Janda has explored four continents, by train, motorcycle, cross-country skis, mountain bike, snowshoes, sea kayak, hiking, backpacking, etc.
Want to go to an island in the Pacific? Almost anyone can—to the lovely town of Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands, only 70 miles northwest of Seattle, Washington. It’s a charming little community of about 2,000 residents, located on San Juan Island, the second-largest of the alluring San Juans in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
How to Get to Friday Harbor, Washington
Friday Harbor can be reached by several means:
- by ferry, including Washington State ferries from Anacortes, WA, year-round, or from Sydney, British Columbia, in nearby Canada, from May to October only. You can walk on, bring your bike or drive your auto. Reservations are recommended for the latter; (these can be combined with airport shuttles from cities in the area)
- by private plane into the Friday Harbor public-use airport;
- by small, regularly scheduled airlines, including Northwest Sky Ferry and also Kenmore Air, which lands in Roche Harbor on San Juan Island about 10 miles from Friday Harbor;
- by seaplane from the South Lake Washington area in Renton, southeast of Seattle, into the Port of Friday Harbor; and
- perhaps most fun of all, cruising by private boat, where you can dock in the marina at the Port of Friday Harbor, which has space for every type of boat, from dinghies to 150-foot yachts.
Arriving at Friday Harbor
The quaint but lively town of Friday Harbor is the center of business and tourism on San Juan Island and on the entire archipelago of the San Juan Islands. The town is about one mile wide and two miles long, on an island of about 55 square miles. If you come by conventional airplane, you'll land at the Friday Harbor Airport, on the southwest end of the little community, only a couple of blocks' walk from the center of town, or you can rent a car or take a taxi from there. Attire is quite casual so, however you come, you won't need more than a rolling carry-on for your belongings, as well as perhaps a daypack for rain gear. Several hotels and cafes are nearby, as well as shops, the visitor's bureau, and even a dog park.
If you travel by ferry, seaplane, or private watercraft, you'll arrive at the scenic Port of Friday Harbor, on the east side of town. The marina lies on your right, and a short walk up the gradual hill in front of the ferry dock leads to Front Street, along the waterfront, where a right turn leads to Spring Street, the main thoroughfare of town. There you'll find restaurants (including even savory Mexican food), shops, museums, art galleries, and nearby hotels, inns, and B&Bs. The community provides a medical clinic, drug store, movie theaters, bookstores, a hop-on/hop-off trolley, moped, and bicycle rentals, and access to water sports, whale watching, and many scheduled events.
Tip: Download the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce Visitors Guide and Business Directory at http://sanjuanwa.usachamber.com/#/1/. It provides 36 pages of details, with locations and phone numbers for businesses and attractions all over the island, especially in Friday Harbor. The guide contains an excellent map of the town.
Exploring the Port Area of Friday Harbor
No matter how you reach Friday Harbor, be sure to explore the port area. After all, this community is called "Friday Harbor," a safe place for boats. In the marina itself, you'll see many unique craft and perhaps get to chat with their owners or operators. Also look for Popeye, the one-eyed female harbor seal who has enjoyed living for years in the quiet waters of the marina. And watching people disembark from the ferry or from a seaplane can be quite interesting.
Taking Your Own Boat to Friday Harbor
If you’re an experienced saltwater sailor with your own seaworthy boat, you'll want to consider taking it to Friday Harbor. For you, this will be an easy trip, with some attention paid to tides and winds. And if you’re not experienced, this will be an excellent chance to take your first sea journey. If you’d like some assistance, locals and people who regularly travel in the area will be delighted to provide information, help you schedule your launch and passage through shallow areas, facilitate your arrival in Friday Harbor, including where to dock, and perhaps even “buddy-boat” with you.
Some boating organizations have gatherings in the area, and those and others are happy to help tourists get in touch with locals who can help with logistics, advice, etc. C-Dory is a popular brand of pocket cruiser, now built in Bellingham, WA. Their owners' group is called the "C-Brats." You can post a request for information or companions, find info about their gatherings and even find boats to purchase on their website (http://www.c-brats.com/).
As you prepare to take your boat to Friday Harbor, there are many decisions to make. You'll need to consider where to launch, when, whether to go alone or with other boats, whether to sleep on your boat or in accommodations provided by the community of Friday Harbor, how long to stay, and other such possibilities.
Accommodations for Boaters at Friday Harbor
If your boat is enclosed and large enough to sleep in, you won’t require a hotel for overnights in Friday Harbor. Everything you need is provided at Friday Harbor Marina including these:
• clean, modern restrooms with showers;
• potable water; and
• electricity for your boat.
And the village has the following:
• several inviting restaurants;
• a grocery store;
• a hardware store; and
• a laundry.
All of these are within walking distance of the marina.
Reservations and Cost of Accommodations
In summer—the best time for boating in the area—you may need to make a reservation (http://www.portfridayharbor.org/marina/for-visitors/rates-reservation/) for your slip at Friday Harbor Marina, depending on the size of your craft. If you don’t plan to sleep on a boat, reserve a hotel room for the nights you’ll be there. Rates vary, but a boat slip averages about $1 per foot of the length of your boat, per night. Hotel rooms can range from $100 to several hundred dollars per night.
Where to Launch Your Boat to Head for Friday Harbor
If you are trailering a boat to the Pacific Northwest, several convenient and attractive boat launches are available within a day’s boat trip of Friday Harbor. Some of the most popular are these:
• near Anacortes, WA, about 23 miles from Friday Harbor;
• near Sequim, WA, about 31 miles; and
• if you’re coming from the north, near Sidney, BC, Canada, about 24 miles.
So in most cases, boaters can cruise from launch to Friday Harbor in two to three pleasant hours. All of these launch sites provide convenient parking for your vehicle and boat trailer; some charge a small parking fee, so check ahead.
My husband, Lyle, and I had very little saltwater experience—a bit in the Atlantic off North Carolina and again in the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans. We were headed for a gathering of C-Dories at Friday Harbor and had been in touch with several C-Brats from the area, so we chose to launch our compact 16-footer at one of their favored launch sites—Cornet Bay, at the north end of Whidbey Island, about 10 miles south of Anacortes, WA. Whidbey Island is home to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, a coveted post for those in the military. So, many, even a few men we met who had been stationed there, enjoy returning to launch their boats, contributing to the popularity of that site.
How to Reach Cornet Bay, a Good Possible Launch Site
If you are coming from the east or from a busy I-5, as we did, take Exit 230, west of Burlington, and drive on Hwy. 20, also called Memorial Highway, about 8 miles to the west. You’ll cross the Swinomish Channel, at which point you’ll be on the eastern side of Fidalgo Island. Watch for views of beautiful Padilla Bay and later Fidalgo Bay. Continue west to where the highway splits. You’ll need to turn south to Cornet Bay, but you may want to take a short detour a few miles to the north, to the pleasant town of Anacortes—a “consolidation” of the name “Anna Curtis,” the wife of an early settler of the area. There the water of the bays surrounds you, and you could have a nice dinner or stay the night in a hotel before heading south to your launch site.
When you head southward, the highway winds about 6 miles to Deception Pass. The vistas along the drive are captivating, with small bays, channels, rivers, and lakes seemingly around every turn. Then you’ll cross Deception Pass Bridge, over the gorgeous half-mile straight, to the larger Whidbey Island.
If you’re a fan of splendid views--shorelines with gentle waves sloshing; rocky outcroppings; deep green hillsides covered with lofty pines, firs, and hemlocks; cool, fresh air; elegant bridges; and the aroma of salt water—this setting is perfect for you. Follow Highway 20 through Deception Pass State Park at the south end of the bridge, about a mile, and then turn left on Cornet Bay Road. After about 1½ miles, watch for the boat launch on your left. Fuel is available, and several launch lanes are provided, with plenty of nearby parking for your tow vehicle. The slope of this boat launch is quite gradual, making for a pleasant launch, with docks alongside, as well as farther out, where you can tie up while you prepare your boat for the crossing.
Consider the Weather and Tides
Check the weather on your marine radio or online, consider the tide tables, or watch for knowledgeable sailors in the area of the launch site or at the marina, in order to ask them about weather and tidal conditions so you can plan your launch and crossing times, to avoid the shallows during their twice-daily low tides. On the way to Friday Harbor, the shallower areas are between Decatur Island and Blakely Island and between Shaw Island and Lopez Island.
If you’re likely to be boating in this area for more than just this trip to Friday Harbor, you may want to purchase a cruising guide for the region. It can make your trip safer, simpler, and much more enjoyable. Several are available, but an excellent purchase would be A Cruising Guide to Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. We love this wonderful book with charts, spectacular photos, and details about moorages, wildlife, and scenery. It is so well written and produced that you’ll be glad you bought it even if you never leave home.
An Excellent Boaters' Guide
The Cruise From Cornet Bay on Whidbey Island to Friday Harbor
The trip to Friday Harbor is a mini “grand tour,” crossing open water, always with islands in view, and winding through passageways between the islands. Because of our lack of experience, we chose to cross with two other boats, one with a very experienced couple who had spent much time in these San Juan Islands and the other with a relative beginner like we were. But after we’d made the trip out and back, we feel sure we would have had no problem on our own. So if you don’t have other boaters to cross with, just be cautious, be sure you have accurate maps and/or an electronic chart plotter, follow those maps, consider the weather, check the tides and you’ll do fine. This route is about 23 miles, from Cornet Bay to Friday Harbor, an easy two-to-three-hour trip at a leisurely 10 mph.
After launch, follow this route:
- Head north by northeast less than a mile across tiny Cornet Bay.
- Then go west through Deception Pass, with a spectacular view as you pass under the high bridge, and past little Lottie Bay, around Lighthouse Point (where there is no lighthouse).
- Next head northwest across Rosario Strait. It is the largest stretch of open water between Deception Pass and Friday Harbor, about four or five miles across, but always within sight of islands. It runs north and south, lying east of Decatur Island.
- Make your way past the north shore of Decatur Island and northwest past the peninsulas on the northern end of Lopez Island.
- Turn southwest between Lopez and Shaw Island.
- At the southern point of Shaw, take a westward trajectory, where you’ll begin to see Friday Harbor about 3 miles ahead. Much of the boat traffic, including ferries, in the area will be heading to or from that most popular port.
What to Do in the San Juan Islands, Especially Near Friday Harbor
Of course, there are many other appealing locales beckoning, so you may want to plan extra time in the area. And if you’re a fisherman, you’ll want to try your luck, in open water, in peaceful bays, or even in lakes on the larger islands. Salmon is the coveted prize, but halibut, cod, crab, shrimp, and many other sea creatures are there for the catching. Check online at the Department of Fish and Wildlife for the state of Washington for fishing regulations and permits or google fishing charters in the area.
As you cross and then wind around between islands, enjoy all the exquisite sights along the way. Remember that larger boats and sailboats, kayaks, and canoes have the right of way. There will be a variety of vessels, including the large Washington State ferries, many pleasure boats of all types, possibly tow boats pulling rafts of logs or barges with supplies or equipment, tour boats, commercial fishing boats, and others. And if you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll encounter dolphins, seals, orcas, and perhaps even glimpse a humpback whale. Bald eagles, ospreys, cormorants, and gulls often fly overhead or perch in high trees, watching for dinner.
Most days, the sky is a scenic attraction, with magnificent cloud formations interspersed with patches of vivid blue to match the sea. Much of the San Juan Islands area is in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, with Friday Harbor receiving only 25 inches of rain per year, much less than many nearby locales. Be sure to take your camera, or, with modern technology, even your cell phone will produce vivid images to remind you of your adventure and to share with friends and family.
Arriving in the Port of Friday Harbor in Your Own Boat
Before you arrive at the Port of Friday Harbor aboard your own boat, check your maps or look online for details of Friday Harbor Marina (http://www.portfridayharbor.org/marina/). You’ll find how to contact them by cell phone or marine radio to make slip reservations, to get instructions for docking, for fees, etc. Up to 150 attractive watercraft in the marina are a welcoming sight. And you’re likely to have friendly neighbors in your area of the marina who will come out to help you secure your craft to the dock.
Once you’re docked in Friday Harbor Marina or if you come to the port by ferry or seaplane, go ashore to explore the comely community, most of it within walking distance from the marina. Many outdoor activities, fine dining, and ice cream shops are available. Much of the community is pet friendly, so feel free to take Fido along. Our dog, Lindy, enjoyed walking the docks with us as well as waiting patiently under tables when we dined in outdoor restaurants in the village. Perhaps the most popular activity among boaters is sitting on a craft in the marina enjoying the scenery and watching the boat traffic. And sunsets are often spectacular in this tranquil setting.