My rental car is parked on a hill above the Washington State ferry terminal, unlocked, with a Post-it note bearing my name stuck to the window. The keys and contract are on the driver's seat and the car has been stocked with snacks, bottles of water and a CD touring guide.
"That's the sort of community we live in", a local later tells me as I express my surprise over such a friendly, trusting welcome to Orcas Island. "We look out for each other, so there's no need to lock up. Besides, it's an island – the car can't go far!"
Shaped like a horseshoe, Orcas is the largest of the 172 islands that make up the San Juan archipelago, a jigsaw of undulating green in the Salish Sea, wedged between Canada's Vancouver Island and mainland Washington State.
Featured in The New York Times' "52 Places to Visit in 2019", these beguiling islands are a popular weekend getaway from Seattle and a retreat for urban refugees, artists and reclusive billionaires, including Oprah Winfrey who recently forked out $8 million-plus for a waterfront estate on Orcas.
Only four of the islands – San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw – are serviced by car ferry from Anacortes in Washington State. But I begin my adventure in style, arriving via seaplane on a regular daily service from Seattle to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the quickest, most spectacular introduction to the carefee island lifestyle.
As we skim across the bay to dock at the marina, Friday Harbor looms on the terraced hillside, a picture of old-world elegance with meticulously restored, pastel-hued wooden facades dating back to the turn of the century when the town was a thriving steamship port.
Today, as the only incorporated town in the county with a population of 2500, Friday Harbor is the veritable Big Smoke fuelled by a booming tourist industry, with the arrival of the behemoth car ferry several times a day creating gridlock in its waterfront streets. The chaos is fleeting, however, and between ferries, Friday Harbor reverts to its small-town charm with a blessed dearth of malls, chain restaurants and traffic lights.
Within seconds of leaving the main drag, rural tranquillity ensues. Winding country lanes meander through enchanted forests and rolling farmland, past fragrant lavender fields and grazing alpacas to wild, deserted pebble beaches strewn with bleached driftwood and sunbathing sea lions. Bald eagles glide on invisible thermals, Canada geese potter around emerald parklands, river otters herd fish in mirrored bays and raccoons slink guiltily across trails after a nocturnal raid.
Meanwhile, on the west coast, tiny Lime Kiln State Park offers some of the best land-based whale watching in the Pacific Northwest, with inquisitive orcas, Dall's porpoises and minke whales often coming right up to the historic lighthouse to frolic near the rocky shore. In summer, whale researchers are on hand to provide information and insights, while a hydrophonic listening station picks up the songs and squeaks of any passing cetacean.
Orcas Island, incidentally, is not named after its most iconic wildlife symbol. Rather, it's short for Horcasitas, the Viceroy of Mexico who sent an expedition to the islands in 1791. Known as "the gem of the San Juans", Orcas takes the bucolic island lifestyle to another level, with the magical melding of an artistic community, a burgeoning farm-to-table food scene and breathtakingly beautiful scenery that demands exploration on both foot and kayak.
It's a glorious sunny spring day when I arrive into Orcas on the car ferry from Friday Harbor, a free journey for pedestrians. Falling in the rain shadow of the Cascade and Olympic ranges, the San Juans receive less than half the rainfall of waterlogged Seattle, with mild winters and temperate summers. But with wet weather forecast for the following day, I take no risks and drive straight to the highest point on Orcas, Mount Constitution in Moran State Park.
Orcas owes its vast wilderness tracts to one influential and conservation-minded man – the former mayor of Seattle and prominent shipbuilder, Robert Moran. After being told by doctors in 1905 he only had six months to live, Moran retired to Orcas, building the magnificent waterfront mansion that is now the centrepiece of Rosario Resort & Spa. He then quietly bought up more than 1100 hectares of surrounding countryside, including Mount Constitution and Cascade Lake, later donating it to the state of Washington for preservation. Ironically, Moran went on to live another 37 years after moving to the island, dying at the ripe old age of 86.
Many hiking trails snake their way past waterfalls and lakes to the 731-metre peak of Mount Constitution, but a road also takes you straight to the top, crested with a former fire-lookout tower constructed in 1931 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. From the parapets of this castle-like structure, there are spectacular views across the surrounding straits to snow-capped Mount Baker in Washington's Cascade Range and the Olympic Range to the west.
While Moran State Park deservedly attracts the bulk of visitors, the smaller Obstruction Pass State Park on the south-eastern tip of the island is equally alluring, featuring easy ocean-front hiking through silent, moss-cloaked forests, without the crowds.
Nearby, the Doe Bay Resort offers solitude and a laid-back alternative vibe in a remote location. With cabin accommodation, as well as glamping in yurts, geodesic domes and even a treehouse, the unashamedly hippy resort – whose office occupies Doe Bay General Store, built in 1900 – is best known for its "clothing optional" soaking tubs and sauna, located in a lovely hillside spa.
I must admit to feeling a little daunted, stripping off for the first time in a naked co-ed environment but fortunately I've chosen a quiet period to soak, with only a handful of other bodies to contend with. And as I slip into the steaming pool and gaze out over the trees to the jade bay, fed by a roaring brook bubbling beneath the wooden deck, I soon lose my inhibitions and embrace the serenity of the moment.
As my touring CD so eloquently states, "If you're used to four-star hotels, you might be in for a culture shock; but if you're looking for pure island flavour in its natural environment, it doesn't get much purer than Doe Bay."
BEST LOCAL ARTISANAL BUYS IN SAN JUAN ISLANDS
DOE BAY WINES
Local sommelier Cole Sisson forged a relationship with Washington State vineyards to produce a series of wines called The Orcas Project, featuring cute animal labels designed by Orcas Island artists. The limited release reds (the tempranillo is outstanding!) can be bought in its shop in Eastsound or at select restaurants in the region. See doebaywinecompany.com
GIRL MEETS DIRT
Six years ago, Audra Lawlor walked away from a Wall Street job to start making preserves on Orcas Island, capitalising on the bounty from 100-year-old orchards. Her delicious range of award-winning, handmade jams and cutting preserves truly give a sense of place, with unique flavours such as lavender rhubarb, Shiro plum and pink Bartlett pear. See girlmeetsdirt.com
ORCAS ISLAND ARTWORKS
Located in an historic strawberry packing plant, this gallery features works by 45 Orcas Island artists, from jewellers to wood-turners and printmakers. Renowned painter James Hardman showcases his captivating Orcas landscapes in the upstairs loft space. See orcasartworks.com
This organic lavender farm on San Juan Island makes more then 200 lavender-based culinary, personal care, pet care and household products, with essential oils extracted in the on-site distillery. Products are available from both its farm shop and stores in Friday Harbor and Eastsound on Orcas Island. See pelindabalavender.com
Delta flies daily from Sydney to LAX on the upgraded 777, featuring the new Premium Select cabin. Domestic transfers are available to Seattle. From Seattle, Kenmore Air has daily seaplane transfers to Friday Harbor from US$131 one way. See delta.com; kenmoreair.com
Rooms at Tucker House Inn start from US$130 in the low season. Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island has a range of accommodation, from camping to cabins. An on-grid yurt (shared bathrooms) costs from US$75 a night; a two-bedroom treehouse costs from US$229 a night, with a two-night minimum stay. See tuckerhouse.com; doebay.com
Julie Miller was a guest of Visit Seattle and San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau.