Escape the Rat Race

San Juan offers clients a slower pace

By: Marty Wentzel

Whenever I ask San Juan Island residents why they moved here, they always answer something like this: “I wanted to escape from the rat race and live a more relaxed lifestyle in beautiful surroundings.”

Agents can use the same line with clients who have already experienced the bustling visitor hubs of Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria; and those in search of an alternative and slower-paced destination.

Dotting Northwest Washington’s waters, the 55-square-mile San Juan shares the visitor spotlight with its sister islands of Orcas and Lopez. Unlike the other islands, however, it established its main town of Friday Harbor right by the docks where Washington State ferries come and go making it appealing to pedestrians and bikers, as well as drivers.

For years there was no organized, cooperative effort to actively promote San Juan and its neighbor isles, said San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau executive director Deborah Hopkins.

“Islanders are independent-minded,” Hopkins said. “But since 1999, when SJIVB came into existence, the troops have rallied. We know we’re all in this together, and we’re presenting a welcoming spirit to visitors in partnership with the Chambers of Commerce.”

While its big-city neighbors may have more style and sophistication, San Juan Island boasts better weather, averaging about half the precipitation of the Emerald City.

“We’re in a rain shadow,” Hopkins said. “Cross the line and the weather completely changes. Thanks to our many microclimates, if you don’t like what’s happening in the sky, you can simply wait 15 minutes or go to another side of the island.”

San Juan swells with travelers in July and August, but Laura Saccio, who owns Friday’s Historic Inn and Friday Harbor Inn and Spa, recommends September and October visits.

“That’s when the weather is still beautiful and the rates are lower,” she said.

She sings the praises of Friday Harbor’s surprisingly high-quality community theater, outdoor summer Shakespeare productions, artist studios, garden tours, galleries and museums.

“There’s a lot to see and do here,” Saccio said, “but if you ever need more stimulation, Seattle is just a 30-minute seaplane ride away.”

Before moving to San Juan, Saccio was a financial analyst in Portland.

“I was working too many hours a week,” she said. “My husband and I needed to slow things down.”

I heard a similar story from Steve and Kathy Anderson, owners of The Place Bar and Grill in Friday Harbor, whose windows present heavenly views of the harbor.

“After living and working in Seattle for 12 years, we moved to San Juan Island with the intention of finding a less frantic place to raise our family,” they said. “It has been a great experience.”

Becki Day, manager of Friday Harbor’s popular Downrigger’s restaurant and owner of San Juan Wedding and Events, grew up in Seattle and environs.

“In 1995 during a beautiful Indian Summer, I made the decision to move here,” she said. “I love living in a small town. The sense of community spreads to our guests. One of the greatest rewards of my job is seeing my clients return year after year.”

Friday Harbor satisfies aquatic explorers with kayak and wildlife tours offered by San Juan Excursions. During a recent whale watch on the company’s Odyssey vessel, San Juan Excursions manager Alison Engle shared her feelings about the island.

“I lived here part-time in the summer of 1998 and came here permanently in April of ’99,” she said. “The quality of life is great.”

Beyond Friday Harbor, the rest of San Juan Island teems with activities ranging from bird-watching and clam-digging to horseback riding and wine-tasting. Clients can explore its down-to-earth attractions by car, bicycle, moped or a shuttle that runs in the summer. At my favorite stop, Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm and Country Store, owners Albert and Kris Olsen shared their story of moving to San Juan.

“As we were entering retirement, we bought a small lot on the island as a weekend retreat from the busy pace of the mainland,” said Kris.

One thing led to another, including the chance to buy an alpaca farm on the island.

“Instead of retiring, we entered into another great adventure,” she said. “We hope all visitors to this wonderful place will feel the magic, the peace and the beauty we enjoy every day.


This year, the Saturday mushroom hunts will be held on Sept. 16, 23 and 30, and Oct. 7, 14 and 21. The five-hour excursion, including lunch, costs around $108 per person. This autumn, Brother Michael, a Benedictine monk from the local Sole Dao Monastery and a mushroom expert who has supplied local hotels and restaurants with mushrooms for years, will be conducting the hands-on mushroom hunts.
Weekend rates at The Aerie start at around $265 night, dropping to $220 as of Sept. 28.
Commission is 15 percent.