Maybe they should be renamed the San Wine Islands. Stretching between northwestern Washington and Victoria, B.C., the archipelago encompasses 700 isles. For years, the San Juan Islands attracted nature lovers with secluded coves perfect for kayaking and sightings of orca whales and bald eagles. Recently, the islands have become prime ports of call for wine and food lovers as passionate chefs forage for island ingredients, while pioneering wineries and cideries craft adventurous libations.
For casual accommodations on Lopez Island, check into Lopez Islander Resort; kids love the glass-enclosed swimming pool. On Lummi Island, sous-chefs scour the hills and shore for wild herbs and sea beans to create terrific dining experiences at Willows Inn, which offers 17 rooms and suites. At Friday Harbor House on San Juan Island, 23 hotel rooms feature varying views of mountains and sea. Accommodations at Rosario Resort on Orcas Island boast a stunning bayside location.
Travel between islands is easy using Washington Ferries, but consult a current schedule for timetables, routes and fares. Once on San Juan Island, get into island mode by ditching your car and renting a moped or “scootcoupe” from Susie’s Mopeds. Bike rentals are available on all the islands. While on San Juan, head to the seven-acre San Juan Vineyards to taste award-winning Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. “I shoot for balance and food-friendly wines,” says Winemaker Chris Primus. Stop at Westcott Bay Cider, known for its three apple ciders, apple brandy and Spy Hop Gin (accented by island blackberries, wild roses, lavender and madrone bark).
Wine & Food:
An unlikely epicurean epicenter, tiny Lummi Island has spotty cell phone service and only 900 residents. Twenty-five-year-old wunderkind Chef Blaine Wetzel wows at Willows Inn, exploring the boundary between sea and land in dishes like local spot prawns balanced by earthy kale and savoy cabbage. On San Juan Island, Chef/Owner Gretchen Allison of Duck Soup Inn shows off her bold palate with entrées such as sautéed chicken with blueberry-habanero chutney. At another San Juan eatery, Coho Restaurant, global flavors merge with Northwest ingredients, enhanced by a 300-label wine list. “We have a bull’s-eye philosophy; we want as many ingredients from this island as we can get,” explains Kyle Nicholson, chef at The Bluff restaurant at Friday Harbor House, also on San Juan Island. Menus feature beef short ribs and Pacific snapper, and much of the wine list hails from Washington. Head to Orcas Island for stunning views from terraces at the Inn at Ship Bay, where diners often spot bald eagles. “Every ingredient comes from here or not far away,” explains proprietor Geddes Martin, who takes pride in his gardens and greenhouse. Selections include seared halibut topped with a yellow nasturtium. Orcas Island also has an unlikely stop for gastronomes, Ray’s Pharmacy, which carries more than 50 artisanal ciders and meads. For dining on Lopez Island, try Bay Café, which flaunts spectacular sunset views, exemplary crab-and-shrimp cakes and locally caught salmon.
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The San Juan Islands belong to the Puget Sound AVA, in Washington. Lying at the cool extreme of viticultural survival, the islands experience a short summer amplified by long hours of sunlight. While some winemakers truck in grapes from eastern Washington, others tackle the chilly challenges of island viticulture. Cool-climate vinifera that thrive include Madeleine Angevine, a white grape from the Loire Valley in France, and Siegerrebe, a cross between Madeleine Angevine and Gewürztraminer.
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On Lopez Island, Winemaker Brent Charnley and his wife, Maggie, produce wines from Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe on six acres of estate vineyards at Lopez Island Vineyards. Visitors can sample the wines in the tasting room in Lopez Village.