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FOOTLOOSE

There's Always Time on Lopez Island : Jewel of Washington's San Juans is a year-round haven for hikers, bikers and food lovers.

July 11, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

LOPEZ ISLAND, Wash. — It's a very casual yet not-quite-indolent wave of the left hand (always the left hand), but local islanders wouldn't think of letting a car, bike or solitary walker pass without showing this sign of friendly welcome and hello. To an urban visitor unaccustomed to such spontaneous civilities between strangers, the response is at first one of benign curiosity, later enthusiastic participation.

Lopez, one of the 172 San Juan Islands of Puget Sound off the coast of northern Washington, is a throwback to the old-fashioned embroidered sampler that proclaimed: "Once upon a time there was enough time." Folks hereabouts are wont to putting up their own jams, jellies, mustards, syrups and sauces, while some produce very acceptable wines and the best home-smoked salmon and oysters one is ever likely to savor.

Don't expect to find swank resorts on this 8-by-15-mile island of 1,600 people. You'll merely find miles of small farmsteads, rocky seashore and narrow, winding roads for walking or great biking. Lopez Village is the only built-up area, and nobody will be overcome by its size, either. It sits on Fisherman Bay, a protected haven for fishing boats and pleasure craft.

Once considered a summers-only vacation spot, Lopez Island now has something going during all four seasons. Spring sees the return of the orcas, or killer whales (great viewing from land or boat), and wildflowers. Summer brings boating, scuba diving, festivals and fairs. Fall has magnificent foliage and plenty of salmon. Winter is a bit wet, but the rain is usually soft and misty. Tranquillity reigns supreme year-round.

Just in case you're worried about accommodations and dining on such a rural island, consider that the choice for breakfast at an absolutely marvelous B&B was a shrimp souffle, hazelnut waffles or smoked-salmon crepes. Not too shabby for hinterland sustenance.

Getting settled in: That marvelous B&B mentioned above is the Inn at Swifts Bay, a very cozy Tudor-style place just two miles from the Lopez Island ferry landing. The inn has five rooms, three with private baths; the two attic suites have skylights, one over a queen-size bed for stargazing.

All of the rooms are done in exquisite taste, some with traditional furniture, all with queen-size beds. There is also an outdoor hot whirlpool spa in a nearby stand of cedars, a guest den with 200 movies on videocassette, TV and VCR, books, piano and a fireplace.

The Islander Lopez is a handsome, motel-like lodge right on Fisherman Bay. All bedrooms have decks overlooking the 50-slip marina, as well as small refrigerators and coffee-tea gear. More expensive rooms have wet bars and small kitchenettes with microwaves. The Islander has a waterfront restaurant, swimming pool, hot tub and Laundromat. There's also a resident deer on the grounds.

Edenwild Inn in Lopez Village is a fine old-fashioned home with wraparound porch and seven spacious bedrooms, three with working fireplaces. Public rooms are bright and airy with oak flooring, books and games everywhere, small nosegays of fresh flowers about. Each bedroom has a view of Fisherman Bay, San Juan Channel or a wooded garden.

Good local dining: Gail's (Lopez Village) is small, unpretentious and run by the friendliest people in a very friendly town. Most of their produce and herbs are organically grown by Bob Grout, who really knows Washington state wines, while his wife, Gail Pollack, makes everything on the menu from scratch, including a great selection of breads and desserts. Full dinners range from $14.95 to $17.95.

Don't be put off by the thrift-shop decor or the boat hanging from the ceiling at Bay Cafe (on Fisherman Bay). Try the three-cheese polenta with black beans ($2.95) or chicken satay ($3.95) for starters. Then go on to black-tiger prawns with chiles, pork tenderloin with ginger and scallions or Javanese barbecued lamb kebabs, all $14.95.

The menu at the Islander Lopez restaurant, is straightforwardly American: barbecued baby-back ribs, charbroiled steaks, fish and chips, Cajun-style chicken wings. There are also daily specials of fresh seafood, and most of the main courses are in the $8-$14 range.

On your own: Locals claim that the San Juan Islands are in a "weather shadow," created by surrounding mountains, that shelters them from much of the mainland's rain: less than a third of Seattle's, with twice the sunny days.

For any short-time Lopez visitor, Jim Poth would be a good guy to contact. He runs van, bicycle and hiking tours of the island and its sights, including visits to potters, vintners, salmon fishermen, sheep growers, weavers and other entrepreneurs of Lopez cottage industries.

Jim is a former Sunset magazine writer-photographer and really knows the territory. You can reach him at Easygoing Outings by calling (206) 466-1848.

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