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On my most recent trip to the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea region, my kids — ages 10, 12 and 14 — and I stood at the rail of the Washington State ferry bringing us to San Juan Island, watching the floating docks and sea lions of Friday Harbor come into focus. The storefronts and seafood restaurants hugged the bay like a jostling crowd, vying for the attention of the summer tourists delivered to their shore.
Disembarking, my fellow passengers seemed just as eager to reunite with the harbor; on my trips to this little corner of the world, I’ve noticed that few visitors come just once. It draws adventurers and family travelers like few destinations can, promising both natural beauty and a relaxed atmosphere ideal for a family vacation.
The Salish Sea region stretches from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, with more than 400 islands in between. It’s a network of inside waterways and shorelines, populated by independent, happy people and abundant sea life, including orca whales. On this family vacation, our itinerary would take us from Washington’s mainland at Anacortes to the San Juan Islands in the heart of the Salish Sea; back to Anacortes to drive the famous Deception Pass Bridge onto Whidbey Island; then via ferry to Port Townsend, which sits on the edge of the mainland’s Olympic Peninsula.
San Juan Island offers a wide range of lodging options for families, from glamping or lodge stays at the inland Lakedale Resort to waterfront accommodations at Snug Harbor or Roche Harbor.
Attractions are no more than a 20-minute drive from any point on the island. On a two-day itinerary, we started in Friday Harbor, where we learned more about the area’s sea life at The Whale Museum, then drove the short distance to English Camp, the site of the infamous Pig War — a tussle in 1859 between the U.S. and the British that all started with a pig. We hiked the trails overlooking the bay with our binoculars at the ready in case of whale sightings.
Our second day was spent on the water. We kayaked around the sound at Roche Harbor, weaving along still waters between outer islands. We also kept an eye out for orcas, which proved elusive, and waited for clearance to cross channels as sailboats and fishing vessels met our path. The kids loved the chance to help man their own kayaks, and our local guide from San Juan Outfitters found the perfect balance between entertaining and educating.
The next day, we departed San Juan Island via ferry back to Anacortes and made the short but beautiful drive to the agricultural mecca of Whidbey Island. Dotted with lavender fields, small farms and oyster beds, Whidbey boasts more state parks than can be counted on one hand. Families should center themselves in the historic town of Coupeville to avoid the more built-up areas to the south of the island.
From here, we took a day to explore Deception Pass more thoroughly — zipping under the bridge in a speedboat with Deception Pass Tours, all the while on watch for dolphins or whales, and hiking the trails to the island’s tiny, isolated beaches.
For our last day and night in the Salish Sea region, we took the ferry at Coupeville to the onetime World War I military outpost of Port Townsend, located on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. This community is still alive with history, from Fort Worden State Park on the Salish Sea shore to the historic buildings lining the town front. Fort Worden is open to the public for lodging, and kids love spending the night in the captains’ homes. Situated on many acres filled with hiking trails, open lawns and battlements, these shore-front accommodations are a kids’ playground.
We spent the remainder of the day playing on the batteries, checking out the touch tanks at the on-site Marine Science Center and walking through the commercial district downtown, sampling goods at its ice-cream parlors and hot dog stands and perusing history museums.
From Port Townsend, visitors can head back to Whidbey Island to catch a ferry to the mainland north of Seattle or continue exploring the Olympic Peninsula by winding south along windswept beaches and through the temperate rainforests of Olympic National Park. Having done both more than once, I can honestly say there’s no wrong choice.
WHERE TO STAY
San Juan IslandLakedale Resort: Kid-friendly, rustic tent and cabin accommodations in an inland setting, plus upscale lodge rooms available.
Snug Harbor Resort: Upscale cabin resort on the west shore.
Roche Harbor Resort: Historic hotel lodging with a romantic feel. Families have the option of cabins or condos.
Port TownsendFort Worden State Park: This historic and unique “captain’s row” lodging can be booked through Washington State Parks, but it’s best to reserve early for the summer season. The park is located on the bay within walking distance of trails and beaches.
Deception Pass Tourswww.deceptionpasstours.com
Enjoy Port Townsendwww.enjoypt.com
San Juan Islands Official Travel Guidewww.visitsanjuans.com
San Juan Outfitterswww.sanjuanislandoutfitters.com