TVs in the cabins (though Wi-Fi is available in some communal buildings). Peaceful is the word that comes to mind when walking the grounds. Make sure to visit the main building which houses a great shop with lots of local products. It is in the National Register of Historic Buildings and was a stop for the Mosquito Fleet ferries.
The most economical time of the year to stay at Doe Bay is November thru March. Check for winter specials that sometimes offer discounts of up to 40 percent off certain stays.
Pro Tip: The resort has two accessible cabins with ramps. Call to discuss options. Some of the yurts and rustic cabins involve walks from a parking lot to your site. If you decide to book the soaking tubs, let the staff know you will need to use the accessible entrance.
9. Orcas Island Marine Interpretive Area
When it comes time to depart, Orcas Island visitors will find themselves in the ferry queue with 45-60 minutes to wait. Walk down the hill and visit the Orcas Island Marine Interpretive Area. The metal kelp forest cradling a crab is a perfect selfie spot. Look for interpretive signs overlooking the water that provide information about the ecosystem surrounding the ferry landing. The story of the Coast Salish Nations is shared on a vibrant mural. The Orcas Village has a coffee shop and is open before the first ferry. Fresh scones for breakfast and a nice selection of premade sandwiches are perfect for a grab-and-go meal on the ferry.