By Roy Stevenson
Photography by Linda Popovich
The San Juan Islands offer an eclectic alternative to Canada’s Gulf Islands, including eight superb destination marinas.
Few cruising grounds can match Washington State’s Puget Sound for its wide array of natural beauty, wildlife and idyllic boating conditions. Right across the border from Canada’s Gulf Islands lies the eclectic group of islands known as the San Juans, a favourite destination for Canadian cruisers for decades.
One of the great pleasures of cruising in the San Juans is the islands’ impressive selection of welcoming and well-run marinas. Here are eight great marina destinations for you to visit, explore and enjoy.
SAN JUAN ISLAND
Roche Harbor is renowned among boaters for its peaceful, isolated ambience and its majestic centerpiece, the white-terraced 123-year-old Hotel de Haro. But there’s far more to this typical Pacific Northwest scene, where fir and pine-forested rocky outcrops descend to a deep blue harbour. It’s a very popular boaters’ haven and hundreds of cruisers enjoy visits and rendezvous here every year.
Following the major additions of new docks and slips, a fuel dock, modern washrooms, showers and laundry in 1997, Roche Harbor Marina has firmly established itself as the Northwest’s most idyllic and convenient moorage for yachters. Recently voted one of North America’s Top 10 Marinas, it can accommodate up to 377 boats, from 20 to 150’ in length, on 11 long wooden finger docks.
This superb deep-water marina’s telephone hookups, high-speed Internet and unique floating mobile sewage pump-out service make it a home away from home for local cruisers as well as visitors from around the world. A covered 40’ by 40’ barge is available for guests and complete with propane barbecues, chairs and tables. The marina also has a mechanic available for repairs.
The Hotel de Haro has three superb restaurants that feature the Northwest’s finest seafood cuisine and wines, and a spa. Exploring the art galleries, gift shops, bookstore, sculpture park and historical landmarks beside the harbour is a pleasant half-day’s activity. Hiking trails wind through the old limestone quarries on the hillside for those who prefer dry land. Tennis courts and a swimming pool are available closer to the harbour.
In the evenings boaters and hotel guests gather at the flag pavilion for Roche Harbor’s moving colours ceremony, when flags of the US, Canada and the UK are lowered to their national anthems, followed by “taps” and a booming shot from the cannon. This tradition dates to the 1950s.
With 15,000 boater visits each year, Friday Harbor offers the Salish Sea’s most popular and lively marina. You’ll understand its appeal from the moment you glimpse this picturesque harbor, tucked away between two expansive tree-covered fingers of headland.
“We don’t turn guests away – we raft and squeeze people in,” says harbourmaster Tami Hayes. “We’ve had five or six boats deep all over the breakwater. People come from all over the world to resupply, swap crews, or rest on their way through.”
Friday Harbor’s number-one attraction is the nationally rated Whale Museum. Opened in 1979, this museum draws 25,000 visitors each year. Pick up the brochure entitled “Discover Historic Friday Harbor” from the visitor’s centre and you can take a self-guided tour of the town’s old buildings dating from 1867. Farther up the hill, you can visit the San Juan Historical Museum – a small pioneer village of eight antique buildings.
Friday Harbor is a popular arts community and boasts several galleries and studios for art lovers, three well-stocked bookshops, a variety of shops for everyone’s needs and wants (including provisions), tasting rooms for local wines, about 30 restaurants, and many outdoor activities ranging from kayak tours to whale-watching. Exploring the rest of San Juan Island is a must, and it’s easy to rent a bicycle, a moped or a car here.
The town’s major events are the Fourth of July Parade and Fireworks, Splash of Color weekend in mid-July (a combined Lavender Festival and Summer Arts Fair), and Artstock (visual arts and music) on the first weekend of October.
The Port of Friday Harbor has 120 guest slips out of a total of 500 berths, but the port crew fills permanent customer slips when they are vacant. Services include laundry, showers, electricity, chandleries, provisions, a fuel dock, US Customs Port of Entry, vessel assistance and repair.
Deer Harbor is one of Puget Sound’s quietest and most picturesque moorages: tall, rocky cliffs topped with a thick green cover of Douglas firs line the harbour’s west side, with the cabins of Deer Harbor Resort along the east side of the harbor.
Deer Harbor’s easiest access from the south is via Pole Pass between Crane Island and Bird Rock. With rocks along shorelines and in the approaches and sometimes swift currents, this narrow pass looks more formidable than it really is. It’s deep, well marked, and frequently used. Stay in mid-channel, keep your speed down, and watch for the rocks on the north shoreline, marked with a red “2”.
Inside Deer Harbor, stay well clear of the shoals on the east shore, and look for Deer Harbor Resort to starboard, a sprawling series of brown and gray cabins on the hillside.
The marina has 111 slips (55 for guests) but harbourmaster Marc Broman advises visitors to call first to reserve if visiting in July or August. This is a busy spot in the summer, hosting 15 to 20 yacht club rendezvous each year and Broman has reluctantly turned boats away when the marina was full.
The marina offers full amenities: power, water, shower and toilet facilities, laundry, Internet access, pump-out, garbage disposal, recycling, and a fuel dock at the south float.
Conveniently located on the dock, the Marina Store is a grocery store that doubles as a café with a surprisingly lengthy menu. You can rent kayaks right off the dock, hire a naturalist to tell you about the whales of the San Juans, or visit photographer Peter Fromm’s gallery. Boaters have free access to the resort swimming pool, located directly across the road from the marina entrance.
And there is a world-class restaurant just a 10-minute walk up Deer Harbor Road. The Deer Harbor Inn Restaurant offers a selection of fresh seafood, steaks and gourmet meals. If you need a ride from the marina to the restaurant, phone ahead and they’ll pick you up in their 1972 blue Caddy limousine (360-376-1040).
Orcas Island’s West Sound is scenic enough for a pleasant moorage. “But the main reason why sailors come in here is when they need repairs,” says Betsy Wareham, president of West Sound Marina. “We have the biggest boat lift in the San Juans: 30 tons.”
“We do have some regulars who stay here every year for a few days,” adds Wareham. Canadian boaters take note: the Orcas Island Yacht Club has reciprocal arrangements with most BC clubs. On Friday nights in the summer, the yacht club has open sailboat races.
With only six of the 180 slips at West Sound reserved for guests, it pays to make reservations at least 24 hours in advance and further out before long weekends.
Resurrected in the past couple of years, Rosario Resort is a must-visit for cruisers in the San Juans. A night at this magnificent refurbished hotel, on the eastern shore of East Sound, will take you back to the early 1900s, when Seattle shipbuilder Robert Moran built this historic home to last with 12-inch thick concrete walls. The resort’s rich history and ambiance make for an interesting and relaxing stay.
Visit the Moran Museum, walk the trail around Cascade Lake or hike up Mount Constitution. To explore further afield, take one of the public shuttle buses. The small town of East Sound offers many tourist shops, galleries, boutiques, an excellent bookshop, and restaurants.
The resort spa offers a variety of rejuvenating treatments and an indoor pool. You can dine at the Mansion Restaurant and Moran Lounge for a fine Northwest gourmet meal, or for lighter fare try the Cascade Bay Grill and General Store.
Staying in any of the resort’s 10 suites is a treat, with a selection of bayside, waterfront, garden or harbour suites. The biggest problem you’re likely to encounter at Rosario is that you’ll want to stay longer!
The resort marina has 38 slips and 12 mooring buoys in deep water in the eastern half of Cascade Bay. All slips have power, water and fuel dock access. The marina fee includes use of all hotel facilities, including pool, showers, laundry, spa and tennis courts; there’s also a children’s pool at the head of the dock. Rosario Resort takes prepaid reservations for overnight and day-use moorage.
Doe Bay is off the beaten track on the southeast shore of Orcas, en route to the northern outposts of the San Juans such as Sucia, Matia, Patos and Clark islands, as well as Lummi Island and the Canadian Gulf Islands.
The resort has one guest mooring buoy that will accommodate vessels to 45’, as well as anchorage for approximately six boats in depths of 12 to 24’ and another six boats further out in 36 to 48’ of water. Boaters can dinghy or kayak ashore to the property and take the terraced stairs from the rocky beach to the café. After dark, be prepared with a lantern or flashlight.
This moorage, opposite the 33-acre Doe Bay Resort and Retreat, provides a beautiful natural setting. Don’t expect a slick resort here. Instead, you’ll find 30 quaint cabins, domes and yurts that look like they were constructed as part of a hippie community circa the 1960s – which, apparently, is how this resort got started.
It’s this rustic charm that attracts people to Doe Bay. You can come here to resupply and not be bothered by other people unless you choose to participate in resort activities (yoga, massage, horseshoes, volleyball, kayaking, hiking and more). The Doe Bay Café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their store offers provisions and a variety of arts and crafts.
Although the bay is not well protected from southerly winds and occasional swells from passing ships, the waters are generally calm, and depths are good over a sandy bottom, with a few shallow spots that are well marked on NOAA charts.
Note: Peapod Rocks lie just outside Doe Bay to the east. With strong currents, shallows and rocks, this area calls for caution. Check charts and tides carefully before transiting this area.
Fisherman Bay, on Lopez Island’s west side, provides a serene haven for visiting boaters with two marinas. The entrance to the bay is shallow, narrow and winding but well-marked – study charts carefully before entering. High tide is the safest time to enter or depart.
Lopez Island is a lower-key place than neighbouring islands but this is why people visit – it’s like going back 40 years to a kinder, gentler time. For the active visitor there’s plenty to do: kayaking, cycling, golf and tennis. For hikers, several parks offer good trails. Lopez Village, 1.5 kilometres from the marinas, has shopping, a history museum, art galleries, gift shops, a bookstore and a Saturday Market.
Mooring at the marina gives you access to the Lopez Islander Resort amenities, including the pool, hot tub, spa and the Water View Lounge and Restaurant. If you crave a night ashore, the resort rooms are comfortable and equipped with kitchenettes.
The marina’s 64 slips accommodate small boats to large yachts, with power, water, a fuel dock with diesel and propane, showers and a store. The resort prefers reservations by phone for guest moorage.
Islands Marine Center
Only a few hundred metres north of the Lopez Islander is Fisherman Bay’s other marina, Islands Marine Center, with 100 slips and transient moorage with 80’ fingers and a breakwater. Harbourmaster Chris Coldwell says about 40 percent of his guests are Canadians. He recommends that visitors make reservations from February onwards.
IMC is a full-service marina with a 25-ton hoist and a full marine repair center, including a chandlery and marine parts sales. It also sells some brands of premier boats. The marina has a state-of-the-art pump-out system, like a central vacuum system with ports spread out around the facility.
Note: Directly opposite the two Fisherman Bay marinas, a long strip of the harbour is used for Kenmore Air float plane take-offs and landings. Fisherman Bay is crowded in the summer and recreational boats may venture inadvertently into the marked seaplane take-off zone, disrupting flights. Be aware of this zone and stay well clear.
Contacts & Coordinates
Crossing the Border
Boaters must be able to meet US requirements when crossing the border. US Customs wants to know who you are, where you live and your citizenship. Travelling with a valid passport is the simplest way to cross the border without hassles. Other acceptable documentation includes a US Permanent Resident Card, a US Passport Card, a Nexus Card and I-68, or a CANPASS.
When you enter the US go directly to a customs port of entry before going ashore. Remember that until clearance is granted, only the vessel’s master is permitted ashore to meet US Customs. In the San Juans, there are ports of entry at Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor, San Juan Island.
The Waggoner Cruising Guide and website offer excellent advice for clearing customs in both directions.
Roy Stevenson is a travel writer and photographer based in Seattle, Washington. With more than 800 articles published in 180 regional, national and international magazines, newspapers, trade journals, in-flights and online travel magazines, he is one of the most prolific travel writers in the US.
Photo 1 – The Port of Friday Harbor is the Salish Sea’s most popular marina.
Photo 2 – Deer Harbor Marina lies in one of Puget Sound’s most picturesque bays.
Photo 3 – The 123-year-old Hotel de Haro is a majestic centerpiece at Roche Harbor Resort.
Photo 4 – Friday Harbor’s most popular attraction is the Whale Museum.
Photo 5 – Orcas Island’s West Sound Marina boasts a truly amazing marine store and chandlery.
Photo 6 – The Doe Bay Café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, while the store offers provisions and arts and crafts.
Photo 7 – Islands Marine Center on Lopez Island has a hoist and repair center, and sells new boats.