Orcas Island offers a serene, recuperative getaway
Words Lauren Kramer
Photography courtesy San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
There’s something magical about visiting Orcas Island in the San Juan archipelago in winter. The crowds are gone, dinner reservations are unnecessary and as you explore the beaches, hiking paths and art shops selling the work of local islanders, you have them all to yourself.
It allows you to experience the peace and rural beauty of this island in an entirely different way from in the summer, when rooms, restaurants and any available spaces are at capacity.
We checked into a water’s-edge suite at the Outlook Inn in Eastsound, Orcas Island’s main town centre. With a stately, historic main building that dates back to 1888, the Outlook Inn is a landmark in this walkable village; it’s a “grande dame” that has long been a gathering point for locals and visitors.
We were riveted by the peaceful beauty of a property, which is surrounded by rocky shores and densely forested islands. In the morning, we sipped coffee from a private balcony directly above the log-strewn beach, watching the seabirds dip and dive beneath the still water’s surface and the light change colour on Fishing Bay and Indian Island.
We weren’t the first to be this captivated. Since its inception, the Outlook Inn has changed names and ownership many times, as new proprietors were inspired to renovate, expand and modernize it.
None generated as much controversy as its 1968 purchaser, the mystic guru Louis Gittner. He believed it was close to a powerful energy vortex, and turned the inn into a spiritual commune where he and his followers could live and learn. His followers came in search of help, peace and a different kind of life, and worked for free in the commune.
“This new spiritual community at the Outlook Inn was not welcomed,” said Sara Farish, who co-owns the inn today. Browsing through old newspapers, she came across one from 1969 where the pastor of a local church declared of the commune, “God lives on this side of the street and the devil lives over there.”
There was no devil, of course—just a fear of anything different and unfamiliar. Gittner and his followers recognized the same bewitching, powerful beauty that continues to draw visitors and admirers to Orcas Island year after year. It’s the simple beauty of beaches unscathed by time and development, swaths of protected forest land with magnificent hiking trails, and scenic byways filled with jaw-dropping views.
Today the Outlook Inn is owned by a small investment group and run by the Farish family with island warmth, friendliness and a distinctly homey feel. A small historic chapel in the garden out back is a beautiful site for small weddings and private gatherings, and sitting alongside the water’s-edge suites is a private lawn with Adirondack chairs where guests can soak up the soul-soothing view.
There’s lots to do on Orcas in the winter, even when the whale watching tours and boat, kayak and bike rentals have shuttered for the season. We took a walk through Eastsound village, exploring small bakeries, bookstores, boutiques and galleries.
At the Pioneer Museum—a collection of original settlers’ homesteads that were relocated to the island and joined together—we marveled at the resourcefulness of the 1880s islanders and those who followed them. They sustained themselves by building their homes by hand, fishing, hunting, and canning food in a time when refrigeration and electricity were unheard of.
We drove the scenic byways along the sun-dappled roads that weave through the U-shaped island, delivering views of forests, rural farmland and rocky shores. And we gleefully detoured to peruse island-made crafts wherever we found them.
To reach Orcas Island Pottery, a series of galleries showcasing many island potters’ work, we drove a gravel road deep into a forest, arriving to a welcoming committee of softly clucking hens in the courtyard. Along with a beautiful selection of pottery, the site boasts a tree house straight out of an enchanted forest.
Orcas Island is home to two state parks, each with its own distinct interest and charm. At Moran State Park, we hiked the switchbacks to Cascade Lake, later driving 2,800 feet to the peak of Mount Constitution. From here, the highest point in the San Juan Islands, we soaked up a view of the Pacific Northwest that stretched from Vancouver to Seattle, encompassing the snow-capped mountain ranges and scattered islands of the San Juans in Washington and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia.
Further south, in Obstruction Pass State Park, we walked down to Crescent Beach, one of the island’s longest and most serene stretches of beach, watching seals swim in the crystal-clear water. At Turtleback Mountain Preserve we hiked to Ship Peak, alone on a glorious trail with the reward of a panoramic view at the top.
At Rosario Resort, we were treated to a free weekly winter afternoon musical performance by the resort’s longtime general manager Christopher Peacock. In an hour-long presentation, Peacock played self-composed melodies on the Steinway grand piano and excerpts from Phantom of the Opera on the 1914 Aeolian organ in an astounding music room built in 1909 by Robert Moran, the resort’s founder. Peacock entertained us with a concise history of Rosario and of Moran, a shipbuilder and former Seattle mayor.
We left Orcas in a state of sublime peace. Our minds were filled with images of the mesmerizing vistas and the island’s fascinating history, and our bodies were invigorated by windswept hikes along ancient forest trails. If you’re looking for a divinely recuperative getaway, look no further than Orcas Island, a gem in the San Juans.
TO GET THERE:
San Juan Airlines (sanjuanairlines.com) offers 10-minute flights from Bellingham to Eastsound for $114 USD one way. The longer route is to drive to Anacortes, then take a 55-minute ride on a Washington State Ferry (wsdot.wa.gov/travel/washington-state-ferries).
The 32-room Outlook Inn (outlookinn.com) offers standard guest rooms in the east wing, studio suites on the hill, and its newest and most luxurious addition, five premium water’s-edge suites. The suites feature king-size beds, electric fireplaces, heated bathroom floors and private balconies. Some suites include soaker tubs. Expect flat-panel TVs, Nespresso machines, fine linens and thoughtful appointments throughout.
The Outlook Inn’s New Leaf Cafe is a cosy eatery with a sumptuous selection of seasonally inspired brunch and dinner fare that belies its casual atmosphere. The well-rounded menu, lovingly crafted by Chef Andrew Martin, has a “tide-to-table” philosophy that highlights local products, and skillful preparation of each dish is matched by artful presentation. Don’t miss the handcrafted morning cocktails at brunch, and look out for the selection of San Juan Islands-made brews at dinner.