It was about 2 p.m. Pacific standard time, but I was still on East Coast time, so I ordered a beer at the bar at Friday Harbor House, an elegant but informal hotel overlooking a marina on San Juan Island. Two women beside me were having coffee, and one turned to me and asked, “Do you want to see whales?” She grabbed a big camera bag and motioned me to come with her.
Ferry tales in the Pacific Northwest
She seemed trustworthy, so I ditched my beer and followed her to her car. As we sped down an open rural road, her phone kept dinging. She was getting alerts from a local Facebook group: There had been a spotting. We pulled into a parking lot and stepped over craggy rocks toward the water.
“There he is!” shouted Sara Hysong-Shimazu, my ad hoc guide, pointing at Stanley, a Bigg’s killer whale that she identified by his dorsal fin and saddle patch (the gray-and-white pattern on his back). She’s a naturalist, photographer and captain with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching. She told me that Stanley travels with his mom and two younger sisters. “It’s a really cool family.”
More people arrived with tripods and binoculars. Orcas are as integral to the lifestyle on the San Juan Islands as vineyards are in Bordeaux, France.
San Juan Island is the second-largest and the most populated of the San Juan Islands. (A ferry deckhand compared the nomenclature to that of Hawaii: Hawaii is one of the Hawaiian Islands.) It was my third stop on a five-day journey I took this spring through the Puget Sound and beyond by public transportation, a trip compelled by my obsession with ferry travel.
Why ferries? Despite the assorted nuisances of airports, it’s hard to deny that flying is a marvelous mode of transport. Driving across the country is a luxury if you have the time. But still, whether land or sky, you’re enclosed. On the water, every sense is activated, and you can take it all in at a comparatively easy pace.
Washington state’s ferry system, the world’s second-largest, is part of the Washington State Department of Transportation. It dates to 1951, when the state took over operations from the Puget Sound Navigation Co., one of the surviving companies from the early days of Puget Sound’s privately owned mosquito fleet. Its 21 auto-carrying vessels convey about 23.4 million customers, including commuters, tourists and day-trippers, to and from 20 terminals on 10 routes. And a few days of traveling a handful of those routes left me with the impression that I’d journeyed far beyond a single U.S. state.
The islands draw academics who come to Friday Harbor Laboratories, the University of Washington’s marine biology field station, to study. They lure committed enthusiasts and whale-curious tourists like myself who happen to be in the right place at the right moment. They draw the more terrestrially inclined, too, such as Shaun Salamida and his wife, Amy, who moved to San Juan Island and started Madrone Cellars & Cider. It’s in a historic farmhouse, and when I visited the next day, Shaun offered me samples of the exquisite lineup: dry-hopped apple cider, tart marionberry apple cider and tangy, dry perry made with local Asian pears.
My trip started in Seattle at the State Hotel, a 1904 building and former gambling hall where the art is local and the bathrobes are long versions of gray hooded sweatshirts. (Very grunge-chic.) At the un-rock-and-roll hour of 7 a.m., I headed to the ferry terminal, a quick walk past vendors at the Pike Place Market, such as the little coffee store that gave rise to Starbucks.
Fellow passengers were mostly day-trippers: a family from Germany with a giggling toddler and disaffected preteen, a trio of college students road-tripping up the West Coast, many retirees. The ferry rumbled about nine miles across the glassy Puget Sound, and approximately 35 minutes later, with the Seattle skyline rendered in miniature behind us, we were deposited at the terminal in the Winslow area of Bainbridge Island. The adorable mid-island space could easily be mistaken for a hamlet in Upstate New York or Western Massachusetts, what with its indie bookstore and Mora Iced Creamery, the shop known for its namesake flavor made with island blackberries. It’s so popular that it gave rise to a chain with locations in three states.
The island measures about 65 square miles, almost three Manhattans. It’s legally referred to as the City of Bainbridge Island, and there are 23 ferry crossings to Seattle each weekday and 22 on weekend days. Pickleball originated here in the 1960s. The city has a posh suburban bedroom community vibe. The urban-expat contingent is strong.
Brendan McGill is one of those expats. He runs two restaurants in Seattle, three in Winslow, all along a single block, and owns a four-acre farm. Lunch at his Café Hitchcock included pastrami on rye, made with his house-dried beef. On this Tuesday afternoon, Brendan had stopped by to drop off the last of the sunchokes and to collect scraps from the kitchen to feed his piglets, who will themselves end up in the kitchen. Ultimately.
“It’s a unique vantage point to be tethered to a top-tier American city, but also drive 10 minutes and get your beautiful organic greens straight from the farmer,” he said of life on Bainbridge. His wife’s grandfather homesteaded here, he told me.
Some of the urban expats are returnees, such as chef Tadao Mitsui, who opened Heyday Farm House on the six-acre Heyday Farm, a property he and his wife bought in May. His meals exploit the bounty of the place with fresh greens, local seafood and drinks from island producers. He was drawn back to the island after cooking for a few years in Seattle. His roots to the region are deeply fastened. When his father, James, was 7 and living in Washington, Tad told me, he was sent to an internment camp. He became a noted poet known for writing about the event.
That history came into sharp relief the next morning at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, a National Park Service site. The serene pathway, built on an old ferry landing site, curves along cedar panels framed by lush fauna. They’re inscribed with the names of 276 Bainbridge residents of Japanese descent who were rounded up by the U.S. Army, forced onto a ferry to Seattle and taken to concentration camps during World War II. They were one of the first groups of Japanese Americans to be removed, and Bainbridge was one of the few communities to welcome them back after the war.
Back in Winslow, before boarding the ferry, I stopped for lunch at Agate, a farm-to-table eatery with a muted glamour that feels inspired by Venice Beach. Getting to the next stop, Whidbey Island, required crossing back to Seattle and driving about 25 miles north to the terminal in Mukilteo, a small city on the mainland. There are 40 departures a day to Clinton, the Whidbey terminal. It takes about 20 minutes to cross Puget Sound, and the scenery passes like the greatest hits of the Pacific Northwest: receding views of the small coastal town, sailboats and speedboats dotting the water, far-off mountains, a lone bald eagle soaring past. Approaching Whidbey, the skyscraper-high trees dwarf the luxe waterside vacation homes.
Whidbey’s natural majesty has stirred many. It was the inspiration for David Guterson’s best-selling novel “Snow Falling on Cedars.” Parts of the film were shot here. The roster of celebrity sightings is growing: Grammy winner Macklemore shot a video here, and actor Eddie Redmayne has made appearances. Conan O’Brien showed up in June when a play by his wife, Liza Powel O’Brien, premiered at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. Conan was honored by locals who dedicated a garbage can in his name when he visited. Tom Cruise was spotted when he was filming “Top Gun: Maverick” at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, an active military base.
That night, I parked myself at the bar at the Captain Whidbey Inn, a whimsical, nautical-style inn built on the water in 1907 and recently given a facelift. The main building is all log walls and nautical decor. There’s lots of seating around the original fireplace in the lobby and guests who are happy to chat. I met a local and her companion who now live in Ecuador, as well as a Boeing engineer and his wife, on vacation from the mainland.
Like all of the islands I saw, the landscape has a magnetic pull on people. Whoever loves Whidbey really, really loves it. Scott Price loves it so much that shortly after moving here from Seattle seven years ago, the former tech worker was moved to buy a 16-acre plot of land when he heard it might be developed. He decided to make it a public space and invited artists to create work, leading to the opening of Price Sculpture Forest in 2020. Some pieces, such as a realistic metal eagle about to attack, blend into the landscape and make up a path called Nature Nurtured. More fanciful ones, such as the life-size Tyrannosaurus rex made of driftwood, make up a path he named Whimsy Way.
That, however, could easily be a sobriquet for Deception Pass Bridge. Completed in 1935, it stretches across the water that cuts through Deception Pass State Park, Washington’s most-visited. It connects the Whidbey to Fidalgo islands at a heart-stopping 180-foot height.
I was en route to the ferry terminal in Anacortes, on Fidalgo’s northern end, to make my way back to Seattle. But first, I paused to take in the spine-tingling views from the bridge, knowing that the panoramas on offer on the ferry deck might be even more spectacular.
Where to stay
Captain Whidbey Inn
2072 Captain Whidbey Inn Rd., Coupeville, Whidbey Island
Located on the Penn Cove waterfront, this recently restored frontier-era-style retreat has been a girls’ school and a general store, among other things. Bucolic yet posh, the inn offers three accommodation options: rustic rooms in the main lodge building; Scandinavian-inspired Lagoon rooms in a newer building; and spacious private cabins. The tavern features seasonal, local fare, including mussels and oysters from the cove. Rooms from $179 per night; cabins from $495.
Friday Harbor House
130 West St., Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
Located on a bluff across from the harbor, this stunning hotel is a few minutes’ walk from the center of town and the ferry terminal. The 24 guest rooms blend minimalist Scandinavian design with Pacific Northwest coziness. Sustainable, local seafood and locally grown produce dominate the menu at the restaurant. The bar has craft cocktails, and many guests lounge with them on the Adirondack chairs overlooking the water. Rooms from $400 per night.
Where to eat
500 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island
Contemporary American fare with global leanings (ratatouille, Japanese noodles) define the menu at this light-flooded, modern restaurant that features local ingredients. Highlights include starters such as homemade bread and crudo, and entrees such as the elk burger and Alaskan halibut. Entrees from $24. Open Tuesday to Thursday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday and Sunday.
Heyday Farm House
4370 Old Mill Rd. NE, Bainbridge
Located on a six-acre farm, this family-owned-and-operated restaurant is a study in field-to-table dining. Starters are salads and soups made with the farm’s bounty. Changing main dishes are arranged by category: land (pork, etc.), sea (salmon, etc.), air (chicken, etc.) and grain (garden veggies with farro and lentils, etc.). The wine list includes collaborations with Kerloo Cellars in Woodinville, Wash. Check website for special events. Open Thursday and Friday, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. Mains from $26.
129 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge
Chef Brendan McGill’s empire’s casual eatery is a cafe by day and restaurant by night. The menu, which changes often, highlights produce grown and livestock raised on his four-acre farm. The cafe shares a building with Seabird, McGill’s new high-end project featuring elegant island-inspired dishes. Open Monday and Tuesday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mains from $14.
What to do
Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial
Pritchard Park, 4192 Eagle Harbor Dr., Bainbridge
This outdoor memorial at Pritchard Park commemorates the people of Japanese descent who were sent off Bainbridge Island to internment camps in 1942. Designed by local Native American architect Johnpaul Jones, this National Park Service Historic Site features an expansive wall with the names of the residents who became detainees. Memorial open daily, year-round. Guided tours offered Tuesday to Thursday at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. by reservation only. Free.
Island County Historical Museum
908 NW Alexander St., Coupeville, Whidbey
The museum, whose collection includes remnants from the last Ice Age, Native American boats and tools, and artifacts depicting pioneer-era family life, chronicles the island’s rich history. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Donations suggested.
Price Sculpture Forest
678 Parker Rd., Coupeville, Whidbey
This sculpture park has two trails: one featuring pieces made largely with natural materials that blend in with the landscape, and another designed with more whimsical and child-friendly works. Open daily, 8 a.m. to sunset or 7 p.m. (whichever is earlier). Free.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.