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Washington's San Juan Islands

July 26, 1987|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

ORCAS ISLAND, Wash. — It was misting as the ferry from Anacortes nosed into the harbor on Orcas Island. Gulls roosted on weathered pilings and a thunderhead boiling on the horizon was drenched with the flames of a dying sun.

En route to Orcas the ferry passed other islands whose beaches were choked with driftwood and whose coves provided shelter for small boats that bobbed drunkenly on incoming tides.

Before leaving Anacortes, motorists lined up bumper-to-bumper, bikes and boats lashed to their rooftops.

Later at sea, passengers abandoned their cars for a coffee shop on board while others stood at the railing studying passing islands with cabins poking out of rich green forests. Although the San Juan group numbers 172 islands, only four of the largest--Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan--are served by the Washington State Ferry System.

It is a short and pleasant journey that brings to mind scenes reminiscent of Maine and Massachusetts with their weathered saltboxes and fishing trawlers. Gulls wheel above the ferry and bald eagles ride thermals on a distant horizon.

At Orcas I spotted Steve Dalquist, the manager of Beach Haven Resort with its scattering of cabins at water's edge in a wilderness setting of pure peace.

The drive to Beach Haven from the ferry followed a country lane, meandering past wet green meadows with cattle and sheep and forests of fir and ponderosa pine. Wildflowers blanketed the roadside and a fawn stared frozen in stillness behind a weathered fence.

During the 20-minute drive to Beach Haven, we passed but one other car. Everywhere the earth was green. The windows of old-fashioned farmhouses framed yellow light in the gathering dusk and the air was sweet with a mixture of salt and pine. We passed a B&B whose owner waved. Steve waved back.

At Beach Haven a sign loomed beside the road. "There's room at our paradise tonight." In the opposite direction another sign advised departing guests that they were leaving Beach Haven and "entering the world."

Young Dalquist traded his native Minnesota with its bitter winters for the mild seasons of Orcas Island, which he shares with his wife, Shirley, a refugee from Ohio.

It is no secret that Beach Haven would be a bore to partygoers. A terrible, disappointing bore. It's simply too quiet, too peaceful. There's not even TV. Only cabins with kitchens and fireplaces and windows that frame other islands while the wind moans through pines on the western shore of Orcas. Unless the vacationer enjoys greenery and fresh air and salmon fishing and plucking blueberries that grow wild in the forest, scratch Orcas Island altogether.

Try Hawaii or the Caribbean instead.

Vacationers come to Orcas to set the soul free. Little action surfaces, even in Eastsound, a small village on the bay with a couple of markets, an inn and several restaurants, one of which is quite good, Christina's, which features fresh beef and marvelous seafood along with garden-fresh produce.

Eastsound is barely four blocks long and Christina's, with windows that face the bay, is perched on the second floor of the old two-story Island Union Building. Its seafood comes from channels in and around Orcas as well as the icy waters of Puget Sound.

One morning I stopped for breakfast at the Bungalow, a restaurant facing the bay and a driftwood-strewn beach while steam rose from the folds of offshore islands. Beyond, thickets of wildflowers grew by the shore, where a rickety rowboat had been beached by a retreating tide.

Sharing the street was a pottery shop and a service station and a New England-style inn, the Outlook, with brass beds, marbletop dressers and a cozy bar that seemed perfect for one of those foggy evenings. Frame buildings lined the street of Eastsound. Orcas Home-grown Market displayed fresh halibut and salmon, crab, mussels, oysters and clams along with flour, beans, bran, alfalfa seeds, dates and nuts in old-fashioned bins and two-gallon jars.

Co-op Displays Artworks

Several miles beyond Eastsound I ran into Marcy Lund at Orcas Island Artworks, a co-op that displays the works of local craftsmen and artists, including oils and pottery, ceramics, handmade quilts and the artistry of woodworkers and weavers.

Occupying one corner of the old barn-like building, Marcy Lund serves homemade soups (broccoli, mushroom and a bean and sausage mixture), plus roasted cashew and chicken sandwiches, and a wonderful combination of mushrooms, cream cheese, sour cream, dill and walnuts rolled into filo dough. Her desserts are downright outrageous: strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, blueberry cheese cake and chocolate and blueberry pies.

On the same country lane I stopped to visit with Joan Vening, an Irish lass who displays hand-knit sweaters and kilted skirts in a store inside her home. With her husband Jeffrey (the island's only piper) she settled on Orcas because somehow it reminded her of home and County Down and for Jeffrey it reflected fond memories of England and Scotland.

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