Orcas Island, Washington Embracing the Heritage

Bay at East Sound.jpg

By Hilarie Larson


On Big Blend Radio, travel, food and wine writer Hilarie Larson talks about her nature trip to Orcas Island, including Moran State Park, Doe Bay and village of Eastsound.


There are 172 named islands in the San Juan archipelago and Orcas, at 57 square miles, is the largest. Viewing the island from the deck of a Washington State ferry as it plows the Salish Sea, it becomes clear why Orcas is dubbed “The Emerald Isle”.   Rocky cliffs, hills and mountains, adorned with Douglas Fir, Juniper, Madrone, Cedar, Dogwood and Hemlock, rise abruptly from the sea.  Even the curved, crescent shape of the land is welcoming – like a pair of open arms – ready to make you feel relaxed, at home and part of the calm that is island life.

Orcas is dotted with quaint villages, many set along the seafront.  As you move inland, sunny open valleys reveal orchards, fields, and a host of farm-stand markets that supply many of the local restaurants.  Orcas is the epicenter of the ‘hyper local’ food scene and chefs are proud of their ability to utilize the bounty of the island. It’s a beacon of unpretentious, self-sufficiency where nature is embraced and respected.

The island’s most famous resident, Robert Moran, embodied many of these qualities and his story is a classic American tale.  In 1875 he left his native New York State, arriving in the rough-and-tumble logging town of Seattle with just a dime in his pocket. He worked on steamboats, opened a machine shop in the city, and by 1880 he was Mayor. Moran Brothers Company received a government contract in 1900 to build the USS Nebraska and by the time the ship was completed in 1906, Moran’s life was, by all accounts, a success story. But there was a price: his health had deteriorated and doctors gave him only a few years to live.  It was time for a lifestyle change.

While on a pleasure cruise through the San Juans, Moran discovered Orcas Island.  This, thought Moran, was just the place to find tranquility and peace for the precious last years he had left.  In 1906 he purchased a small sawmill on the shores of Cascade Bay, along with the surrounding 7800 acres of mountains, forests and lakes.

He set about designing and building his new home with a distinct vision of self-sufficiency and preservation. He created a hydro-electric system to supply heat and light for the house and channeled water from a nearby spring.

Moran refused to alter the indigenous forests, so lumber was brought in from further afield; teak from India and Mahogany from Honduras, to create a home that melded the philosophies of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Moran’s shipbuilding sensibilities.  

In the United States, the most famous proponent of this design movement was Frank Lloyd Wright, but it was Gustav Stickley, a furniture designer, who, through his magazine ‘The Craftsmen’ brought the vision to the masses.  The bywords ‘honesty, simplicity and usefulness’ really encompass the trend that lasted from 1895 to 1920.  After the over consumption and clutter of the Victorian era, designers looked for clean lines, natural materials and objects that offered form as well as function. Moran took this to such an extent that he had no paintings on the wall of the house. At Rosario, you need only look out the window and soak in the beauty of nature.

When completed in 1911, at a total cost of $1,500,000, Rosario became known as the ‘San Simeon of the Northwest’. 

By 1932, Moran decided to sell.  He was 75, his wife and brothers had passed on, and his children showed no interest in maintaining the house. It was the height of the Great Depression and interested buyers were few.  In 1938, an industrialist from California purchased all 1339 acres of land, the fully furnished mansion and surrounding buildings for $50,000.

Moran moved to a smaller home near the ferry landing where he lived out the remainder of his days, until he died in 1943 at the ripe old age of 86.

The new owner, Donald Rheem, used Rosario as a part-time resident for 23 years, but his wife Alice chose the island as her full-time home and was infamous for her rather flamboyant lifestyle.  Rumors circulated that she hosted ‘men of the armed services’ at the house while her husband was away.  She was known for speeding around the island on her motorcycle and taking trips into nearby East Sound, wearing a red nightgown, to play cards ‘with the boys’ at the General Store. She died in 1956 but many say her spirit lives on in the mansion!

A series of owners have called Rosario ‘theirs’, and the mansion served as a hotel for many years. Miraculously, all the original furnishings are still there- a time capsule of a bygone era.  The current owners consider themselves ‘caretakers’ and have plans to bring the resort into the modern era while honoring Rosario’s history and unique character. A newly expanded marina, waterside restaurant and General Store were among their first additions.

The Rosario Resort and Spa currently offers relaxing, comfortable and thoughtfully appointed accommodations enhanced by breathtaking views of the bay and the famous mansion.  Guests to the Spa can swim in the original indoor salt-water pool or enjoy a massage in one of the vintage guest rooms. 

The Moran’s living and dining rooms are now the beautiful setting for The Moran Lounge and Mansion Restaurant.  Chef Raymond Southern is originally from Vancouver, British Columbia and brings years of international culinary experience to Rosario along with a sincere love of everything fresh, local and tasty. Don’t be surprised if the vegetables on your plate were harvested only a few hours ago from Chef’s garden overlooking the bay.

General Manager Christopher Peacock, who is also the official historian, has worked at Rosario for 38 years and conducts fascinating historical tours.  A highlight is the Music Room, home to Moran’s pride and joy, a mammoth Aeolian Pipe Organ.  When it was originally purchased in 1913 at a cost of $16,000, the instrument was a ‘player’ organ. Moran used to ‘play’ every morning and would often invite guests to ‘concerts’.  The console is housed in the balcony, and guests could only see him at the ‘keyboard’ from a distance – never suspecting that he couldn’t actually play at all.

Bordering Rosario, you’ll find another of the philanthropist’s ventures – Moran State Park.

In 1911, Robert Moran wanted to gift the State of Washington with 2998 acres for the creation of a State Park.  He was very influenced by the Conservation Movement and became a good friend of John Muir, the Scottish naturalist who was the first President of the Sierra Club and considered the ‘Founding Father of the National Parks’.

In 1924 the state finally accepted and once the park was officially dedicated, Moran began to design and build walking trails, roads, concrete bridges and gateway arches, many of which are still in use today.  The work was done by the CCC -Civilian Conservation Corps, a relief program set up as part of President Roosevelts ‘New Deal’ that completed environmental and National Park projects throughout the country.

At the center of Moran State Park is Mount Constitution, the highest peak in the San Juan Islands at 2405 feet. Atop the summit is an observation tower created from local sandstone blocks and hand-crafted metalwork. It was built by the CCC from a design by well-known Seattle architect Ellsworth Storey to emulate a 12th century watchtower from the Caucus Mountain region of Georgia.  But the biggest attraction is the breathtaking, 360˚ view that encompasses Vancouver Island and the Canadian Coast Mountains, Rosario and Juan de Fuca Straits, the Olympic Peninsula and the Cascade Mountains.

The park has grown to 5252 acres of unspoiled, Northwest wilderness with 38 miles of hiking trails, lakes, waterfalls and a variety of outdoor recreation. Blacktail deer, river otters, raccoons, Bald Eagles, Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons are just a few of the abundant wildlife. Mt. Pickett Natural Area Preserve, in the central-eastern area of the park is the largest, contiguous tract of natural, unlogged forest in the Puget Sound region.  Due to its fragility, the area is only open to organized environmental or scientific groups, but there is a perimeter trail open to the public.

Camping ranges from Spartan to glamorous!  Stay overnight in one of the many campgrounds, go ‘Glamping’ or reserve one of the heated cabins with private bath.

Doe Bay borders Moran Park to the south.  This cozy cove has hosted a trading post, a major ferry stop in the 1910s – 20s, then Twin Cedars Fishing Resort. New ownership in the early 2000’s saw a rejuvenation of the property retaining the old Northwest Vibe.  Stay in a quaint cabin or go camping in one of the domes or yurts that overlook the tranquil bay.  Explore the ‘clothing optional’ spa and soaking tubs, peruse the General Store and pescatarian cuisine at the fabulous Doe Bay Café.  Chef Jon Chappelle is in charge of the ultra-creative, incredibly fresh menu, growing many of the ingredients in his own garden on the resort property.  Options change daily – sometimes more than once – depending on what comes into the kitchen. Perhaps there’ll be some freshly harvested clams from neighboring Buck Bay, served with tomatoes, sweet pepper, roasted garlic, Calendula flowers and crusty sourdough bread from Ends Well Bakery! This restaurant draws locals and city-dwellers who come for Jon’s surprising spins and the restful vibe.

The bustling village of Eastsound is the commercial epicenter of Orcas, where you’ll find tree and flower lined streets with a myriad of shops, restaurants, and delicious temptations

Ted was a busy chef who wanted to spend more time with his wife Susan and daughter Kathryn, so 11 years ago he decided to switch gears and craft chocolate. His creations were a success and Kathryn Taylor Chocolates became a reality. Susan and Kathryn open each morning and fill the glass cases with unusual candy combos like pistachio, fig and Sauvignon Blanc in rich milk chocolate, Garam Masala coconut and rosemary caramel. A lovely family with binge-worthy treats – a classic island fusion.

Cross the street and venture into Brown Bear Baking where you’ll be warmly greeted by the cheerful staff and delicious aromas of home-baked goodies.  Croissants, muffins, breakfast buns, aromatic coffee and even homemade granola – this is the Pacific Northwest, after all.

How can one resist a visit to an establishment called ‘Girl meets Dirt’?  New York natives Audra and Gerry moved from Manhattan with no specific plans. Audra’s interest in culinary history was peaked when she discovered the many abandoned heirloom orchards on the island.  In 4 short years, ‘Girl meets Dirt’ has gone on to win Good Food Awards and gain a stellar reputation for preserving heritage and heirloom orchards, trees and fruit. Everything is made in their small shop which is often packed to the rafters with brimming boxes of freshly picked produce.  Ingredients are simple: fruit, organic cane sugar and lemon juice. Simply fabulous!

Should all that strolling build up a thirst, venture a short distance from the village to Island Hoppin’ Brewery. Open only 5 short years, this is the only Orcas brewery with a tasting room – and it’s a cozy, lively space! Wooden cubby-holes line the walls, where stoneware mugs sit in numbered spots, waiting for their Founding Member owners to fill them up with Madrona Red or Elwa Rock IPA. Great vibe and popular local spot.

For more information visit www.visitsanjuans.com.

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.


State Travel Guide Visit Link Here
Website Link Visit Link Here
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.

Category , ,
No Feedback Received