Travel Guide: Orcas Island, WA
Our travel guide series is a peek into our founder April Nemeth's travels to some of the most gorgeous locations on the planet that have blown her worldview wide open and inspired many of the designs she has created for her successful brand, Little Korboose. This edition, rooted in preservation and nature in honor of Earth month, as well as following editions, will feature uncommon and unique locations, accommodations and activities not intended for the "tourist", but rather for the "traveler". April's accounts are told from repeated immersion in these locations over the years, creating community wherever she lands. Our intention in sharing these guides, told first hand from April's real life immersive experiences, through her eyes and words, is so YOUR wanderlust spirit will have everything it needs to GO and live an inspired life.
Views, views views... did I say views? Decades ago, when I was first introduced to a place called the "The San Juan Islands" I imagined a tropical paradise in the Caribbean. I was about to discover that this collection of islands is actually situated in one of my most beloved geographical locations on Earth — the Pacific Northwest, specifically off the coast of Washington state. Don't get me wrong, I love the Caribbean but the thought of the terrain and moodiness of the PNW floating on individual islands only accessible by ferry was something I thought only existed in my dreams.
There are several islands within this archipelago and, if you're a newbie, a great place to start is the horseshoe shaped island in the heart of the Salish Sea: ORCAS ISLAND. For Earth month and since many of us have not traveled in over a year, I put together a guide of my favorite spots on this island so, when the time comes, your wanderlust spirit will have all it needs to GO.
R Y T H M & R O U T E
I don't know if it's because my childhood dwelling (which my parents still own) is also on a horseshoe street or because my favorite restaurant on the island cuts my sandwich on a diagonal for me, but Orcas just feels like home. With a land area of 57.3 miles and a population of 5,387, this small but mighty island is actually the largest of the San Juans. Here's a playlist for the adventure you will be taking to get to the island and tunes that are reflective of the island itself. Natural, beautiful and softly bold with a touch of magic.
The best time to visit the island is May through October based because the weather is the dreamiest (going outside of peak time does have its perks however — the island is way less busy). Peak is also the time when the salmon runs are the strongest and when you have the highest chance to catch a glimpse of the magnificent orca whales. They live in the San Juans year round and this is the best place in the world to see them in the wild. You can also spot humpbacks, minkes, gray whales, sea lions, and many other species of wildlife. Deeply opposed to animals in entertainment at parks such as Sea World, I strongly recommend this experience as an alternative. It is much better to see these beauties in their authentic habitat, happy and with their families.
Only accessible by ferry OR sea plane, the road-water (or sky) adventure just to get to the island is all part unique experience. Sea plane is fun but I usually travel by ferry. By ferry, you will want to drive to the Anacortes terminal and catch the ferry there. If you're flying into Seattle and coming from SEA-TAC it's about a 2 hour drive to the Anacortes terminal so I recommend doing what I do and spending the night before in Bellingham Washington, one of my other beloved towns, about 45 minutes away (definitely owe this town a travel guide!).
Hot Tips: Ferry Tickets & Ferry Arrival Time
Purchase your ferry tickets online no less than one week in advance of your trip because during peak season the ferries fill up fast. Choose "Anacortes to Orcas" and don't forget your return ticket "Orcas to Anacortes". You can purchase up to 90 days in advance if you're a planner... which brings me to the next very important subject and one which I learned the hard way. Arrive 1 hour before ferry departure. It may seem obvious but this is a drive-on ferry which means you can take your vehicle. When you arrive you will be directed to line up in rows with other vehicles and, when it is time, you will be directed to drive onto the ferry. The ferry ride itself is 1 hour-1.5 hours so definitely get out of your vehicle, stretch your legs and go to the main deck in or outside to catch the gorgeous view. Animals are welcome on the ferry but they have to stay in the vehicle. TIP: If you take the 7pm ferry, you can catch the sunset.
Seattle-Tacoma Airport > Anacortes Ferry > Orcas Island (3.5 hours, +1 hour wait time before ferry departure = 4.5 hours)
Bellingham > Anacortes Ferry > Orcas Island (2.5 hours, +1 hour wait time before ferry departure = 3.5 hours)
S L E E P & S T A Y
In true PNW style, you can camp, glamp or stay at a 5 star hotel. I have experienced all ways and can truly say each experience was equally satisfying in its own way. For a more rustic experience, the magical Doe Bay, an icon of the Pacific Northwest, is my first choice. Cabins, yurts and campsites are all available. AND THE FOOD! The world renowned cafe at Doe Bay offers one of the finest organic “seed-to-table” cuisine in the region. There is also a spa and soaking tubs onsite for guests only.
I usually stay in a yurt that sits on a piece of land that extends into the water. This is secretly the best sunset view on the entire island. I almost didn't want to give it up!
For the traveler who likes to experience nature on their own terms, Rosario Resort & Spa offers a nostalgic, exclusive experience straight out of the film Dirty Dancing. The main house, The Moran Mansion, was built in 1906 and when you step inside its like stepping back in time in the best way possible. They'll probably even let you carry a watermelon.
E A T S & T R E A T S
With a land area of 57 miles, needless to say, I have eaten at almost every restaurant on the island. If you have been following along for years, you know that I have been sugar, gluten and grain free for over a decade and finding an organic healthy restaurant with food that is alive and recipes I adore can be like panning for gold in modern times. Enter: Catkin Cafe. This off-the-main-drag, unassuming cafe is like eating at your best friend's house or in your mama's kitchen while enjoying art work by local artists. The food is what I like to call local clean comfort food, with fresh goods baked daily served on mismatched vintage dinnerware. When you bite into a sandwich on homemade gluten free bread cut on a diagonal, you can immediately tell how much the owners care about their craft and in turn, all of their patrons. The two floor art gallery attached is filled with handmade art and wares from the locals which is always a delightful experience to look forward to while eating nourishing food. UPDATE 2022: Catkin is closed permanently.
Another restaurant on my healthy heavy rotation when I'm island hopping is Wild Island which has the best bone broth and bowls. Oooh and buckwheat brownies, fresh fruit smoothies and GF pineapple cake (consumed in that order). The interior is all black and white which naturally has me swooning and their table cloths even match LK Pins bandanas. Be sure to wear yours when you go!
Rose's Bakery (below) is great for breakfast and hot tea or coffee. The natural light that peeks through their windows gives this casual dining room a peaceful and heavenly mood. UPDATE 2022: Rose's Bakery is closed permanently.
E X P L O R A T I O N & E N T E R T A I N M E N T
Separating itself from city life, hugged by pristine waters, Orcas island is made for the explorer and nature appreciator. You might opt to retreat along the shoreline, charter a boat tour to greet the native sea life, fuel your wanderlust spirit with a hike in Moran State Park up to Mount Constitution, or unwind at one of the spas.
Orcas also has a skateboard park. Skate park spot checks became part of my soul after previously being in a serious long term relationship with this type of athlete. I could probably tell you where most of the skateparks in America are... for another post.
G I F T S & G O O D S
If you have exhausted yourself outdoors, find yourself on the island on a rainy day or would like to support the local artist community by purchasing a handmade piece to remember your trip, there are lots of shops in town and around the island. Orcas Island Pottery is a shop that brings me back to my roots as a little girl being with my mother as she created ceramics and now my present with our new ceramics collection. Warm Valley Orchard is a family run farm which has over 100 fruit and nut trees, a vegetable garden, and sheep. For all you textile enthusiasts out there like me, there is a studio on the property full of looms, spinning wheels and other textile tools. Yarns include both hand spun and mill spun, ranging in colors from natural to hand dyed/hand painted. There are yarns from our sheep, as well as other fibers such as alpaca, silk, mohair and other natural fibers.
A D O R A T I O N & I N S P I R A T I O N
As an artist and designer, I take the world in visually first and then with all of my senses on high. It's not often I utter the words, "I can't believe my eyes" but the abundance of beauty this island offers has made me do so repeatedly. Get outside during this trip as much as possible. Travel and The Mother are two of the main ways I grow, learn and gain inspiration for my work. Orcas Island has served me well and many of my designs seen on LK wares, like Wildflowers and Pintail, were inspired by this area. No doubt she will serve you too. Please be kind and take care of her when you go. Respect the land, animals and the locals. Bring your own water bottle and take your trash with you. Also... send pics!
• Breakfast: Rose's Bakery Cafe (now closed)
• Lunch: Catkin Cafe (now closed) // Doe Bay Cafe
• Dinner: The Barnacle
• Desert: Clever Cow Creamery // Brown Bear Baking
• Drinks: Doe Bay Wine Company
Whale & Wildlife Tours // Kayak Tours // Mount Constitution Hike // Turtleback Mountain Preserve: Ship Peak Loop Hike // Moran State Park: Cascade Falls // Obstruction Pass Hike // Rosario Spa // Wine Tasting
Orcas Island Pottery // Warm Valley Orchard // Artworks Gallery
All images © Little Korboose and April Nemeth - use without consent with result in legal action.