The Wilds of Orcas Island

Kyle Johnson

In the Salish Sea, off Washington State, the largest of the San Juan Islands is a land that time forgot.

It’s a sunny day and the water is as smooth as glass as the Kenmore Air seaplane approaches the 57-square-mile Orcas Island, the largest of the 172 San Juan Islands, located in the Salish Sea between Washington State and Vancouver, Canada. To the south, the Anacortes ferry is making its way to “the landing” (locals never call it Orcas Village) between the island’s two major inlets: West Sound and East Sound. To the east is the island’s highest point, the 2,409-foot Mount Constitution, which towers over Moran State Park. I can’t quite spot the main village, Eastsound­, at the midpoint, but I can almost smell the aroma of nettle-pesto pizza emerging from Hogstone’s Wood Oven (460 Main St.; 360-376-4647). The seaplane descends, landing on its pontoons, and glides across the bay into a harbor encircled by Douglas fir trees. I am only a 35-minute flight from downtown Seattle, yet I am so far removed from the city that there’s even a dif­ferent weather system: Here the sun shines 247 days of the year, and rain is reserved for winter.

Orcas Island is a slice of Americana without any hustle and bustle. Oysters are sold at the gas station. The organic Black Dog Farm stand off Enchanted Forest Road operates on an honor system. (“If Grandma takes a few extra po­­tatoes,” says farmer Ian Harlow, “it’s all right by me.”) Even the billionaires who inhabit the surrounding islands—Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, Oakley sunwear founder James Jannard—­are decidedly low-key.

It’s lunchtime, and there’s a small crowd at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm (77 EJ Young Rd.; 360-376-5280), about a 15-minute drive southeast from Eastsound. (Almost everything on Orcas is under a 15-minute drive from Eastsound.) In 2007 Toni Hermansen and Mark Sawyer revived the Wright family’s business, which opened in 1940. They now seed the East Sound’s entire 26-acre Buck Bay with clams and oysters, yielding more 50,000 oysters and 8,500 pounds of clams a year. Past the chicken coop and pea patch is the social center of the enterprise: Toni’s Shuck Shack. Today’s catch is wild-caught salmon, Dungeness crab, spot prawns and oysters, which, it’s soon discovered, undeniably taste best when slurped in view of the bay from which they were plucked.

Orcas’s tried-and-true lodging choice is Rosario Resort & Spa (rooms, from $100; 1400 Rosario Rd.; 360-376-2222), southeast of Eastsound (book the recently refurbished Residences at Rosario [from $320]), or there’s Turtleback Farm Inn (rooms, from $115; 1981 Crow Valley Rd.; 360-376-4914), a simple bed-and-breakfast southwest of Eastsound (request the top floor of the Orchard House). For a real hideaway head to West Beach (rooms, from $140; 190 Waterfront Way; 360-376-2240), northwest of Eastsound. Its 21 rustic cottages were grandfathered in from an era preceding building codes and so were constructed directly on the pebble beach, making it possible to walk ten feet to the water, take out a stand-up paddleboard and drop a crab pot.

One of Orcas’s biggest draws is its simplicity, a word that often comes up when islanders explain how they got here. Many are city dwellers–turned–farmers. Goldman Sachs vet­eran Audra Query Lawlor was approaching her tenth year on Wall Street: “I realized that the highlight of my week was ogling the produce at the Union Square farmers’ market,” she says. So in 2011 she and her husband traded their apartment in Manhattan for an Orcas farmhouse down a one-lane road. Today Lawlor is the proprietor of Girl Meets Dirt, picking fruit from the island’s century-old orchards­ to make preserves, like pear balsamic, apple caramel and rhubarb lavender, that she sells at the Orcas Island Farmers’ Market (North Beach Rd.), which is open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

David Ellertsen and Lee Horswill were working in Las Vegas and taking pastry classes in their spare time when they saw an advertisement for an empty retail space in Eastsound­. “We flew out immediately,” Ellertsen­ recalls while placing a golden kouign-amann pastry onto a plate. “And we fell in love with the island.” They opened their bakery, Brown Bear Baking (29 N. Beach Rd.; 360-855-7456), last year, and judging by the line out the door, the islanders fell in love with them, too.

But for Charly Robinson, the transition to Orcas wasn’t as much about starting something new as carrying on a grand tradition. The thirtysomething is the executive director of the historic 185-acre Coffelt Farm (1071 Crow Valley Rd.; 360-376-3410;, which today operates as a nonprofit, offering­ workshops­ on beekeeping and butchery, providing produce for the local school system and raising much of the island’s meat. At its farm stand, she sells everything from grass-fed lamb to wool socks.

With so much fresh produce, cooking requires little more than chopping things into a bowl, but the island’s restaurants shouldn’t be missed. The menu at Hogstone’s Wood Oven, a pizzeria that farmer John Steward opened last year, shifts with whatever Steward harvests that day, and the choices are invariably delicious. And John and Joni Trumbull’s humble Roses Bakery & Café (382 Prune Alley; 360-376-4292) turns out simple soups, sandwiches and homemade pastas. It’s been on the island in one form or another since 1991 and now lives in the old fire station. The hottest dinner seat in town is at Inn at Ship Bay (326 Olga Rd.; 877-276-7296), where chef Geddes Martin serves Swallow Belly Mangalitsa pork. (He raises three of the 24 bloodlines in the States.) The Barnacle (249 Prune Alley; 206-679-5683) is the spot for a nightcap.

But there is more to do than eat—the island is a mecca for the active. On a local tip, I drive, rather than hike, up Mount Constitution and climb the storybook observation tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936, to read a display about Seattle mayor Robert Moran, who retired to Orcas in 1905 upon being advised that he had one year to live. Once there, he thrived for nearly four more decades and secured the 5,579-acre nature preserve, Moran State Park, on which the tower stands. I’m glad I saved my legs for the less popular—and quite stunning—­hike up Turtleback Mountain. When I reach the summit, I have panoramic views in every direction all to myself.

At Obstruction Pass State Park walk the island’s longest uninterrupted beach or borrow a kayak from Doe Bay and head out to an uninhabited island, spotting sea otters, harbor seals and bald eagles along the way. (If you’re not familiar with the area, it’s best to paddle with Shearwater Kayaks [360-376-4699].)

On my final day, I call to ask where to return my rental car and receive curious instructions: Toss the keys on the floor and lock the doors; park it anywhere. “Anywhere?” I ask. “Yup, anywhere,” the mellow voice on the phone replies. “We’ll find it.” On Orcas, nothing goes undiscovered for long, least of all my desire to return.