If you’re in Seattle, whatever the weather, make the time for a day cruise.
By Allan Seiden
The ferry made its way through white-capped seas at just under 20 knots. Sheltered from a stiff headwind I watched low-lying islands disappear and reappear, escaping the mist that hid them even as we came close to shore. The waves hit the ferry with an echoing thud, spray forced upward toward a clearing sky, a chaotic mix of pastel clouds richly lit from below by the end-of-day sun.
I’d been looking for a way to make an upcoming visit to Seattle different and came up with a plan to spend three days ferry cruising to island outposts in Puget Sound and others that lie a bit further to the north.
I’d started with Bainbridge, arriving on the midnight ferry that followed a 10:20 PM Hawaiian Air arrival from Honolulu. I was staying with friends and had been to Bainbridge Island a number of times over the years, appreciating its rustic beauty, tall-tree forests, and scenic vistas that on a clear day include the majestic rise of volcanic Mount Rainier about 50 miles to the south. I’d arrived in mid-March, a dangerous time of year weather-wise, with temperatures as low as the 40s, and mist and clouds obscuring distant views. I was prepared for that eventuality with warm clothes and rain gear.
Morning dawned with grey skies and a light rain.
While Mt. Rainier remained hidden from view, nature compensated with the more intimate beauty of a rainforest hike that in many ways reminded me of similar excursions in Hawaii: towering trees laden with vines, dense ground cover with mosses, lichens and ferns cushioning footfalls and sounds.
Each of the days that followed came with similar rewards, quiet time on land following brisk ferry runs in a place rich in natural beauty, charm and the rugged history of the northland, made easily and affordably accessible by a State-run ferry system that is the largest in the U.S. and third largest in the world.
While Hawaii has unsuccessfully sought to integrate a ferry system into its transportation network, Seattle and the communities of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands have made ferry travel one of the appealing aspects of living here, integrating nature and some time “at sea” the into the lifestyle of the urban web surrounding these waters.
Washington State Ferry System
Car and passenger ferries ply the waters of Puget Sound and the sheltered seas to the north, linking the mainland to island communities. There are a number of “cruise” options with two terminals in Seattle (downtown & Fauntleroy) and others in Anacortes (about 75-minutes north of Seattle), Port Townsend (a historic town with rustic charm and interesting shops), to browse before heading over to Whidbey Island), Edmonds, Port Defiance and Bremerton, allowing for some creative planning when plotting an itinerary, with early morning and late evening runs expanding day-trip itineraries. Food and drink are available on board.
Most ferry fares are priced round trip and are based on distance. Seattle to Bainbridge is $ 15.20 for car passenger, $7.10, passenger only. Anacortes to Orcas (en route stops on Lopez and Shaw are allowed) is $45.30 car and passenger, $11.50 passenger only. Reservations can be booked in advance, although drive on payment is also an option. Credit and debit cards are accepted. Cars line up 20 minutes or more before departure time. The ferries are run with military efficiency, so be there at least 10-15 minutes in advance of departure time.
It is possible to travel to British Columbia (passport required with international customs and security checks) via the San Juans. Reservations 24-hours in advance are recommended. Customs and border checks are done on Friday Harbor. For routes, schedules, fares and reservations visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries or call 206-464-6400.
The 35-minute-long ferry ride from downtown Seattle makes this most accessible Puget Sound island something of a bedroom community for the city.
That said, careful restraints have been kept in place, largely retaining the country feel that makes Bainbridge so popular, not only with commuters, but with Seattleites on a fast getaway. There’s a scenic small boat harbor adjacent to the ferry terminal. Town includes a mix of interesting shops, including a great bookstore, with the Steamboat Diner the place to go for hearty, delicious breakfast or lunch. There are wonderful old forests to wander through and rocky coastlines to enjoy, with scenic views of the Seattle skyline and snow-capped Mt. Rainier.
South of Bainbridge, Vashon is served by three ferries, that link it to Fauntleroy (south Seattle) and Southworth from north Vashon, and Pt. Defiance at the south end of Puget Sound, near Tacoma.
The mood is decidedly quiet and rural, with westward views taking in the saw tooth peaks of the Olympic Peninsula and Mt. Rainier to the southeast. Contact www.vashonchamber.com or www.bedandbreakfast.com/vashon-washington.html/
About 30 miles north of Seattle, 35-mile-long Whidbey, Washington State’s largest island, is 20-minutes by ferry from Port Townsend, a historic town with a browse-worthy collection of shops and historic buildings, to Coupeville on central Whidbey.
Whidbey ‘s waters are the northern limits of Puget Sound. Beyond lie the waters of the Straight of Juan de Fuca, Small communities dot the forested landscape, with scenic coves, inlets and passages around every turn. Route 525 is designated a Scenic Byway, with wonderful sunsets from Clinton Beach. Another ferry crosses Possession Sound, linking south Whidbey and Mokilteo, to the north of Seattle. For accommodations or more information visitwww.visitwhidbey.com.
The San Juan Islands
I headed to the San Juan Islands on a multi-stop ferry tour
departing the town of Anacortes (about 75-freeway minutes north of Seattle), with the ferry making stops at Shaw, Lopes, Orcas and Friday Harbor.It’s 90 minutes from Anacortes to Friday. With en route stops on Shaw, Lopez and Orcas islands that can be fit into a multi-stop ferry tour of the San Juans, an archipelago to the north of Puget Sound adjacent to the Straights of Juan de Fuca. A
morning departure from Anacortes allowed time for breakfast in Friday Harbor, a town with a charming mix of shops, galleries, and open-air restaurants. Midday we departed for Orcas Island. Largest of the San Juans, Orcas is a place winding roads, forested hillsides, and sheltered coves. From the windy 2,409-foot summit, of Mt. Constitution, panoramic views take in island-studded seas and the mountains of British Columbia’s Coast Range. Surrounding Moran State Park offers a number of hiking trails. Orcas Island is a yacht haven during the summer months and there are nice selection of inns and bed-and-breakfasts to choose from.
We timed our return trip for sunset. What began under a grey blanket of low-lying clouds was transformed as the sun inched westward, the thinned cloud cover bathed in vibrant color as we made our way to Anacortes.
Different ferries make different stops. It’s 65 minutes straight from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, but almost two hours if the ferry makes multiple stops. which is the recommend, allowing more cruise time and scenic from-the-water views. Numerous websites are accessible on-line, including www.visitsanjuans.com, www.friday-harbor.net, www.orcasisland.Chamber.com/.
Hawaiian Airlines offers the only non-stop service between Honolulu and Seattle, with service also available between Maui and Seattle. www.hawaiianairlines.com.