WHEN I WAS growing up the scenery changed often for my itinerant family, thanks to my dad’s hotelier career. But almost every summer, no matter where home had been that year—Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore—we would be called back to the San Juan Islands, the evergreen tree-covered archipelago 100 miles north of Seattle. For a week in August, we’d charter a 42-foot Grand Banks yacht to immerse ourselves in the cerulean skies and emerald waters of my father’s childhood playground. In the Salish Sea between the mainland and Canada’s Vancouver Island, the San Juans are composed of around 170 named islands and hundreds more unnamed, some disappearing and reappearing with the tides. We’d pack crab pots, fishing poles, paperback books, decks of cards and plenty of butter to pair with the treasures of the sea we might catch.
No bridges connect the mainland to the islands, only four of which can be reached by ferry. You won’t hear Jet Skis (they’re prohibited), cell service is often spotty and there are no shopping streets. The absence of such distractions is the point of San Juan County, which President Barack Obama designated as a National Monument in 2013. Inhabited by the Coast Salish people for millennia, the islands are today home to 17,000 residents. A large portion of them live on San Juan Island, with its lavender fields, century-old lighthouse, and handsome Roche Harbor, where Teddy Roosevelt was said to have slept at the 1886 Hotel de Haro. Saddlebag-shaped Orcas Island—the largest at 57 square miles—was named after an 18th-century Spanish viceroy in Mexico who ordered a charting expedition in the archipelago. The remoter islands are a mosaic of marine state parks and preserves: Jones with its habituated black-tail deer, Stuart with its protected coves and hiking routes, and Yellow Island, owned by the Nature Conservancy and historically spared from grazing; come spring, it’s a cornucopia of native wildflowers. The privately owned islands are another treasure trove of history and lore: Spieden Island was purchased by three taxidermist brothers in the ’60s, and they imported animals like Corsican bighorn sheep and Japanese sika deer for hunting (the exotic game still roams the 500-acre island).
Each morning we’d go wherever the day would take us. The resident orcas might lure us into watching them cartwheel at the water’s surface. We might throw our fishing lines in the water in the hope of feeling a salmon’s tug, or lay down a crab trap on the seafloor and hours later find Dungeness clinging to the sides. We’d disembark on Lopez Island with our buckets and shovels in search of butter clams, feeling the occasional assault of saltwater on our faces from a spitting bivalve beneath the sand. In the afternoons, I’d tuck into a novel on the sun-warmed wooden deck.
In recent years, the islands have begun to attract homeowners with their own mega yachts. Still, the secluded feel of the San Juans remains mostly intact, thanks to efforts among residents, business owners, local government and conservation organizations. Today, chartering a larger crewed vessel—anything 75 feet or bigger—will still turn heads in the laid-back San Juans. Sure, those larger vessels are havens of opulence, and they’re a more comfortable ride for those who plan to venture out into the open ocean (or up into Canada, once borders reopen). But for my family, the magic of the San Juans remains in its quietest pockets—often only reachable with smaller boats that are 45 feet or less, the size limit for overnight mooring balls in the remoter coves. This freedom to roam wherever we please together is the very kind of luxury that floats our boat—and after a year tied down by a pandemic, nothing sounds sweeter.
Take the Helm
How to set your own course in the San Juans