Worcester, Mass.
April 23, 2000

Bicycling in the San Juan Islands

 Going an upscale route at a downscale price 
If you go... 
(trip planning 
Click for larger photos.
By Lynne Tolman

  It seemed like they were following us. My buddy and I would wheel our bicycles into line for the interisland ferry, and a dozen more cyclists would queue up behind us, their support van idling nearby. Getting off the boat, we'd click into our pedals and spin up the road, and before long the van would pass us.
  We'd smile and give a thumbs-up to the driver, wondering if he recognized that we were not part of his group. Checking into an inn in the late afternoon, we'd see the other riders' bikes parked in a neat row.
  Throughout our weeklong travels in the San Juan Islands, in Puget Sound between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, we were tailed by, or tailing, the high-priced bike tours whose itineraries we had cribbed from glossy vacation catalogs.
  Sure, those riders didn't have to carry all their gear on their bikes. For that matter, they didn't have to know what island they were on, where they were going, or where they wanted to eat dinner. They didn't even have to pedal up the hills, if they felt like riding in the van. They were being herded and pampered, and paying about $1,500 apiece for the week.
  We, on the other hand, were brave explorers, charting our own course. Not that we risked getting very lost on islands about the size of Nantucket. As for pampering, we had hot tubs and fine dining and no alarm clock besides the sun. We biked the same roads (nearly 300 miles), saw the same sights, stayed at the same type of inns, ate at the same class of restaurants, and only spent $540 each.
  We had known, of course, that a do-it-yourself bike trip would shave big bucks off the price of a commercial tour. But rarely had a self-planned trip so closely paralleled the upscale version, allowing a true cost comparison.
  We had spent a few hours on the Internet and on the phone reviewing ferry schedules and lining up bed-and-breakfast accommodations. For the what-ifs of two-wheeled travel, we could rely on the muscles, know-how and confidence we had gained on previous bike tours. For directions, we could always ask the natives, since there was no language barrier.


  Lopez Island is the smallest, flattest and least developed of the three most-visited islands in the San Juans, but by no means flat. Typical morning fog was lifting at the end of our 50-minute ferry ride from Anacortes, on the mainland, revealing the island's contours. Before long we made use of the entire range of gears on our 21-speed bikes.
  Even at the height of summer, the island didn't have a busy feel. There were few cars, and bike parking racks stood outside just about every establishment in tiny Lopez Village. At the bakery, we struck up a conversation with some cyclists from Seattle who pointed us to a couple of secluded waterfront spots that didn't look remarkable on the map but would have been a shame to miss.
  First was Shark Reef Park, where we had to leave our bikes at the entrance and follow a short foot trail through the woods to reach the rocky coast. Dozens of harbor seals basked on seaweed-coated rocks protruding from a calm inlet, while a handful of humans did the same on drier rocks on shore.
  We dropped our panniers midday at Aleck Bay Inn at the southern end of the island and continued exploring without carrying the extra weight -- a fortunate circumstance on the muddy, unpaved descent to Watmough Bay. We walked about 300 yards through a tunnel of trees and emerged at a pebbled beach bracketed by cliffs. A few children frolicked in flat water. Two young men took turns on a sailboard. A couple was absorbed in the Sunday paper.
  Back at Aleck Bay, the innkeeper was a little worried about other guests who had embarked on an ambitious paddle in the inn's kayaks, but they returned exhilarated and eager for more. The only restaurant on this end of the island was closed on Sundays, so the innkeeper drove us about eight miles back to Fisherman Bay near the village for dinner at sunset. The $20 round trip he added to our bill for this service was just about the only thing all week that made us scowl.


  The state-run ferries between islands are free for bicyclists. The crossing time to San Juan Island gave us a chance to review our maps and pick up tips on roads and points of interest on San Juan Island, the most populous one, from those other cyclists and their tour guides.
  Friday Harbor was swarming with people, on foot, on bikes, in cars. Drivers were subject to harsh shouts from city-style traffic police trying to keep vehicles moving safely on the hilly one-way loop up the main drag and back down to the ferry dock. We joined the hustle and bustle with our own agenda: Drop off panniers at San Juan Inn, book three-hour kayak tour for next day, pick up sandwiches and pastries for lunch.
  With the food in our jersey pockets and handlebar bags, we headed down the road to look for a more peaceful spot to eat. The yacht club at Roche Harbor fit the bill. Picking up fresh food in town had proved the right thing to do; the Roche Harbor concession had only junk food.
  Up the road at the English Camp was a humorous history lesson. The English Camp, and the American Camp on the other side of the island, make up San Juan Island National Historical Park, a monument to the 1859-1872 territorial conflict here between the United States and Great Britain.
  The episode is known as the Pig War. Both nations claimed the island and had citizens living on it. A crisis arose in 1859 when an American settler shot and killed a pig belonging to the British-owned Hudson's Bay Co., because it was rooting in his garden. When British authorities threatened to arrest the shooter, American citizens requested U.S. military protection. The United States sent troops, and British troops arrived in warships.
  There was no actual fighting. The island remained under joint military occupation for 12 years, and under the 1871 Treaty of Washington, the territorial question was referred to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. The emperor ruled in favor of the United States, establishing the present-day boundary between the United States and Canada through Haro Strait. Thus San Juan Island is remembered for a military confrontation in which the only casualty was a pig.
  Nowadays the San Juans are more widely known as the basis, along with strawberry-cultivating Bainbridge Island closer to Seattle, for the fictional setting of San Piedro Island in David Guterson's 1995 novel "Snow Falling on Cedars."

  Our kayak guides picked us up in Friday Harbor for a 12-mile drive across the island to Snug Harbor. Paddling out of the inlet, we were cautioned not to disturb the harbor seals on the rocks. This part of Haro Strait was flat calm, and the paddling was easy. We hugged the shore at first, competing to be the first to spot purple sea stars clinging to the rocks. River otters scampered up the tide-smoothed stones.
  We hoped to see some of the playful Orca whales that ply these waters -- they drew Warner Bros. here to film "Free Willy" -- but we were disappointed. Comparing notes later with tourists who took whale-watching cruises, however, we find that everyone saw what they were after.
  On open water, wind made the paddling more strenuous. After a couple of hours, we were ready to trade the arm work for more leg work on our bikes. We had a tailwind on the way to American Camp, and dizzying views from atop the steep cliffs of South Beach. Across the water, we couldn't quite make out the Olympic Mountains to the south and the Cascades to the east.
  The next morning, Friday Harbor was fogged in, but the ferry to Orcas Island was on time. We had saved Orcas, the hilliest island, for last, on the theory that our muscles would be in shape. Our first foray, to quiet Deer Harbor on the west side, formed my first impression, that Orcas Island was hemp and tie-dye and Ben & Jerry's, while San Juan Island was white wine and linen and cappuccino. But I revised my opinion when we reached the boutiques and gift shops of the main village, Eastsound, and later the expensive artwork, jewelry, and other hand-crafted items for sale at the Olga Café. The blackberry pie at the café was recommended but $6 a slice seemed steep, and the wait for a table was too long.
  Rosario, a resort in the former mansion of Seattle shipbuilder Robert Moran, provided an elegant dinner, followed by a free organ concert and slide lecture upstairs on local history. The second floor is a museum preserving the past of the Moran family and Rosario.
  Our last full day on the island is reserved for a special challenge, biking up 2,407-foot Mount Constitution. It's a 5.5-mile climb, with a grade of 15 percent at times. It was a workout, but it was shady and cool, with the smoothest pavement on the islands, and we saw a few deer. From the top of the 100-foot tower at the summit, we got a 360-degree view, but clouds were moving across the landscape from the south and we couldn't see Mount Baker or Mount Rainier. We could see Bellingham, various islands, and Canada to the north.
  Leaving Orcas on a Friday, the midday ferry back to Friday Harbor was running an hour late despite fair weather, the only ferry delay all week. Nonetheless we got there in time to get on the Victoria Clipper, a high-speed catamaran that took us and our bikes to Seattle in three hours.
  The commercial bike tours added a night and half-day in Victoria, B.C., before returning to Seattle, whereas we had biked the length of Whidbey Island and across Deception Pass at the beginning of the week instead. Considering the lack of hassles we encountered, and the considerable savings, we were happy with the tradeoff and glad we traveled on our own.


San Juan Islands Visitor Information Service, (888) 468-3701
San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce, (360) 378-5240
Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce
Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, (360) 376-2273
San Juan Web

Washington State Ferries, (206) 464-6400
  Detailed island maps are available aboard the ferries.

Bicycling the Backroads of Northwest Washington
  by Erin and Bill Woods (The Mountaineers, fourth edition, 1997)
Touring the Islands
  by Peter Powers and Renee Travis (Terragraphics, second edition, 1994)

Adventure Cycling Association, (800) 755-2453
  Publisher of The Cyclists' Yellow Pages and Adventure Cyclist magazine
League of American Bicyclists, (202) 822-1333
  Both the League and Adventure Cycling Assn. offer their members bikes-fly-free passes on certain airlines, as well as other resources for bike travel.
Cascade Bicycle Club, (206) 522-BIKE, can provide Seattle-area route advice.

Bicycle Adventures, (800) 443-6060
Timberline Adventures, (800) 417-2453
Backroads, (800) 462-2848
Destination Adventure Youth Bicycle Tours, (360) 317-5273

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