Why you should care

Because anybody can go to Disneyland.

OK, so let’s say you’re so over the typical American vacation. You need someplace close, but you want it to be enough of a hassle to get to so it won’t be overrun by pasty-legged tourists in cargo shorts, flowered shirts and new tennis shoes.

If you look at a map of Washington state, that notch in the upper left-hand corner is the Salish Sea. Within its confines? One hundred seventy-two islands. No bridges, no casual visitors. To get there, you take a ferry or a floatplane. This means you have to want to be there— and the people who do are exceptionally, um, mellow.

Friday Harbor is Mayberry meets Seattle in the Salish Sea.

The largest island in the archipelago is San Juan, which also happens to be the name of the entire chain. The town on that island is called Friday Harbor. While at first glance it comes across as a sleepy Pacific Northwest seaport village, Friday Harbor has an undercurrent of sophistication similar to that of Seattle, its larger sister to the south.

Basically, Friday Harbor is Mayberry meets Seattle in the Salish Sea. The late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture of its shopping district fronts stylish galleries, sleek restaurants and, of course, the obligatory coffeehouses. Instead of big-city attitude, though, the locals exude down-home cool.

o orca spyhop

Source Photo Courtesy of Captain Hobbes Buchanan

“We’re some of the most self-reliant people you’ll find anywhere,” says Lee Brooks, owner of the Arctic Raven Gallery on South First Street and a 45-year resident of Friday Harbor. Brooks’ gallery features Arctic and Northwest Coast native artists. “My thing is to give a dignified presentation to the works of the communities we marginalized when we took over,” Brooks says with unflinching frankness.

This is typical of the people you’ll meet in Friday Harbor.

“We’re about to see something that might not be here 20 years from now,” says Hobbes Buchanan of San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours. Aboard Natsilane, a 28-foot Albin express cruiser, we’re in the waters on the west side of the island where orcas forage for salmon. “With climate change and other environmental factors depleting their food supply, it’s just a matter of time until the whales are gone,” Buchanan says. “It’s really a shame, because they are mind-blowing in their majesty.”

The truth of Buchanan’s statement becomes readily apparent a few minutes later when a whale breaches right next to us. Because Natsilane is so small and sits right at water level, the orca’s enormity is revealed in full scale. It’s awe-inspiring — and tragic once you know the reality of the animals’ situation.

Friday Harbor isn’t a place where everything is sanitized for your protection. A deft combination of the pastoral and the urbane, the village and San Juan Island are 100 percent authentic.

“You create your own experience here,” says Karl Bruno, manager of the 82-acre Lakedale Resort. “If you’re looking for luxury, our lodge rivals anything you’ll find anywhere. But if you want to rough it, you can pitch a tent and chill beside one of our three spring-fed lakes.” For those looking for something between the two extremes, the resort has canvas cabins and log cabins. You decide the nature of your stay; you’re not locked into a prix fixe program.

“It’s a place for independent thinkers with a creative spirit,” says Brooks, “whether your thing is film festivals, gallery openings and coffeehouses, or huddling under a blanket on the windward side of the island watching storms roll in off the Pacific. Up here, we keep it real.”

Best time to visit? Mid-September to late November. The weather is still good, the summer traffic has died down, and you pretty much have the run of the island. Friday Harbor hosts a film festival around that time, featuring stories of the Pacific Rim and beyond. This year, the festival runs Nov. 4–6. And this year, I’ll be there again.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the source at San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours as well as the manager of Lakedale Resort.

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