Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday five: amazing Orcas Island.

Orcas Island is one of those places that Pacific Northwest people gush about. I mean, seriously gush. Don't get me wrong, I hear that all of the San Juan Islands are nice, but there's something about Orcas that makes people actually gush.

So naturally, when I saw the housesit ad last summer I immediately pounced. We exchanged a few friendly, funny emails with the host, and a few days later she made us the offer. (I may have squealed when I read her email. I may have also done a brief happy dance.)

From that point, whenever we'd mention to people that we'd be on Orcas for a month in February, their eyes would pop and huge grins would appear on their faces. (See? Gush.) We wouldn't be there for whale migrations, and we wouldn't have expendable budgets for eating out or whatever else people with jobs do when they visit Orcas - dolphin tours? sailing? - but we knew this would still be something special.

It was even more special that this would be our last housesit for the foreseeable future. And because we were watching three pretty self-sufficient cats and our host was very generous in letting us stay a few days before and after her trip, we had plenty of time to explore the island.

Here are our top five recommendations whether you have a weekend or an entire season to explore this beautiful part of the world...

1. Take a hike. Moran State Park offers 38 miles of beautiful trails, several waterfalls, many lakes, and hundreds of ginormous mossy trees. Trails are flat, steep, windy, long, short - there's something for everyone.

Cascade Falls

how could I not?

Cold Springs trail

As the story goes, the land for Moran State Park was donated to Washington State in 1921 by former Seattle mayor and shipbuilder Robert Moran. In the early 1900s, at age 47 Moran was mentally and physically exhausted, and his doctors thought he would die of heart disease. Moran sold his business and chose Orcas Island as the place to live the last few months of his life... where he recovered and lived to the ripe old age of 86. A fine lesson for us all, eh?

Cavern Falls
 Mountain Lake loop

Daily passes are $10 so we invested in the $30 annual Washington State Park pass, and we definitely got our money's worth just from our visits to Moran State Park. I'm pretty sure we hiked almost all 38 miles and there's only a small stretch of steep trail underneath power lines that we wouldn't recommend (only because it's tediously boring compared to the other 37 park miles, but mountain bikers should totally check it out!).

And although Turtleback Mountain Preserve is much smaller, its 8 miles of hikes are truly stunning.

we can see Canada!
(or maybe the Olympics - it's easy to get turned around up there)

the most perfectly placed bench we've seen in three years

Turtleback's small parking areas, more remote location, and limit on group size (15 or more requires an advanced call to the Land Bank) all mean you’re far less likely to run into hordes of people on your hike, like you might in Moran. An added bonus for hikers is that bikes are only allowed on even calendar days, and horses on odd calendar days. These restrictions enhance your hiking experience while helping to preserve the land for future generations. And? It's free!

2. Grab a flight. No, not to another island - which you can easily do (if you're one of those people with jobs who visits Orcas). We're talking about an Island Hoppin' Brewery flight.

best partnered with a rainy day 
and a map to plan our upcoming road trip

Unique brews, lively atmosphere, friendly staff, board games at the tables for entertainment. (And yes, by the end of the flight we'd figured out our road trip plan. Managers, take note - beer gets stuff done.)

3. Eat local. There are lots of organic farms on the island and a Saturday farmer's market May-September, but we also recommend picking up some organic produce and grass-fed/free-range meats from Coffelt Farm. This particular farm was sold to the San Juan County Land Bank in 2011 and the nonprofit that now manages the farm works very hard to "demonstrate sustainable, island-scale agricultural practices, promote environmental stewardship, and provide opportunities for education and research, while honoring Orcas Island’s rural heritage" (direct quote from their mission statement). It's a really interesting model for modern agriculture.

The farm hosts events throughout the year as part of its educational component. During our stay on the island, we joined a free farm tour so that we could see the spring babies up close and personal...

four days old 

thirty minutes old

how now, baby brown cow

Coffelt Farm's market stand is open year-round, Tuesday-Saturday from 1-5pm. Products vary by season and availability, but they always have something good on hand. Tell Charly we said hi when you stop by!

4. Birdwatch. We're not birders by any means - the best identification we are routinely capable of is "LBB!" ("little brown bird!"); we'd rather enjoy coffee in our PJs than hit the trails at the crack of dawn to see a "lifer"; and our binoculars stink. But we do love birds, and over 100 species exist on Orcas Island.  

 pileated (aka "Woody") woodpecker

blue heron #1

blue heron #2
(they look so different with their necks stretched out)

plover (I think)

Supposedly there are puffins. We saw no puffins, but we did see bald and golden eagles, falcons, hawks, cormorants, ducks, and a hundred billion elusive American robins. And a few LBBs.

5. Enjoy the view. There will be days when the skies open up and the wind howls, and you just want to sit somewhere with a beer and watch Mother Nature unfold. There will be other days when the skies are so blue and the cove is so calm, and you just want to sit somewhere with a beer and ponder why all the driftwood on the beach doesn't wash away with the gentle but persistent tide.

Either way, the White Horse Pub offers draft pints at happy hour prices 3-6pm. We went a few times during our stay and were pleased to find that Island Hoppin' and Portland's own HUB were on their tap (as well as your usual mainstream beers).

$3 view

Can't vouch for the food there, but who cares? Do you see that view?

Speaking of food, things are a bit pricey on the island so we didn't eat out but we did enjoy a coffee and pastry from Brown Bear Baking (yum). We also gave tofu waffles a try (needs more experimentation but I love the concept), I discovered Alton Brown's waffle recipe (highly recommend!), and Patrick tried his hand at baking bread (he's a natural, my work here is done).

So yes, our last housesit for the foreseeable future could not have been more perfect.

Well, that's not completely true - the Orcas Island plan didn't really include east coast family emergencies, but as the wise Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Such is life. Patrick got several weeks of solo time during my mouth punch, which was good for him, and I got a beautiful retreat after an especially crappy start to 2016, which was good for me.

And we got to hang out in a lovely house (and sometimes, also a tiny house!) with three ridiculously sweet cats.

shy Ziggy

not-so-shy Oscar

fat Felix in his favorite pose

More photos of all of this here. We're definitely going out on a high note with this housesit...

Time for one last road trip as we round down this phase of our little three-year-and-counting adventure. Camping along the cold, rainy Pacific Northwest coast in February with the least amount of gear we've ever carried - what could possibly go wrong?


  1. Well I already wanted to visit Orcas Island and now I just wish I was there right now!

    1. I wish I was back there too, Lindsay... :)

  2. The waterfalls are gorgeous, and those cats are so sweet! Even without a budget to go out a lot, just being in the atmosphere and pace there sounds like enough

  3. Thanks for all of these great tips! Those cat photos are awesome. I have never been to Orcas Island but I keep hearing amazing things about it. What a great view from the pub -- at happy hour prices, too!

    1. Thanks Marlynn - hoping you get there someday so I can see it through your observing travel eyes. :)