Want to go cruising to an island in the Pacific? Almost anyone can, to the lovely town of Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands, only 70 miles north of Seattle, Washington. It’s a charming little community of about 2,000 residents, located on San Juan Island, the largest of the alluring San Juan Islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Friday Harbor can be reached by several methods—by ferry, including Washington State Ferries from Anacortes, WA, year round, or from Sydney, British Columbia, in nearby Canada, from May to October only (you can walk on or bring your bike or auto; reservations are recommended for the latter). These can be combined with airport shuttles and others; by private plane into the Friday Harbor public-use airport; by small, regularly scheduled airlines, including Kenmore Air and San Juan Airlines; by seaplane from South Lake Washington area in Renton, southeast of Seattle; and perhaps most fun of all, cruising by private boat, docking at the Port of Friday Harbor, with space for every type of boat, from dinghies to 150-foot yachts.
If you’re an experienced salt-water sailor, this will be an easy trip, with some attention paid to tides and winds. And if you’re not experienced, it will be an excellent chance to take your first sea journey. Locals and people who travel to the area will be delighted to provide information, help you schedule your launch and passage through shallow areas, facilitate your arrival in Friday Harbor, including where to dock and perhaps even “buddy-boat” with you. Some boating organizations have gatherings in the area, and some also are happy to help tourists get in touch with locals who can help with logistics, etc. C-Dory is a brand of pocket cruiser popular in the area, now built in Bellingham, WA. Their owners group is called the C-Brats. You can post a request for information or companions, find info about their gatherings, and even find boats to purchase on their website.
If your boat can be enclosed and is large enough to sleep in, you won’t require a hotel for the night in Friday Harbor. Everything you need is provided: the Friday Harbor Marina has clean, modern restrooms with showers in addition to water and electricity for your boat, and the village has many inviting restaurants and a grocery store, hardware store and laundry within walking distance of the marina.
In summer, the best time for boating in the area, you may need to make a reservation for your slip at Friday Harbor Marina, depending on the size of your craft. If you don’t plan to sleep on your boat, reserve a hotel room for the nights you’ll be there. Rates vary, but a boat slip averages about $1 per foot of the length of your boat, per night. Hotel rooms can range from $100 to several hundred dollars per night.
If you are trailering a boat to the Pacific Northwest, several convenient and attractive boat-launch sites are available within a days’ boat trip of Friday Harbor. Some of the most popular are near Anacortes, WA, about 23 miles from Friday Harbor; Sequim, WA, about 31 miles; and, if you’re coming from the north, Sidney, BC, about 24 miles. So in most cases, boaters can cruise from launch to Friday Harbor in 2 to 3 pleasant hours. All of these launch sites provide convenient parking for your vehicle and boat trailer.
The favorite launch site of many boaters is in Cornet Bay, at the north end of Whidbey Island, about 10 miles south of Anacortes, WA. (Whidbey Island is the home to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, a coveted post for many in the military.) If you’re a fan of splendid views; shorelines with gentle waves sloshing; rocky outcroppings; deep green hillsides covered with lofty pines, firs, and hemlocks; cool, fresh air; elegant bridges and the aroma of salt water, this setting is perfect for you, whether you plan to boat or have just come to view the scenery. But the trip to Friday Harbor is a grand tour, crossing open water, always with islands in view, and winding through passageways between the islands.
Whidbey Island is south of smaller Fidalgo Island, which is linked to the mainland by the Memorial Highway/ Highway 20 bridge, crossing the Swinomish Channel, at the north end of the island. The highway winds through the town of Anacortes (a “consolidation” of the name “Anna Curtis,” the wife of an early settler of the area), southward a few miles, and then crosses Deception Pass Bridge over Deception Pass to the larger Whidbey Island. The vistas along the drive are delightful, with small bays, channels, rivers and lakes seemingly around every turn. Follow Highway 20 through Deception Pass State Park, about one mile, and then turn left on Cornet Bay Road. After about 1½ miles, watch for the boat launch on the left. Check the weather forecast and tide tables or talk with the knowledgeable sailors in the area as to weather and tidal conditions in order to plan your launch and crossing times, to be sure of avoiding the shallows that occur twice daily between Decatur island and Blakely Island and between Shaw Island and Lopez Island, on the way to Friday Harbor.
After launch, you’ll head northeast across tiny Cornet Bay, east through Deception Pass, with a spectacular view as you pass under the high bridge, past little Lottie Bay, around Lighthouse Point (where there is no lighthouse), and then northwest across Rosario Strait. It is the largest stretch of open water between Anacortes and Friday Harbor, about 4 or 5 miles across, but always within sight of islands.
Make your way around the north end of Lopez Island and turn southwest alongside Shaw Island. At its southern point, take a westward trajectory, where you’ll begin to see Friday Harbor about 3 miles ahead. Much of the boat traffic in the area will be heading to or from that most popular port. Of course, there are many other beautiful locales beckoning, so you may want to plan extra time in the area. And if you’re a fisherman, you’ll want to try your luck, in open water, in peaceful bays, or even at lakes on the larger islands. Of course, salmon is the coveted prize, but halibut, cod, crab, shrimp and many other sea creatures are there for the catching. (Click here for fishing tours or here for info on self-guided fishing.)
As you cross the strait and then wind between islands, be alert to all the interesting sights along the way. Remember that larger boats, sailboats, kayaks and canoes have the right of way. There will be a variety of vessels, including the large Washington State ferries, many other pleasure boats of all types, possibly tow boats pulling rafts of logs or barges with supplies or equipment, tour boats and commercial fishing boats and others. And if you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll encounter dolphins, seals, orcas and perhaps even a glimpse of a humpback whale. Bald eagles, ospreys, cormorants and gulls often fly overhead or perch in high trees, watching for dinner. Most days, the sky is a scenic attraction, with gorgeous cloud formations interspersed with patches of vivid blue to match the sea. Much of the San Juan Islands area is in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, with Friday Harbor receiving only 25 inches of rain per year, much less than many nearby locales. Be sure to take your camera, or with modern technology, even your cell phone will produce vivid images to remind you of your adventure.
Once you’re docked in Friday Harbor Marina, go explore the lovely community, most of it in walking distance from the marina, though other alternatives are available, like rental bicycles or cabs. Many outdoor activities as well as shopping, spas, art galleries, museums, fine dining and ice cream shops are available. Much of the community is pet friendly, so feel free to take Fido along. Perhaps the most popular activity is sitting on your boat in the marina enjoying the scenery and watching the boat traffic. And don’t forget to watch for Popeye, the one-eyed female harbor seal who has lived for years in the quiet waters of the marina.
When your time with your boat at Friday Harbor has ended, you can head back to Deception Pass and Cornet Bay the way you came, or you may want to go off in another direction to explore the area, take some side trips, perhaps stay on other islands before returning to your vehicle. And once you’ve placed your boat back on its trailer, you may want to spend some time in that area, perhaps camping at Deception Pass State Park or in Washington Park, a municipal park in Anacortes. Both have many outdoor activities, wildlife, hiking and scenic views of the area including the San Juan islands, as you reminisce about the excellent time you had at Friday Harbor.