Visiting the San Juan Islands with Kids

I love the sea. I am happiest with my toes in the sand, listening to waves lap along the shore, searching for shells and beach treasures, paddling along in a kayak and hoping to glimpse any kind of marine life. My favorite vacations always include water and I’m grateful that we live close enough to the mighty Pacific to enjoy it pretty regularly.

Recently, we were up in the San Juan Islands, Orcas Island specifically, and all of my ocean-urges were satisfied. Beach combing, kayaking, ferry rides, island-hopping, whale watching, beach campfires, lots of playing, and ice cream on hot, sunny days. It was truly idyllic.

The only bad news is that we have officially outgrown Spring Bay Cabin which has been a favorite for many years. I stayed there multiple times in the ’90s when I was travel writing for The Best Places to Kiss in the Northwest, and Rob and I enjoyed several romantic getaways there before having kids — I was actually pregnant with William on our last trip there and we were waiting to hear back whether our offer on this house was accepted… sigh, over 5 years ago… how time flies. Anyhow, since having kids this little cabin has been lovely. One queen bed and a twin worked great last year since the kids could share the twin and sleep at opposite ends. So much for that now… our tall kids don’t even come close to fitting and the sleeping bag and pad we brought for William didn’t turn out to be so fun for him after all (he originally was thrilled to use his camping gear). Daddy ended up sleeping on the floor 3 nights while William occupied the twin bed and Sara and I luxuriated in the queen.

Apart from this one small (for everyone except poor Rob) detail, the cabin was still wonderful. And it’s perfect for families with only one child (or if you have a second child, just bring a pack n play). Set on forested acres that owners Sandy and Carl are devoted to protecting, the cabin is located right on a quiet bay. The pebble and rock beach is crawling with little crabs at low tide, and bald eagles, great blue herons, and kingfishers are regulars. The shore is littered with beach glass, sculpted driftwood, kelp, seaweed, and other interesting treasures. Kayaks and a little rowboat are available for use at any time but if you’re lucky, you can get Sandy or Carl to take you out or tag along with one of the many kayak tours they lead from the property. It was Sara’s first time kayaking and only William’s second (his first was at Spring Bay last year) and they both absolutely loved it. At first we had to be careful that their enthusiasm didn’t translate into a tipping kayak but they quickly settled down into the relaxing flow of paddling along.
There is plenty to keep a family happy and busy on Orcas Island but we decided to hop on the ferry just to enjoy the ride and get over to San Juan Island where there is a good chance to see Orca Whales. We left our car on Orcas Island then walked onto the ferry, got off and wandered around Friday Harbor, walked up to the Whale Museum, grabbed lunch, then rode the bus up to Lime Kiln State Park.
This well known park is also known as Whale Watch Park for good reason. All summer long the resident Orca Whale pods traverse the stretch of water west of San Juan Island. We were lucky enough to be there when at least two pods were feeding and passing very close to shore. The waiting part was hard on the kids (I don’t think they had a very good idea of what in the heck we were waiting for, even as we pointed at the black dorsal fins appearing intermittently far from shore) and the jagged rocky shoreline made me a little nervous but it was so worth it. We could hear the Orca’s exhales as groups of these magnificent creatures broke the surface of the water, incredibly close to where we were standing. A few whales even peeked out of the water doing “spy hops” and noisy water-slapping “tail lobs” as if to entertain the spectators but when they did a couple full body-splashing breaches (when an Orca rockets out of the water), you know these whales move like this purely for themselves (even scientists aren’t sure why whales breach, I’m convinced it’s just for fun).
There are plenty of things I’ll never forget from this trip. Besides what I’ve already shared, here are a few more of my favorites:
The kids’ sudden fascination with cards. On the ferry, in the cabin, on the beach, in bed… cards, everywhere.
William’s first time having bright blue bubble gum ice cream (made locally right on Lopez Island, by the way). “Dad, there is real bubble gum in there! Look!”
Sara savoring, I mean REALLY savoring her chocolate gelato. She ate practically the whole thing with eyes closed and a serious look of appreciation on her face. My little chocolate connoisseur.
Roasting marshmallows on the beach.
Nothing better than smores and a beautiful sunset with the people you adore most in the world.

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