Low-key adventures loaded with scenic views and an internationally acclaimed food and wine scene, make Orcas Island the ideal testosterone-free, comfy jean destination.
Even those born and raised in the Pacific Northwest may not have heard of the San Juan Islands. The remote archipelago sits as close to Canada as it does to the lower 48. Like a marooned captain’s daydream, the roughly 175 forest-covered rocky inlets feature lush farmland, freshwater lakes, and protected coves.
The pristine beaches and 247-days with sunshine make this the ideal vacation for families and couples. But, the San Juans are also the perfect place to relax, unwind, and catch up with your best girlfriends — especially Orcas Island.
In fact, the Emerald Isle (as it’s fondly nicknamed), was recommended by The New York Times as one of the top 52 Places to Go in 2019 for its “impressive tide-to-table culinary scene and experimental wines.”
Want to spend less time commuting and more time enjoying island time? Start your trip with a scenic Seattle to Orcas Island flight.
Top Things to do on Orcas Island with Girlfriends
Shaped like a horseshoe, Orcas is the largest of the San Juans. The topography is as varied as the culinary selection, ranging from windswept meadows and rocky beaches to a small mountain summit and lush rain forest. Here crops thrive, artists abound, and rental cars are left unlocked with the key inside waiting for the next fare.
Where to Eat on Orcas Island
Orcas doesn’t have traffic lights or fast-food restaurants. There are no chain establishments, unless you count the Chevron and Key Bank. Nor will you find the region’s biggest bowl of pho or fanciest fine dining. Rather, the thriving food scene is a veritable ode to Mother Nature.
Menus at the island’s top eateries change with the seasons, highlighting the freshest from the land, sea, and shores. The chefs at both the Outlook Inn’s New Leaf Café and Rosario Resort’s Mansion Restaurant defy the classic idea of ‘hotel fare.’ Their exquisite menus are served with a humble sense of warmth and comfort that makes you feel almost like you’re family.
The southern edge of Eastsound can thank Brown Bear Baking for its fragrant perfume of buttery kouign-amanns and gooey sticky buns. We found this to be an ideal place to grab treats for the day’s adventures.
Starting in May, you’ll want to visit Buck Bay Shellfish Farm. The third-generation oyster farm sells oysters from a shack overlooking the bay where the oysters were just harvested. Bring a bottle of wine and grab a picnic table. Don’t know how to shuck an oyster? Have no fear; they’ll teach you!
For a sweeter twist on the island’s harvest, be sure to visit Girl Meets Dirt. The local jam producer was founded by Audra Lawlor, an ex-Goldman Sachs New Yorker, who ditched Wall Street for an orchard — the sweetest decision she could have ever made. Sample the preserves and stock up at the Eastsound store, where you can also see the jam making process.
What other orcas island restaurants should you hit up? Keep an eye out for two chef superstars making a reemergence — James Beard-nominated Jay Blackinton and nationally-acclaimed Avery Adams. While both chefs have closed their restaurants for differing reasons, they are expected to re-open in time for the 2023 tourist season (at least on some capacity).
Where to Drink on Orcas Island
Perhaps it’s that the locals sometimes consider Orcas as their own country. Or maybe it’s the pristine air. Either way, the island has allowed the subtle nuances of infused liquors, fermented fruit, and boiled hops room to take root. Showcasing full-bodied flavors loaded with complexity, the local spirit artisans offer pours and drinks that will make you want to toast, again and again.
Founded by two locals (Cole Sisson and Shea Sasan), ROOTS is earning a following both on and off the island. Acting as a community hub, they offer artisan espresso drink and a wine experience paired with a comprehensive cheese and charcuterie program. The wines are primarily sourced from Sisson’s nearby wine shop, Doe Bay Wine Co.
At Doe Bay Wine Co., the humble approach to sharing insights makes you want to come back. That, and the chance to buy bottles of the couple’s newest venture — The Orcas Project. In a unique collaboration, acclaimed winemakers and vineyards in the Pacific Northwest are creating limited production bottles available in the Eastsound shop and online.
On the hoppy side of things, the folks at Island Hoppin’ Brewery, are crafting wheaty brews inspired by their love of both beer and the island. And for those who love their vino, stop by the Orcas Island Winery, where their tasting room offers a stunning selection of brilliant wines.
On the late-night side of things, there’s no better destination than The Barnacle, where craft cocktails are made with house-infused bitters and liquors. Except, of course, if you’re looking for a lively round of karaoke. Then you’ll want to head to The Lower Tavern on Friday nights.
Where to Play on Orcas Island
There are dozens of different hikes on Orcas, ranging from gentle strolls to serious climbs. The half-mile hike to Cascade Falls offers by far the biggest reward for the least amount of effort. In the sun-dappled forest floor, the well-maintained path follows Cascade Creek past a series of waterfalls. It leads to the biggest of the tumbling displays — a stunning 40-foot rock cliff.
Its longer, though still gentle, sister hike continues on around Cascade Lake in a three-mile loop. During the summer months, the freshwater lake is a favorite for swimming and wave-free paddle boarding. Playful teens and adults can often be seen jumping from the 20-foot bridge that separates the lake from the lagoon.
Venturing up, you’ll find strenuous hikes, like the Mount Constitution and Mountain Lake hike that spans 6.7-miles with a 1,500-foot elevation gain. Resting at 2,409 feet, Mount Constitution is the tallest peak in the San Juan Islands. It offers glorious panoramic views of the Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier, and Mount Baker. On clear days you can see as far as Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia.
Those not up for the 13,000-plus-step accent, have no fear. You’re not alone. My girlfriend and I opted to save our muscles too. You can reach Mount Constitution’s peak by car.
And whether you made the trek or not, all are welcome to savor a scoop (or two) of the best San Juan-crafted ice cream at Sugar on Top. Housed in a vintage Airstream, the walkup ice cream parlor serves sweet scoops and savory sandwiches one smile at a time.
Should you venture to Moran State Park’s eastern side, keep an eye out for the Aproximada, the 80-foot ship that rests 400 feet above sea level.
The Aproximada is nestled between trees on the side of Mount Pickett. It has never seen the sea. Built by App Applegate, who hoped to one day sail the vessel to Cuba, the decaying forest ornament has become one of the ‘7 Wonders of Orcas Island.’
In addition to stretching and soaking, be sure to spend some time exploring the island’s hand-crafted wares. Pots, plates, and decorative pieces are thrown, glazed, and fired on site at Orcas Island Pottery. The studio opened in 1954. It was originally housed in a log cabin. While it’s long since outgrown the rustic beginnings, the cabin remains — a testament to the studio’s beautiful history.
Though many of the island’s artisans enjoy their quiet solitude, you’ll also find them in Eastsound, the island’s ‘downtown’ of sorts. Among them is Atelier, a lifestyle boutique featuring Orcas inspired graphic tees designed by owner Nicole Kraayeveld; Material Wit, a breathy jewelry store featuring island-inspired minimalists jewelry designed and made on-island by Jessie Morrow; and the Peter C Fisher Gallery, where exhibits feature current and historic photographs of the San Juan Islands.
Where to Relax on Orcas Island
Despite having a population of less than 6,000, Orcas is home to three different yoga studios, including Orcas Mandala and OM Space, and Doe Bay. Each offers a range of classes focused on stretching and strengthening the body.
Of particular note are the classes at Doe Bay. The intimate studio features waterfront views. It also gives you close proximity to the resort’s luxurious spa. The clothing-optional, wilderness retreat offers three outdoor saltwater soaking tubs and a sauna. Overlooking a small, protected cove, it allows you to fully immerse yourself in nature while letting your body relax.
Where to Stay on Orcas Island
When it comes to where to stay on Orcas Island, there are a plethora of options. Doe Bay Resort is always a favorite, thanks to its ocean-front views, clothing-optional spa, and eclectic mix of lodging options (including yurts, rustic cabins, and camping). However, there’s also something equally as delightful about staying in the heart of Eastsound — especially if you can do so, while scoring a view.
Among the premier Eastsound hotels, you’ll find the infamous Outlook Inn. Dating back to 1876, this elegant seaside escape offers waterfront lodging options (literally, you can stay where the tide comes in), one of the best restaurants in town (New Leaf Cafe), and one of the town’s best-kept secrets (Sarah’s Garden, an intimate private garden that can be rented for weddings and events).
Looking for something a bit smaller, but equally as centrally located and with water views? Less than a block away, the Village Inn on Orcas Island is a sweet slice of undercover paradise. Newly constructed, this boutique hotel is plush with thoughtful amenities and exquisitely appointed with beautiful touches. From the complimentary selection of snacks and breakfast fare in the communal Living Room to the local art on display throughout, it’s an exquisite space to call your home away from home.
How to Get to Orcas Island
There are two ways to reach orcas island – by boat and by plane. Flying from Paine Field to Eastsound Airport on Orcas Island is the fastest way to get to Orcas Island. Direct flights take just 25 minutes.
The second fastest way to reach Orcas Island is a flight from Boeing Field in Seattle to Eastsound Airport on Orcas. Both of these flights are quick, easy, and dependable — operated by the Kenmore Air Express division.
Seaplanes are another quick and extremely scenic way to reach Orcas Island. Flights depart from both Kenmore’s Lake Union in downtown Seattle and Kenmore Air Harbor at the north end of Lake Washington.
The alternative is to take the Orcas Island ferry. Departing from Anacortes, the ferry ride is roughly an hour. With no traffic, the Anacortes ferry dock is just a 1.5-hour drive from downtown Seattle. Reservations for the ferry are strongly recommended if you wish to avoid even longer wait times.