24 Hours on Orcas Island

by Jordan Plihal  |  Published September 12, 2019

Just 100 miles from bustling Seattle lies a quiet island paradise boasting a welcome natural escape and a diversified arts scene. A remote forested island in the San Juan archipelago off the Northwestern coast of Washington State, Orcas showcases rugged coastlines, mountain views, pristine lakes, secluded beaches and a laidback way of life.

Orcas Island’s West Beach (Photo: Monica Bennett)

A unique island destination popular with in the know Seattleites for decades, Orcas is only accessible by boat or by plane, and this limited access has helped the island hang onto its rural vibe. Hop on a ferry boat at Anacortes, and one very scenic hour filled with mountain vistas later, you’ll arrive on the lush green island of Orcas. Set foot on the island and you’ll be whisked away to a simpler time; life is slower here, people wave at you from their cars, and the immense natural beauty has made it a favorite destination for hikers, bicyclists and nature lovers.

Drive up the charming two-lane thoroughfare past Orcas Village and the ferry landing, and you’ll be greeted by rolling hills, dense forests, and seascapes with ancient apple orchards dotted throughout. Much of the island remains untouched nature, and it’s not uncommon to drive or hike for miles without seeing another soul. The quaint villages of Eastsound, Deer Harbor, Olga and Doe Bay are spread out across the 57sq mile island, and each of them has its own distinct personality.

Home to the artsy towns of Olga and Doe Bay, the chilled out eastern side of the island is covered in evergreen forests and ancient cedars, and plays host to the majority of Orcas’ lakes; making it the epicenter for outdoor activities on the island. It’s here that you’ll find the five-thousand acre Moran State Park. Flush with old growth forests, crystal-clear lakes, various species of wildlife and 38 miles of hiking trails, Moran has been a haven for nature lovers for nearly a century. Campsites and secluded swimming holes surround the central Cascade Lake, and boat rentals are also available here. Hike to the summit of Mount Constitution, the island’s highest point for uninterrupted views overlooking the Salish Sea and San Juan archipelago, perfectly framed by snow-capped Cascade Mountains in the background.

Orcas Island Pottery (Photo: Eric Anderson)

The lifestyle on Orcas has attracted an influx of creative souls, farmers, and remnants of the hippie era, in search of a quieter life on the island. Today, Orcas is still very much steeped in a counterculture vibe, and the island boasts a prominent artist community.

Head down to the seaside village of Olga to visit some of the island’s most well-known artist studios. It’s here in Olga, nestled on this quiet corner of the island that painters, sculptors, woodworkers and master potters continue to find their inspiration. Olga Pottery showcases works of local master potter, Jerry Weatherman, who manages to capture the island feeling in each of his creations – from the glazes of deep blues, soft evergreens and natural earthy hues to the shapes of the pieces themselves, it all screams Orcas. Just up the road you’ll find Orcas Island Artworks, which is a co-op owned and operated art gallery showcasing the work of 45 local artists and craftspeople.

Orcas Farmers Market (Photo: B. Marrett photo)

Located on a bay towards the middle of Orcas, Eastsound is the largest of the island’s villages, and this is where the majority of local commerce thrives. Summer is high season on the isle, and during the warmer months, the Saturday farmer’s market is where you’ll find the true heart and soul of the island. More than just a simple shopping trip, a visit to the Orcas farmer’s market is part of the true island experience, and you can easily spend the whole afternoon here. Local bands play lilting folk tunes while merchants hawk everything from honey to regional produce, baked goods, apparel and even fresh flower bouquets. There’s often excellent street food at the market, freshly-shucked Pacific oysters, smoked salmon and homemade tamales are commonly on sale.

Hotels & Lodging

Located on the expansive waterfront estate of esteemed former Seattle shipbuilder, Robert Moran, Rosario Resort and Spa (1400 Rosario Road, Eastsound) is Orcas’ most luxurious accommodation. Waterfront views greet you from every room of the converted mansions dotting the property, and guest rooms feel more like private apartments than hotel rooms. Spacious rooms include a bedroom, separate living area and a kitchen, so trying your hand at local cooking is an option. Interiors feature locally-sourced materials in the cedar paneling, stone detailing, artwork and furniture, giving them a distinct Pacific Northwest feeling. Private verandas promising views of Cascade Bay add to the cozy cabin vibe and stone fireplaces beckon visitors to sit back and relax.

Rosario Resort Dining Room (Photo: Courtesy of San Juan Vistors Bureau)

Towards the center of the isle, Beach Haven Resort (684 Beach Haven Road, Eastsound) provides a true island-style accommodation option on Orcas, though it’s just a few minutes’ drive from town. Complete with cozy furnishings, spacious interiors and fireplaces, each of the dozen traditional log cabins provides a rural escape in and of itself. The property is set in a serene inlet on the water’s edge, so each of the cabins showcases a stunning view of the sea just beyond. Modern conveniences, like wifi and AC, complement the softly lapping waves providing a timeless relaxation soundtrack.

The Landmark on Orcas Island (67 Main Street, Eastsound) is located right in the middle of Eastsound village. While appearing a bit dated from the outside, the comfortable condominiums are modernly furnished and can sleep up to six people. All of the condos are equipped with a kitchen area, and each boasts a private deck with waterfront views. Conveniently located on Main Street, there are plenty of dining options, art galleries, bookshops and groceries just a few minutes’ walk away.

Food & Restaurants

Brown Bear Bakery (Photo: Todd Montgomery)

If you’re a morning-spent-at-the-bakery type, your trip to Orcas won’t be complete without stopping into Brown Bear Baking (29 N Beach Road, Eastsound). Their coffee is some of the best on the island but the atmosphere remains decidedly local and unpretentious; locals mingle and pore over the morning newspaper in this coffee shop/garden combo, which is also pet-friendly. Giant, flakey croissants, decadent Kouign-Amanns (a Breton butter, and sugar pastry), and even savory pizzas, teeming with garden-fresh produce, line the glass cases. Lunch offerings are hearty, though there are also vegan and gluten-free options.

Journey to the little village of Olga, on the Eastern side of the island, to try a true Orcas specialty: shellfish. Buck Bay Shellfish (117 EJ Young Road, Olga) is a family-owned and operated shellfish farm, dating back to the 1940s. Among island families, this waterfront address is passed down from generation to generation, and locals keep coming back. Buck Bay Shellfish offers a variety of local oysters, clams, crab, mussels, spot prawns, and even geoducks for sale which can either be shucked tableside and enjoyed with a glass of local white, or taken away for a feast of your own later on. You’ll also find a selection of fresh-caught local fish, Sockeye and Coho salmon for example, but it all depends on the catch of the day.

Buck Bay Fish Market (Photo: Todd Montgomery)

Eastsound village is home to the historic Outlook Inn, which is actually better known for its on-site restaurant the New Leaf Café (171 Main Street, Eastsound). The menu clearly draws on French influences, though local ingredients remain front and center. At breakfast time, tuck into a classic farmer’s breakfast, pain perdu with fresh fruits, or a smoked salmon benedict; all with a panoramic sea view in the background. For dinner, the mood gets more romantic, candles are lit and dishes are a little heartier; a duck confit hash is a wintertime favorite, and in warmer months, it’s hard to beat their pot of mussels steamed in apple cider.

Outdoor Activities

The biodiversity on Orcas is nothing short of impressive; the island is home to over 250 species of birds such as bald eagles and is teeming with all kinds of Pacific Northwest wildlife like black tail deer, rabbits and otters. Hiking Turtleback Mountain (South Trail Head: Wild Rose Ln, Eastsound) is favorite for all ages, and rewards those who have made the moderate six-mile trek with sweeping views of the Salish Sea and outlying islands. If you’re lucky, you can even spot the Olympic Mountains peeking through on a clear day, and you’re almost guaranteed to see some wildlife.

Orcas Island Hiking (Photo: Jacob Plihal)

Sea Kayaking (Shearwater Kayak Tours – 138 N Beach Road, Eastsound) is another popular outdoor activity on Orcas. Exploring the island from the sea gives visitors a chance to take in Orcas’ vastly varied rugged coastlines and even spot some of the area’s famed marine life. Otters, seals, sea lions and orca whales are all spotted regularly just offshore.

Being home to so much incredible marine life, it’s no wonder Orcas offers some of the area’s most successful whale watching tours. Make a reservation at Outer Island Excursions (Sucia Dr, Eastsound) and be whisked away for an informative afternoon on the water. Each tour is led by friendly and knowledgeable guides, who are experts on orca whales and where to spot them around the island. It’s usually possible at the very least to catch a glimpse of these magnificent sea creatures, and if you’re lucky with the timing you can watch them play and hunt, right from your boat. Sea Lions, porpoises and seals are also often seen on the tours.