Savor the Salish Sea – Historic San Juan Island

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Washington State Ferries dock in the center of delightful Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, WA1.jpg

SAVOR THE SALISH SEA – HISTORIC SAN JUAN ISLAND
By Hilarie Larson

 

Nestled in the far northwestern corner of Washington State is a little slice of paradise. It’s a destination with no stop lights, where foodies forage and create memorable cuisine that defines farm to table and orchard to glass. Here, you can smell the Salish Sea, wander through wildflower-strewn prairies or a fanciful sculpture garden.  This is where a pig led the way to diplomacy and a Hawaiian shepherd takes credit for naming the only town on the island. Welcome to San Juan Island, Washington.

Whether one arrives by air or via Washington State Ferry, the journey through the many islands that comprise the San Juan Islands archipelago is a breathtaking one.  The waters brim with life – jellyfish and squid, seals, otters, porpoises and, of course, the majestic Orca whales.  Each island – there are 172 named islands in all – seems to have its own character. At a grand total of 55.3 square miles, San Juan Island is the county seat and host to the only incorporated town, Friday Harbor. It seems that, back in the 1860’s, a British gunboat arrived in the harbor. The captain and crew could only locate one person, a shepherd who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.  When they asked him where they were, the native Hawaiian, Joseph Poalie Friday, thought they had asked his name so he replied ‘Friday’, the moniker that eventually appeared on the first British charts of the area.

Today’s Friday Harbor is a welcome sight as the ferry pulls up to the dock at the foot of the town.  Quaint wood structures meld with more modern architecture along the flower-strewn streets the rise from the harbor. It’s a stroller’s heaven, with shops, restaurants, galleries and museums to explore. The harbor, which once hosted steamships eager to carry the island’s bounty of tree-fruits, berries, seafood and dairy products to the mainland, is now a picture-perfect marina filled with both fishing and pleasure boats.

Nothing is too far away from Friday Harbor, making it the perfect base for discovery.  If you didn’t bring your car on the ferry, you can choose from bikes (either manual or electric), mopeds, or popular, three-wheeled ‘ScootCoupes’.  This is island life where nobody’s in a rush, the roads are easy to navigate and it’s OK to slow down and soak it all in.

San Juan Island’s tranquility belies it’s somewhat turbulent past.  In the 1790’s, explorers from Great Britain, Spain and the United States, all laid claim to the island. By 1800, the Spanish bowed out, leaving the remaining two nations in joint occupation. The British thought that early treaties and the presence of the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company solidified their claim, while the Americans considered the region part of the Oregon Territory.

The treaty of Oregon, signed in London, England in 1846, divided the territories west of the Rocky Mountains to the Straight of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific, along the 49th parallel. One problem: the San Juan Islands fell smack in the midst of this new boundary.

The Hudson’s Bay Company made a move and set up a sheep farm on fertile grazing land at the southern end of the island.  Word spread of the quality farmland and by 1859, eighteen Americans had moved from the mainland, claiming the land for the United States.

On a warm June day of that year, a pig wandered off the Hudson’s Bay farm and began digging away in the gardens of American Lyman Cutler. In his fury (at the pig or the British is up for debate) he shot the poor swine. Events unfolded swiftly.  The British called for Cutlers arrest and wanted all the Americans evicted from the island.  The Americans called for protection and the Army sent sixty-four men, led by Captain George Pickett (who later led the ill-fated ‘Pickett’s Charge’ during the Battle of Gettysburg). The British countered with 3 warships, 62 guns, 400 Royal Marines and 15 Royal Engineers, all with the orders to remove Pickett but avoid armed conflict.

Despite this show of force, Pickett stayed and 461 more soldiers were soon on their way to the island.  As things began to reach a climax, both sides agreed to a brokered peace: the US would have a presence of 100 soldiers and the British one warship.  The southern area of the island would remain in US control and American Camp was established.  The Brits moved 13 miles to the northwest, building “English Camp’ on the shores of Garrison Bay.

For the next twelve years, all was peaceful. Holidays became joint celebrations and horse races became the new ’competition’. As the Civil War drew to a close, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was appointed arbitrator and, in 1871, ruled in favor of the United States. The British were gone soon after with the Americans following suit a few years later.

In 1966, the two camps were joined together as San Juan Islands National Historic Park, to preserve and honor these historic events and the example of peaceful negotiation between nations.

The beauty of the area combined with its history, makes this a ‘must see’ for island visitors. American Camp features some of the last remaining prairies in the Pacific Northwest, is home to the largest nesting colony of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states, and the only habitat of the Island Marble Butterfly.  Walking trails cross the grasslands and line the beaches of Haro Strait, home to three resident pods of Orca whales.  The Visitors Center features artifacts from the Native fishing grounds and a short trail through the pine trees leads to the remaining buildings of American Camp.

You can hike or drive to British Camp. Although no buildings remain, you’ll find the terrain vastly different from the southern part of the park. Here, you’ll find open woodland with Garry Oaks and Pacific Madrone trees, wildflower prairie and cool, moist forests of Douglas Fir, Hemlock, and Cedar.

Nearby Roche Harbor has an intriguing history of its own. The Hudson’s Bay Company built a trading post on the shores of the natural harbor in 1845, but it was the massive limestone deposits that developed the town. Tacoma lawyer, John S. McMillin, purchased the land in 1881, and developed Roche Harbor into the ‘largest lime-works east of the Mississippi’. The Hotel de Haro is still a focal point, as it was when constructed in 1886 to house visiting customers. With only 20 rooms, the structure has, despite renovation, retained its original character, just as it was when President Theodore Roosevelt stayed there in 1906 and 1907.

Pick up a copy of the Historic town walk, past the original company houses, Lime quarry, kilns, the Mausoleum and the charming rose gardens planted by Mrs. McMillin.

Where to Stay:

Friday Harbor House: Northwest laid back elegance. Built onto a bluff overlooking the marina, this relaxing hotel offers picture window views, gas fireplaces and jetted tubs.

Island Inn: Eclectic, modern comfort with fabulous hospitality and an eye on the environment. Created from an old fuel storage facility, the rooms are accessed from exterior terraced steps, many with incredible views of the marina and ferry.

Eat and Drink:

Friday Harbor House offers creative brunch selections and fresh dinner options thanks to Chef Jason Aldous. Sipping a house cocktail in the garden perched above the harbor is a ‘must do’.

At Cask & Schooner locally sourced ingredients blend with Latino flair in this charming northwest take on the classic British Pub.

Dine amid the lush urban gardens of Backdoor Kitchen. Everything made from scratch results in a unique mix of international cuisines including some fantastic vegetarian offerings. Open for dinner and late night drinks.

San Juan Island Distillery, near Roche Harbor, crafts an array of classic ciders, apple brandy and gin using fruit from nearby orchards. Sample their liqueurs made with unique ingredients like thimbleberry, lavender, wild rose and nasturtium.

Picturesque San Juan Island Vineyards features wines made from two French grape varieties that have found a new home in the Pacific Northwest – Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine.  And if you happen to spot a camel in the field across the road, don’t worry it’s not the wine it’s local celebrity, Mona. She even has a wine named in her honor, Mona Vino.

More to do:

Take a sunset cruise on the schooner ‘Spike Africa’, go ocean kayaking or look for some of the local Orcas on a whale watching cruise. Pay a visit to the Whale Museum to learn more about these majestic creatures. Breath deeply at Pelindaba Lavender Farm or visit their fragrant shop in Friday Harbor. Saturday morning means the Farmer’s Market at the Brickworks Plaza and then lunch at one of the many nearby coffee shops and restaurants.

Hilarie was a guest of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau but all opinions, observations, and comments are strictly her own.

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

Northwinds Wine Consulting


About the Author:

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

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