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San Juans: Eagles Overhead, Whales Below


Personal Business: ISLAND TRAVEL

SAN JUANS: EAGLES OVERHEAD, WHALES BELOW

Rarely can you report that the best part of your wonderful, three-day island get away came during the trip home. But on my ferry ride back to the mainland from Washington's San Juan Islands in February, I had one of those "it doesn't get better than this" moments. Before me towered the awesome snow-capped bulk of 11,000-foot Mt. Baker; to the south stood the sawtooth peaks of the Olympic range. And all around, the sea and sky were clear and bright blue.

Such are the simple pleasures of a trip to the San Juans. This group of over 120 rock- and fir-covered islands is less than 100 miles northwest of Seattle as the eagle flies, but it's far removed from the city's vicious traffic jams and the grinding pace kept by the region's many software programmers.

How do the San Juans remain unspoiled? It simply takes too long to get there for the isles to be attractive to commuters or weekenders. There's an hourlong car ride from Seattle to the ferry dock in Anacortes, a one- to three-hour wait (or more in the summer) to get on the boat, and then a 1 1/2 hour trip to San Juan Island's Friday Harbor. (For schedules, call 206 464-6400 or visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/schedules/current).

Don't let the Northwest's reputation for ceaseless rain scare you off. The islands sit in a "rain shadow" created by the Olympic Peninsula, so the sun shines an average of 247 days a year. No wonder this archipelago is hog heaven for hikers, bikers, kayakers, and birders.

Hog is an apt word when speaking of the San Juans because of a quirky bit of their history: the Pig War of 1859. Britain and the U.S. were contesting ownership of the islands and almost came to blows after an Englishman's pig was shot for rooting in a Yankee's potato patch. Two national parks on San Juan Island, American Camp and English Camp, are sites of former military garrisons and offer some gorgeous strolls.

You have to look seaward for the No.1 tourist attraction--orcas, the black-and-white killer whales made famous by the Free Willy films. Nearly 100 orcas ply the waters, munching on salmon and the occasional seal. They can be spotted year-round but are most evident in the spring. Former Friday Harbor Mayor Bill LaPorte, who lives on a powerboat, recalls when a pod of orcas came so close he touched one. It shocked him by blowing spray out of its breathing hole and soaking him to the skin. Learn more about orcas at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.

The other star animal attraction is the bald eagle. About 90 nesting pairs have been counted, and I spotted two eagles in a single afternoon. Farhad Jhatan, proprietor of Harrison House Suites in Friday Harbor, says eagle sightings are commonplace: "The other day, a bald eagle flew right over my head holding a dead seagull in its talons while being chased by another seagull," he says.

DELICACIES. It's bird-eat-bird on the San Juans. But the raptors have nothing on the humans when it comes to variety and quality of cuisine. LaPorte complains that there are too many gourmet eateries, and the only time you can get a good corn dog is at the San Juan County Fair in July. But for fans of delicacies such as black-bean-and-garlic mussels, this is ground zero. Stephanie Irving, editor of Northwest Best Places (Sasquatch Books; $19.95), recommends the Friday Harbor House on San Juan Island and the Bay Cafe on Lopez Island.

While San Juan Island is tourist central--it boasts no fewer than 15 bed-and-breakfasts--other islands are also worth visiting. (Contact the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce at 360 378-5240 or www.sanjuanisland.org). Lopez Island features rolling hills great for biking. And the summit of Orcas Island's Mt. Constitution, easily reached by car, offers a striking view stretching from Vancouver to Seattle. No matter where you go, though, you're bound to see something that will take your breath away.EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN Steve Hamm


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