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A San Juan Islands Primer

May 01, 1994|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — So you don't want to charter a schooner? An even larger and more imposing vessel awaits to take you to the popular San Juan Islands of Washington: The ferry, the state's No. 1 tourist attraction.

The easy way, yes. But these days, when getting places is not always part of the fun, the comfortable, scenic ferry ride is reason enough to journey through these green, sheltered islands.

In fact, for some first-time visitors, the ferry is the very best part of a trip to the islands, whose huge tourist appeal has in some cases outstripped local visitor facilities.

In the four years I've lived in Seattle and the 20 years I've been coming to the San Juans, I've learned that a simple way to make a lasting impression on visitors is with nothing more complex or expensive than the one- to two-hour ferry from Anacortes, Wash., to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and a lively jaunt ashore.

In summer, that can mean anything from renting a kayak and paddling out with the seals, or taking a drive to the site of one of the strangest military battles in U.S. history--the little-known "Pig War" with Britain. Easy park and shoreline hikes in ocean-scrubbed fresh air, whale-watching cruises and family bicycling on two-lane roads also draw enthusiasts.

The San Juans are composed of more than 400 islands lying in sheltered ocean waters north of Seattle, between Washington state and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. About 60 islands are inhabited and four primary islands are served by state ferries. Three of them--San Juan, Orcas and Lopez--have visitor services and accommodations.

The busiest island is San Juan, with its village of Friday Harbor. Shaw has very limited facilities.

Locals will tell you the San Juans are the closest you can get to a banana belt in the high latitudes. In the rain shadow of Vancouver Island, the islands receive only half the rainfall of Seattle, and the high-season months of July, August and early September offer more sun than just about anywhere this far north near ocean water.

Locals also will tell you that peak-season tourism has ballooned to the point that unwary, happy-go-lucky travelers often go away feeling neither happy nor lucky. Parking, water shortages and crowded approaches to ferries and tourist attractions can be frustrating.

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A day trip promises the fewest pitfalls for newcomers.

Ferries depart for the San Juans from Anacortes, about a 1 1/2- to two-hour drive north from Seattle. A pleasant stop en route is the community of La Conner, an old fishing village and trading post that has given itself over to waterfront tourism--small shops and plenty of cafes and a good, old-fashioned ambience. And, of course, summer crowds.

Ferry sailings from Anacortes begin before dawn and run until just past midnight in summers--a total of 18 sailings per day. Food and beverages are available aboard, and sightseeing is splendid from either the open sun-deck or the enclosed passenger lounges.

Sometimes ferries leave just a few minutes apart and sometimes there is more than an hour between sailings. That's because some boats go directly to Friday Harbor, a one-hour sail, and others stop en route at the other islands, which can extend the one-way trip to two hours.

The ferry approaches can be congested and intimidating at first. But press ahead, this is not like trying to ride the subway in a strange city--the ticket sellers are accustomed to wide-eyed tourists and the staging process actually goes quite smoothly.

Tickets are sold only for westbound sailings; returns are free. The exceptions are two daily sailings that continue past Friday Harbor to Sidney, B.C., north of Victoria. On those trips, fares are collected in both directions.

But anyone contemplating a summertime ferry trip faces a crucial choice before getting in line: take the car or walk on the ferry without it?

Joyce Myhr of the San Juan Islands Visitors Information Service cautions you to consider carefully: "You have to ask yourself, how do you want to spend your time? In the car ferry line? Or worrying how you are going to get around once you're there?" According to Myhr, for a day trip in the middle of the season, it makes little sense to drive your car.

The principal islands are big enough, and the parks and sights spread out for miles, that many sightseers choose to drive anyway, at least for their first visit. But they must pay the price: Weekend ferry lines for motorists can stretch for three hours, or sometimes more.

(Ferry toll for car and driver from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, $20.30. No reservations. Schedule information: (206) 464-6400. Tip: If you want to see more than one island, start on San Juan, at the far west, and work your way back free of charge.)

Particularly crowded are holiday weekends and July 29-31, the dates of the Dixieland Jazz Festival in Friday Harbor (three-day pass, $40; daily, $10 to $25; tel. 206- 378-5509). During the festival, even parking can be a chore.

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