Secret Season Getaway to San Juan Island

We had a tumultuous Summer, my husband and I--involving teenaged kids, aging grandparents, a health scare, several moves. Events which challenged the way we think of ourselves, our way to handle crisis, to evaluate what’s worth doing in life and how to appreciate what we have.

On a Friday morning in September, we snuck away to San Juan Island, at the spur of the moment, without a concrete plan or reservations. At another time in my life, such a trip would have made me anxious, not knowing which ferry we’d get on, what hotel we’d stay at, but today, after this Summer, I have a “whatever happens, happens and will be just fine” attitude.

We rolled up to the Anacortes ferry terminal and were the first car in the stand-by line, for the next ferry to Friday Harbor, four hours later. The ferry workers couldn’t guarantee us one of the 30 allocated stand-by spots. Ferries could break, emergencies could happen. We were okay with that.

BR Blog - Secret Season Getaway SJI

We made ourselves comfortable in the car, water, snacks, windows cracked. Don caught up on work and I studied my music, when a woman approached our car. All seven ferry lanes were full. Shiny new sedans, campers, trucks, and decade old beaters held together with duct tape. The woman approaching our car, a muddy Forester, asked if we happen to be going to Friday Harbor and if, by any chance, we were familiar with the Wolf Hollow Rehabilitation Center on the island. We are! They are the people you call when you find an injured or orphaned wild animal. The woman carried a taped box, handed it to me and asked if we would be willing to bring this injured Pygmy Owl in a box to Friday Harbor for rehab. Somebody from Wolf Hollow would meet us by the ice cream shop right when we get off the ferry.  

This hooked me! I was totally excited. The magic of San Juan Island began to wrap around me like a warm blanket. I would be going to my favorite island and I had an owl on my lap!  I began joking to my husband about the universe trying to tell us that it trusts us with fragile beings, then commenced saying soothing things to my new friend in the box, whose tiny weight I could feel shifting ever so slightly.

We made it on to that ferry and handed over our owl on the other side at the ice cream shop. We learned that while we couldn’t visit wildlife in rehabilitation, we could certainly call and check in on our (yes “ours” now) owl. We parked the car and thought about our next move.

Food, of course.

How I love travelling.  My busy mind, usually contemplating anything but the things in front of me, was content and finally calm with the immediate tasks at hand: food, a place to sleep, a place to see the sunset, bathroom, more food.

BR Blog - Secret Season Getaway SJI (empty plate)

We found ourselves in the Cask & Schooner Public House across the street from the ice cream shop. It feels like being inside a sail boat, with lots of cool nooks and crannies on different levels and boat paraphernalia hanging off the ceilings and brick walls. The place was uncrowded between lunch and dinner, the service friendly. Don ordered the goat sandwich from Lum Farms, with crispy leeks and jalapeno aioli.  I was admittedly suspicious. I had goat once before in Mexico and it tasted like gamey shoe.  I ordered the Mediterranean Mussels from the local shellfish farm with Spanish Chorizo in white wine. My mussels were delicious, plump and juicy. I asked for more homemade focaccia bread to soak up the savory broth and, after seeing Don’s goat diminishing rapidly before my eyes, I gave it a try. I was blown away. Tender, reminding me of lamb, but leaner and not gamey at all. Very cool. I love to try and like new things.

We walked back to the car and wondered out loud where we might want to stay the night, when we noticed, we were parked right in front of the Bird Rock Hotel. We walked in through the cute court yard, the elegant lobby smelling like freshly baked cookies. The super friendly young woman behind the counter asked us to help ourselves to the cookies--still warm and gooey on the inside—and told us which rooms were available and sent us to check them out. The doors to all unoccupied rooms were open, so we peeked inside most of them, of course. We loved exploring the historic building with its steep stairs and common balconies on every floor. The Bird Rock is one of the oldest hotels on the island, built in 1892. It’s completely renovated inside, contemporary and sleek looking. We decide on the Sucia room on the third floor with a queen bed, harbor view and a shared bathroom. This “whatever happens, happens” thing was really working out for us. No reservation and we got a harbor view room on San Juan Island! That is why they call September through April--the Secret Season--here. It’s gorgeous, affordable and not crowded.


Next up on our formidable to-do list was finding a place to watch the sunset. The ever-friendly front desk woman recommended South Beach, San Juan Island’s longest beach in American Camp National Historical Park.

It was Friday night and yet we were by ourselves. Completely and delightfully alone. The air was still, the sea calm. We took a walk on the pebbly beach, admiring other people’s driftwood structures and skipped perfectly round, smooth stones. A Bald Eagle couple was hunting nearby and we watched for a bit, while the sun set gloriously behind the Olympic Mountains.

We started our Saturday by listening to fog horns and watching sailboats bob in the harbor below us. Don brought me breakfast in bed from the lovely breakfast buffet in the lobby. Still-warm scones, fresh fruit, yogurt and hard-boiled eggs.

Tiny House

We got in our car and started driving, again without a plan. We knew we couldn’t get lost. We were on an island after all.  The heart of San Juan Island consists mostly of lush farm valleys, dotted with cows and sheep. We listened to “Mad Season” and felt free.

After meandering through the totally deserted Whale Watch Park, we drove along a wooded stretch along the coast. Suddenly there were a bunch of colorful, tiny houses, shaped like fruit.  What in the world??  We stopped and explored.  It looked like a local was building those whimsical gems out of boat and airplane parts. They were obviously lovingly decorated, furnished and outfitted, with woodstoves no less! The woodstove in the Strawberry was even lit. We went inside and looked through books and toys. I’m a huge fan of random art, not for recognition or money, just to make somebody smile. I approved!

Secret Season Duck Soup

We kept driving and found ourselves in Roche Harbor on the north end of the island. We parked by the airport and sawan ominous sign to a mausoleum. We had to check it out!  We followed the tiny signs into the woods. There were ancient Japanese graves in the shade of beautiful Madronas and Douglas Firs. After a short walk, there it was: Afterglow Vista, the McMillen Family’s Mausoleum--a bold structure, laden with symbolism, reminiscent of a classical ruin in Greece more than a family grave on an island in the Pacific Northwest. We noticed again how still the air gets on this island. No man-made sounds. We breathed.  Deeply.


On our drive back to Friday Harbor, we stumbled upon a tiny, rustic Farm-to-Table Restaurant in the woods: the Duck Soup. We treated ourselves to locally-foraged, handcrafted Blackberry-Salal Caipirinhas, a “Crab-Prese” Salad with fresh local tomatoes and fresh crab meat and local oysters on the half-shell. The presentation was so artful, that I actually paused for a second, marveling, smelling, and silently giving thanks before letting every bite melt in my mouth. What a treat. Before returning to our hotel, we sat in the wooden chairs overlooking Duck Soup’s pond and its magnificent Weeping Willow where a family of deer munched on the luscious grass while the light faded away.

On Sunday during yummy breakfast in the Bird Rock Lobby, the new, but still friendly front desk person suggested we put our car in the ferry lanes right away, since we didn’t have a reservation. We did that and then went window shopping and gallery browsing in walkable Friday Harbor, my favorite. There are seven galleries within walking distance of the ferry. We especially liked the Arctic Raven, a gallery dedicated to Arctic and Northwest Native Art. Besides impressive wood sculptures and masks, they offer a large array of Native souvenirs, like earrings, purses, all with a promise to pay royalties to tribes for using their design. Don bought me a pair of gorgeous earrings, which will forever remind me of our trip to San Juan Island in the secret season.

Bird Rock Hotel Washington