Return to the San Juans, with family

Revisiting a life-changing destination with children in tow

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The San Juan Islands, a pristine klatch of pine-dotted islands north of Seattle, always will hold a special place in my heart.

They were the islands that prompted me to fall in love with the West on a visit to Seattle back in 1999; the backdrop of the most incredible wildlife encounter of my life; the area where I learned self-reliance after weeks with nothing more than a tent and a backpack full of stuff.

Since then, the San Juan Islands have become one of my favorite places to return. A number of times I’ve gone back for more whale-watching. A few times I’ve gone back to camp. On at least one occasion, I returned exclusively to meet up with friends and spend a weekend drinking island-brewed beer and booze. Then some friends—island natives, by the way—got married, and I went back for that, too.

Just about the only kind of vacation I *haven’t* taken to the San Juans at this point is a family trip. Which is precisely why my family and I will be spending the month of June there this year.

Our plan is simple. We’ll drive up from our house in Northern California and rent a house on San Juan Island. At some point over the course of our stay, we’ll hop the ferry and explore another (by day). After a few weeks, we’ll drive home.

No more excuses

The impetus for this trip: A longstanding daydream. I mentioned that first trip I took back in 1999, right? I was living in New York City at the time, and had fled for the summer to Washington State as a form of escape. I lived out of a tent for most of that visit. It was glorious because it was so different than the $2,100/month, one-bedroom flat I was renting on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

One day during that visit I was bouldering at Lime Kiln Point State Park when I heard a whale blow just offshore. I looked up to see an entire pod of orcas swimming past in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the closest one no farther than 10 feet away. The whales didn’t even acknowledge my existence—they just kept moving.

It was at that moment, even though I didn’t even have a girlfriend, that I swore I’d bring my kids there some day.

I’ve thought about that incredible experience many times in the six years I’ve been a father. I’ve remembered other whale encounters on other visits, too (like this one). Previously, whenever I’ve had these memories, I’ve lamented that my daughters were too young to take on a trip to the San Juans. But now that my older daughter is 6 and my younger daughter is almost 4, I recognize that it’s time to stop making excuses and just go.

Viewfinder Tip: Washington State Ferry service from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands accepts reservations. Make one to avoid having to wait for hours at the ferry terminal.

On the ground

We don’t have many concrete plans on our agenda for our visit to the San Juans. On San Juan Island, I plan to drag the family by that old campground, and take the kids to Lime Kiln. I also hope to check out San Juan Island National Historical Park. Beyond that, the plan can be fluid—maybe explore downtown Friday Harbor, hit The Whale Museum, and grab dinner at Cask & Schooner (the hands-down locals’ favorite).

At some point, preferably AFTER I run the San Juan Island Half-Marathon, I’d also love to taste some of the apple brandy and gin at the San Juan Island Distillery.

Our fun will continue when we visit the other islands, too. On Orcas Island, I’m psyched to take them strolling through downtown Eastsound, beachcombing the beach at Obstruction Pass State Park, and hiking on Mount Constitution (though we won’t try to summit; last time I did that with one of my friends, he joked about needing a medevac).

On Lopez Island, which is renowned for its bicycling, we’ll rent bikes and pedal around the rock in style, then we’ll end the day with burgers and tempura green beans at the South End General Store and Restaurant.

As we explore, I’ll be sure to give my girls both macro and micro histories—telling them about the general and personal significance of everything we see. Of course I’ll also constantly be scanning the water for whales. It sounds like my wife’s parents will join us for at least a few days of our adventure, which will be a treat for entirely different reasons (and not just because they can babysit).

In short, this is a trip I’ve been planning for years. I’m delighted to know it’s finally going to happen. I just hope two weeks is enough time.

What is the No. 1 dream trip for you and your family?

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Hotel Deals for Seattle
Pike Place Paradise
WA, USA
Oct 23 - Oct 26, 2017
per night from
$ 101.18
$ 101.18
Hotel Deals for Seattle
Ginosi Queen Anne Apartel
WA, USA
Oct 23 - Oct 26, 2017
per night from
$ 105.42
$ 105.42
Hotel Deals for Seattle
Inn At Queen Anne
WA, USA
Oct 23 - Oct 26, 2017
per night from
$ 109
$ 109
Hotel Deals for Seattle
Ginosi Puget Sound Apartel
WA, USA
Oct 23 - Oct 26, 2017
per night from
$ 109.28
$ 109.28
Hotel Deals for Seattle
Belltown's Best Retreat
WA, USA
Oct 23 - Oct 26, 2017
per night from
$ 116.48
$ 116.48

Matt Villano

In more than 20 years as a professional journalist, Matt Villano has had articles published in outlets including TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Entrepreneur, to name a few. He currently blogs about family travel at WanderingPod.com, and occasionally covers family travel for Family Fun and Scholastic Parent & Child magazines. Villano also wrote the family travel blog for Parenting magazine, and an adventure travel blog for SeeAmerica.com (a one-time website of Brand USA). In addition to travel, Villano’s areas of expertise are business, technology and gambling. When he’s not working at his stand-up desk, Villano is chasing after his three daughters, both of whom are future New York Yankees fans. His favorite destination on Earth is his (adopted) hometown of Healdsburg, California. No. 2 on the list: Vancouver Island, British Columbia (specifically Tofino). For more about Villano, visit Whalehead.com.

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