There are hundreds of islands in Puget Sound, the San Juans, and Canada. The Straits of Juan De Fuca divide Washington from Vancouver Island, Canada and connect to the Pacific Ocean 60 miles west. The islands form a protected inland arm of the ocean that covers over 1,000 square miles called the Salish Sea. Astounding water depths dropping over 900 feet fill gaps between the rocky islands. Over a trillion gallons of water move during each tide refreshing the sea every day and providing a home for myriads of sea life.
Pods of endangered Orca whales, sea lions, seals, porpoise, and other marine mammals frolic here. Rare sea birds, like Tufted Puffins, bob on the emerald-green surface. Northern Giant Octopus, the largest in the world, hide in the deep rocky crags and mingle with crabs and bottom fish. Salmon of all types, including the mighty Chinook (“King of all Salmon”), feed amongst the islands and spawn in connecting rivers. These magnificent fish historically weighed over 100 pounds each, although most king salmon today are under 30 pounds.
One of the best ways to see the islands and experience the Salish Sea is by boat. Some Northwest boat builders offer factory delivery options where new boat buyers take delivery of their boat in Puget Sound, cruise the islands, and then have the boat shipped to their home port. Several established charter companies rent a variety of boats from Anacortes and Bellingham.
With my family, I like to cruise the islands on our own boat, inviting friends to show off this aquatic paradise. There are numerous gunkholing spots and pristine anchorages, and literally hundreds of marinas and resorts in the islands to choose from, all with different amenities and conveniences. Here are a few highlights of some of my favorite locations, from a recent trip.
Victoria International Airport
Convenient. Scenic. Reliable.
Kenmore Air’s new landplane flights to Victoria International Airport (YYJ) — located roughly 20 minutes from downtown Victoria — offer direct service to Paine Field, Boeing Field, and Friday Harbor Airport.
International travel to the San Juan Islands and Seattle has never been this simple!
10 of the Best Places to Visit When Boating in the Salish Sea
1. Van Isle Marina in Sidney, BC
Situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Sidney, BC is a paradise for boating enthusiasts. With its stunning coastal scenery, serene waters, and vibrant marine life, it offers an ideal setting for unforgettable boating experiences. Whether you’re an experienced sailor or a novice seeking adventure, Sidney has something for everyone.
One of the most captivating aspects of boating in Sidney is the diverse range of marine landscapes. The area is renowned for its picturesque bays, coves, and inlets, providing endless opportunities for exploration. Seasoned boaters praise the Sidney marinas for their incredible service and competitive pricing.
Among the top choices for sailors looking to have work done or moor their boat is Van Isle Marina. A third-generation family-owned and operated marina, it is the largest full-service boating destination on Vancouver Island. In addition to being an official Port of Entry with Canadian Customs offices and marine fuel dock, they offer complimentary taxi vouchers to Victoria International Airport (YYJ), courtesy bicycles during the summer season, and a self-service dog wash station!
Those who venture to downtown Sidney will enjoy walking along the waterfront, including the Sidney Seaside Sculpture Walk. The outdoor gallery features both pieces of sale and those owned by the Town of Sidney. Restaurants are scattered throughout the walk, including The Pier Bistro (located on the water). Also of note is Victoria Distillers, a renowned spirits distillery that makes handmade spirits, including Empress Gin.
2. Rosario Resort on Orcas Island
A visit to Orcas Island is not complete without a trip to Rosario Resort and its historic mansion. The marina has 30 slips, an outdoor swimming pool, and a restaurant. Robert Moran, a Seattle mayor and shipbuilder, constructed the mansion from 1906 to 1909. I like the way the massive timbers and ornate details give the place the look and feel of a ship.
A museum showcases the mansion, and Moran shipbuilding, including model boats. The music room highlights a 1913 Aeolian pipe organ, which features 1,972 pipes. Plan your dates around the presentation of music, photographs, and silent films to see and hear the organ. The mansion contains a hotel, spa with indoor swimming pool, and fine dining restaurant.
3. Port of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island
Friday Harbor is the biggest city on San Juan Island and has numerous restaurants, shops and boutiques, a grocery, and a hardware store. The marina has slips from 20 feet to 80 feet. Plus, the fuel dock has the lowest fuel prices in the islands. Friday Harbor Seafood (located by the ramp up to town) is a complete seafood store on a floating dock in the marina where you can buy fresh local crabs, oysters, spot prawns, and other seafood.
When traveling with an adventurous group we go to Susie’s Mopeds to rent scooters, electric bikes, scoot coops or a Chevy tracker. A nice day trip is out to the Cattle Point Lighthouse where I once walked up on a Bald Eagle resting by the shore. If you have the time, take a loop around the island and stop at Lime Kiln Point State Park. Known as one of the best land-based whale watching destinations in the world, you might just catch sight of passing Orcas.
4. Roche Harbor Resort on San Juan Island
Roche Harbor is the most popular destination on San Juan Island. This former company town turned resort includes the historic Hotel De Haro, which has operated since 1886. The resort also offers cabins, condos, and other shoreside accommodations. They have 377 slips and can accommodate vessels up to 150 feet.
But the amenities here are what really grab a boater’s attention. You’ll find the basics like fuel, groceries, and marine supplies. And you’ll find the everyday conveniences, like full bathrooms and self-service laundry facilities. But this is a luxurious stop to be sure. The resort is home to four different restaurants ranging from fine dining to an espresso stand. (Insider Tip: don’t miss the world-famous donuts at the Lime Kiln Café.) The resort offers a pool, bocce ball, and tennis courts. And a seafood stand and small collection of artisan stands (both open seasonally) are a bonus touch.
I really enjoy taking the dog for a walk on the easy hiking trails there. One leads up through the lime quarries to a hill where you can see Vancouver Island. Another trail heads through the woods (where deer are often seen) to a pillared mausoleum. A stone table and chairs at the center is a memorial to the McMillin family who founded Roche Harbor.
Another favorite is the nightly Colors Ceremony (performed May through September). It begins 10 minutes before sunset, as staff retires the fags of Roche Harbor, Washington state, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.
5. Poet’s Cove Resort & Spa at Bedwell Harbor on Pender Island
A short trip from Roche Harbor takes you into the Gulf Islands where you can clear Canadian customs in Bedwell Harbor. Once cleared into Canada, the adjacent Poet’s Cove Resort & Spa is a great place to stay with 110 slips. On shore the hotel and resort features a pub/restaurant, two swimming pools with hot tubs, a convenience store with espresso stand, and a full-service spa.
We like to book massages at the spa, which gives us access to a special hot tub that overlooks the bay and a distinctive steam cave. The steam cave is carved out of rock, has a skylight, a bubbling fountain, and ledges for relaxing while steaming. The spa and steam cave are a fantastic way to unwind in the islands.
6. The Butchart Gardens and Brentwood Bay Resort on Vancouver Island
One of our favorite stops is The Butchart Gardens, a 100-year-old Canadian National Historic Site where Jennie Butchart turned an abandoned rock quarry into a series of spectacular gardens. The volume of flowers and colors is breathtaking. Attractions include restaurants, a carousel for kids, a gelato stand, and concerts on the lawn that sometimes feature fireworks.
We dinghy over from nearby Brentwood Bay Marina to a dock entrance for boaters. Our dog enjoys walking on leash with us along the paths through the magnificent grounds. Brentwood Bay Resort has a good pub/restaurant, an adult-only swimming pool with a hot tub, and a spa.
7. Ganges Marina on Salt Spring Island
A quaint little town, Ganges Marina offers access to restaurants, a well-stocked grocery store, and a host of unique galleries. I like to buy books from independently operated Black Sheep Books. Across the street Mouat’s Hardware has been serving the island since 1907. This store has a variety of interesting products ranging from traditional hardware to gift items and trinkets. Downstairs they always give my dog a treat in the pet section but if you are tall, like my son, watch out for the low ceiling beams. Moby’s pub is a great spot to meet some locals and enjoy a meal and beverages (try their famous duck wings). Moby’s, The Oyster Catcher, and the Treehouse all have live music on some nights and views of the harbor.
8. Montague Harbor Marina on Galiano Island — Plus Hummingbird Pub and Bus
We like to meet up with the Cutwater Cruise, a moving rendezvous of boat owners sponsored by Bellingham Yachts, the local dealer. The group cruises together through the Islands and a favorite stop is Montague Harbor Marina where they take over most of the docks for a cornhole tournament. Activities include a moped cruise of the island or a trip on a converted school bus called the “Pub Bus” that goes to the Hummingbird Pub.
Maracas, tambourines, egg shakers, and other instruments are handed out and everyone sings along to the music. Cymbals are mounted by the driver who plays and drives. The back of the bus has benches and people attempt to hula hoop in the aisle as the bus lurches along the hills. The Hummingbird Pub has good food, try the Cajun Halibut sandwich, and a Canadian microbrew before returning on the bus to the marina.
9. Telegraph Harbor Marina on Thetis Island
Model boats tethered in the secluded cove by the marina tack across the shallows, sails billowing in the light breeze. The rocky treelined hillside has a picnic shelter with BBQs, benches and tables are available (first come, first served), a swing set, tetherball, and shuffleboard.
The marina store serves coffee, ice cream, milkshakes and has fresh baked traditional and whole wheat baguettes. Pre-order them and pick them up hot for a special treat. We like to dinghy, kayak, paddleboard, and swim, where the tide flows through the shallows along Penelakut cut.
10. Silva Bay on Gabriola Island
At the eastern tip of Gabriola Island, Silva Bay provides a well-protected anchorage nestled in amongst a group of small islands. We enjoy Page’s Marina, which is quiet and dog friendly. The Li’l Market store has convenience items, liquor, locally sourced meats and cheeses, Gabriola Island cider, vinegar, honey, and a great little bookstore.
Gabriola is home to many artists, their work showcased at the pier gallery collective and elsewhere. Weather permitting, we take the dinghy to nearby Saturnina Island. We swim off the rock and sandy beach, cross the narrow peninsula to the windward side, hike the island and climb on the fantastically sculptured rocky outcrops.
The islands of the Salish Sea provide a wonderful way to relax and enjoy one of the world’s finest boating areas. There is something for everyone from the solitude of a star-filled anchorage to the excitement and fun of exploring a new island or sampling local seafood and island nightlife. The dramatic scenery of the islands and the sea make every trip exceptional. Majestic eagles fly overhead, as graceful dolphins and whales pierce the water’s surface. If you are looking for an adventure, try boating in the Pacific Northwest.