Fidalgo Island: Why You Should Explore the “First of the San Juans”

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The four islands of San Juan reachable by ferry have their own personality

For the first few months, the lush San Juan Islands attract thousands of tourists. Visitors pack the ferry terminal on Fidalgo Island, eager to get to one of the other islands that dot the northwest Salish Sea. Ridership typically increases by around 50% during the summer months, and rates follow; a car and driver will pay between $50 and $70 for a round trip this summer.

The giant green and white ferries stop at four of the largest islands in the San Juan Archipelago: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan. Each island has its particular charms.

Shaw is extremely private, with few visitor services except for a small grocery store, campground, and park. The cloistered nuns who live there have found a perfect refuge.

Outgoing Lopez is known as “Friendly Isle”. Drivers smile and greet a friend or stranger. It is the flattest of the islands, ideal for cycling, with pastoral fields dotted with sheep, charming old farmhouses, local restaurants and hidden guesthouses that characterize these bucolic islands.

San Juan Island attracts lovers of the Northwest’s iconic killer whales, aka killer whales. The island has a large fleet of whale-watching boats, a well-organized whale museum, and a shore-based orca-watching park. The island’s bustling downtown Friday Harbor features art galleries, shops, restaurants and pubs serving local brews, though several buildings were destroyed in a recent fire.

Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands, has a deep artistic groove expressed in lovingly tended gardens, fine pottery and painting galleries, farm-to-table restaurants, concerts and film festivals, as well as parades and extremely creative events. Well-maintained trails meander around lakes and mountains for breathtaking views.

These serene islands offer endless beauty and respite. But in peak season — from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekend — travelers can spend long hours waiting in line for their cars at the Fidalgo Island ferry terminal. (Passersby pay less and stress less.) What many don’t realize is that they’re already in a Northwest paradise. It’s all around them, right there on the island sometimes called the “first of the San Juans.”

Location: The San Juan Islands can be accessed from the Anacortes Ferry Terminal at 5316 Ferry Terminal Rd. on Fidalgo Island. Check for updates at bit.ly/washington-ferries.

Fidalgo Island has its own scenic charms and the port town of Anacortes

The first stop on a tour of Fidalgo Island is Anacortes. The port city of around 18,000 people has retained its salty and active waterfront character, even as it has expanded in recent decades. Look down Main Street, past the upscale restaurants and shops, and you might see a massive 200ft fishing trawler towering over a shipyard wharf.

Boats are everywhere and there are plenty of docks at local marinas. If you like to stroll along the docks, you’ll find Alaskan gillnets, luxury cruisers, racing sailboats and classic wooden rowboats. Adventurers can rent kayaks, solo or duo, or sign up for guided nature tours. And you don’t have to go to San Juan to watch the whales: boats depart regularly from Anacortes from spring through summer.

The Old Town – a historic section of Anacortes with turn-of-the-century brick charm – invites a slow stroll. Top-rated restaurants such as Adrift and A’Town Bistro serve beautifully prepared dishes fresh from the sea and nearby farmlands. The streets of Old Town are lined with art galleries, antique shops, bookstores, a restored 1890s hotel with spa, and specialty shops selling designer clothes, deli, and vinyl records .

Visitors are often stunned by the number of scenic nature trails that criss-cross Fidalgo, covering miles of shoreline and forest. Trails lead to beaver ponds and reflection lakes, driftwood beaches and ancient forests. They zigzag up the hills, reaching rocky balds with breathtaking 360 degree views.

One of Fidalgo’s crown jewels is 220 acres Washington Park, which overlooks the San Juan Archipelago. Located on the western end of Fidalgo, it shares much of the rest of the San Juan’s geology, flora, fauna, and wilderness vibe. Grabbing a west-facing park bench, savvy visitors can watch the crowded summer ferries weave their way to the other islands and relax. They know that, with no ferry or hustle and bustle, they have already arrived.

Location: Fidalgo Island is about 80 miles north of Seattle and is connected by bridge to Skagit County and Whidbey Island.

Lyke is a writer based in the Pacific Northwest. His website is marylynnlyke.com.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice web page.

About Carl Schroeder

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