Budget Vacations from Seattle: Puget Sound and San Juan Islands

A short boat ride from Seattle but worlds away in pace and atmosphere, the Puget Sound and San Juan islands appeal to bikers, kayakers, artists, and those simply seeking a romantic long weekend. Two-lane roads wind through cedar rain forests and farmers’ fields, and much of the islands has a decidedly rural feel. An abundance of state parks means there’s plenty of picnicking and camping options for the budget-oriented.

A handful of larger islands are visitor favorites: Whidbey, Bainbridge, Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez islands are all popular with tourists, and a couple have bustling towns to add energy to the mix. Several, particularly the islands closest to Seattle, make for great day trips.The Sights

A large part of island fun is getting there on a Washington State Ferry. The major islands listed above have regular ferry service, and the north end of Whidbey Island is also accessible by road.

On San Juan Island, Friday Harbor is a busy summertime destination, with a picturesque harbor crammed with sailboats, and a walkable town filled with art galleries and pretty views. 2009 is Friday Harbor’s centennial, so celebrations will abound this summer. Take a self-guided walking tour (print out a guide here) for an inexpensive historical tour.

To reach San Juan Island by ferry, you’ll need to drive about 90 minutes north of Seattle to Anacortes. From there, it’s a one-hour ferry ride to the island.

Whidbey Island, one of the archipelago’s largest, holds the rushing waters of Deception Pass at its northern tip. The dramatic Deception Pass Bridge links the island to the mainland via Pass Island, a small rocky outcropping. Here, swift tides make the rushing water appear deceiving like a river, which is what gave the pass its name. There are sidewalks on the bridge, so be sure to park your car and take some photos. Nearby, Deception Pass State Park has campsites, a lake with a swimming area, and a beach filled with driftwood.

Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan cluster, and is arguably the archipelago’s artsiest. A driving or biking tour is the best way to see the island and its artisan’s galleries. Mt. Constitution perches at one end, and it take around 15 minutes to drive to the summit (it takes considerably longer to bike to the top…). Lake Moran State Park (of which Mt. Constitution is a part of) attracts campers and other recreationists; paddle-boating in Lake Moran is a fun, splashy family activity.

What to Eat

Dining options run from rustic to five-star. However, the islands’ agricultural communities support several farmers’ markets, and these are the best places to eat your veggies. If you’re on a budget, consider an al fresco meal put together from farmers’ market purchases and artisan bread from a local bakery (on Whidbey, try Nibbles Specialty Bakery, and on Orcas stop by Roses Bakery & Cafe). Make sure your food is marked with the ‘Island Certified Local’ logo.

Where to Stay

Sleeping on the islands is all about bed & breakfasts. In general, the best place to search for accommodation is on the various islands’ bed & breakfast associations’ websites. Click here for the San Juan islands site, and here for Puget Sound.

Camping is your best budget option, and there are plenty of options. Just don’t forget your rain fly.