As we hike the 3-mile round-trip Turtleback Mountain trail in a preserve on southwest Orcas Island, Douglas fir and madrone give way to the rocky 930-foot summit of Ship Peak and expansive views over the San Juan Islands. My wife, Lisa, and I take in the panorama of Orcas’ West Sound and Salt Spring, Lopez and San Juan islands, with the Salish Sea shimmering in the distance. We’re not the only ones who appreciate the view: Oprah Winfrey purchased a home on Orcas earlier this year, putting the spotlight on this jewel-like island.
Despite the spectacular view, we see few others on the trail, allowing us to have the beauty of the San Juans to ourselves. We are visiting in the off-season, a period that stretches from November through March, when the island archipelago northwest of Seattle—famous for its summer attractions—reveals a calmer, more serene side.
During this quiet time, roads are uncrowded, you can get a spot on a ferry without a reservation or long wait, hotel rooms are easy to come by (and prices lower), and the beauty and mystery of the islands come to the fore. Like the landscape in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Earthsea Trilogy, which was based on the San Juans, the off-season allows the true magic of the island to shine through.
AROUND TOWN: Pick up some wine at the Doe Bay Wine Company or island-made preserves at Girl Meets Dirt. Photo courtesy of Girl Meets Dirt
On this weekend excursion to Orcas, we plan to walk, eat, drink, as well as relax and unwind in the beautiful surroundings. After hiking up Turtleback Mountain, we stop in Eastsound, the island’s main town, with its collection of shops and restaurants, for a tasty Reuben sandwich made with house-baked bread at Brown Bear Baking. Then we browse through the many appealing shops: Doe Bay Wine Company, with a well-chosen stock of American and European wines and a refreshing house-made rosé; Darvill’s Bookstore, a cozy spot with a lively mix of local and national titles and an outstanding coffee bar; and Girl Meets Dirt, selling delicious preserves from century-old island orchards, including a pleasingly tart quince jam.
Later that evening, we enjoy a spectacular meal at Rosario Resort’s Mansion Restaurant, including a succulent scallop ceviche, one of a number of delicious local offerings drawing on the island’s bounty of organic farms and seafood.
In the morning, back in Eastsound, we recharge at Roses Bakery Cafe with strong coffee, a baguette and baked eggs with Gruyère. We traverse Moran State Park by car, passing empty campgrounds and marveling at Cascade Lake, which looks like a sheet of glass, reflecting the trees and mountains.
The snug cabins at Doe Bay Resort. Photo courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
After a long day of exploring, we return to our rustic cabin at Doe Bay Resort, a secluded getaway on the east end of the island, where we dine at the excellent Doe Bay Cafe (try the local lamb chops or halibut) and enjoy a soak in one of the clothing-optional hot tubs, a wonderful way to end the day and savor the beauty of Orcas Island in the quiet season.
Visiting Orcas Island in December? Enjoy a small-town tree-lighting celebration in Eastsound on December 7. The Artisan’s Faire, December 1–2, provides an ideal venue for buying gifts. Some businesses have limited hours in the off-season; check first before visiting.
Brown Bear Baking, Eastsound, 29 N Beach Road, No. 1966; 360.855.7456
Darvill’s Bookstore, Eastsound, 296 Main St.; 360.376.2135
Doe Bay Resort & Retreat and Doe Bay Cafe, Olga, 107 Doe Bay Road; 360.376.2291; cabins from $70.
Doe Bay Wine Company, Eastsound, 109 N Beach Road, D1; 360.376.7467
Girl Meets Dirt, Eastsound, 208 Enchanted Forest Road; 360.375.6269
Rosario Resort’s Mansion Restaurant, Eastsound, 1400 Rosario Road; 360.376.2222
Roses Bakery Cafe, Eastsound, 382 Prune Alley; 360.376.4292
Turtleback Mountain Trail: For details, go to wta.org