Orcas Island (San Juan Islands) with the Kids

After our first attempt at a mini family vacation last year, we were looking for a slightly less 'rustic' outing.  We thought we could handle more than an overnight with the kids and wanted a bit more bang for our buck.  What I really wanted was a place with a pool.  Spending afternoons taking turns with my husband sitting poolside and playing with the kids sounded like a real vacation.  Since we do love a ferry ride and hiking, we decided on a getaway to Orcas Island.  

From Seattle, the drive to the ferry at Anacortes goes by really fast in just over an hour.  No distractions were needed for the kids on the way there; they were excited to get on the ferry and were nonstop chatterboxes about looking for whales.  In the summer, I highly recommend getting to the ferry about two hours prior to departure.  We thought that since it was an off peak travel time (as indicated by the WSDOT website) an hour would suffice.  We made that departure by the skin of our teeth.  Gah.  

The hour and a half sailing to the island also went by super quick.  We brought our lunch, watched the beautiful scenery and did some puzzles!

There are puzzles of all sizes on different tables throughout the ferry - very cool.

After driving onto Orcas just after two o'clock, we drove straight to Moran State Park (don't forget your Discover Pass) to check out the amazing views. 

 Lucky for us, the top of Mount Constitution (the highest point on the San Juan Islands) can be reached by car.  We drove past all of the day trippers that descended upon the town of Eastsound (that we'd explore another day) and drove up the winding roads to the observation tower.

Pro-tip: if you have a toddler that's a 'runner' - just be careful, there are some areas they could go a-tumbling down the mountain.  Luckily, my 'runner' has grown mature enough to ask permission before wandering off.  And then subsequently whine incessantly when we said that, no, he could not go down past the rock wall that was there to keep us from falling to our doom.  Not that this stopped a group of teens that were there.  Oh man, the teen years... *shudder*  

There are hikes a plenty at Moran State Park, with varying levels of difficulty.  So we drove back down the mountain and did a few miles near Cascade Lake.  It was a nice hike, but I think on this outing we finally came to terms with the fact that our three year old daughter just ain't into it.  Pretty much every family hike we do, my husband and I end up carrying her (increasingly heavy) form on our shoulders.  Not fun.  Quite the opposite of her brother at the same age, but what can you do?  We gave it about three miles and decided to call it a day and check in to our hotel.

Path from our building to the mansion which now houses the resort's restaurant and museum.

Rosario Resort is located on the grounds of the Moran Mansion which was built in the early 1900s by Seattle Mayor and Shipbuilder Robert Moran.  It's also on the National Register of Historic Places.  Plus, they have two pools!  Decision made.  From the outside, the buildings look a little dated.  But, once you open the door to the rooms, they are VERY nice.  

Kindle time
The Bayside suites were a really great deal: one room with two queen beds and a separate king bedroom (each with their own flatscreen tv) and a nice little porch with a partial view of the bay.  

Breakfast alfresco
And there are deer that roam the property that are pretty much domesticated.  Definitely a highlight of the trip for the kids.

Just petting some deer, no big.

The beds were super comfortable, not that we did much sleeping...  Even though baby girl is out of her crib and used to a regular bed, sleeping at a hotel was just too exciting for her to drift off.  We would have just left the kids to their own devices and play until they passed out, whatever the hour.  But big brother actually wanted to sleep and kept getting mad at her.  So yeah, we took turns sitting like a sentry each night (with kindle in hand) in a, thankfully, cozy overstuffed chair at the foot of their beds until she finally drifted off around midnight.  Maybe we should go somewhere with three rooms for next year's family vacay?    

Of course, as we got closer to the date of our trip it was clear that a nice little bout of crap weather was rolling in just in time for our arrival.  

Raaaaain. Womp, womp.

This was just the push we needed to bite the bullet and make the (costly) whale watching tour reservations, since our lazy pool afternoons were looking unlikely.  If you are ever planning a trip up to the San Juan Islands (Orcas, San Juan or Lopez) keep an eye on Groupon (and the like) for whale watching deals.  I'm a little sad I didn't, but I'm glad I called the charter operator directly to make the booking (Deer Harbor Charters, had a great experience).  The owner was able to give me advice on which boat I'd want to go out on with small children.  We might have ended up on a smaller one if I'd made the earlier/more convenient online reservations.  I cannot imagine if we had been on an even smaller boat, thank God I talked to the guy, plus he gave us a discount for staying at the Rosario.

Despite the cold sideways rain, and the hellish 90 minute return trip from seeing the whales (it was too cold to hang out on the sides of the boat and I didn't think to bring any games/distractions for the kids), it was SO worth seeing these amazing Orcas.

Now, we weren't as close as the picture appears, since my husband was using his zoom lens to it's fullest.  I'd say we were about the length of a football field or two away, as that's as close as you're allowed to get.  I think if we go back to the San Juans, I'd try first to take a picnic to Lime Kiln Point State Park and try to watch them from land.  I read this suggestion in this NY Times article, which could make for a much closer view of the whales.  And we'd definitely pay to go out on a boat again, especially if we had a normal sunny summer day!

Raincoats went on pretty quickly, and going stir crazy in the stuffy cabin was preferable to standing in the wind and rain on our way back to Orcas.

My last bit of advice for visiting the islands would be to make dinner reservations for ANY restaurant at ANY time on ANY day of the week.  I did a fair amount of research on visiting Orcas and nowhere did it stress the importance of reservations.  Silly me, I assumed that since we were eating rather early (5:30ish with the kids) during the week that this would not be necessary.  So much for all the research I did on the restaurants to try.  We wandered from place to place trying to get some dinner after a very long day without real food.  We did a big brunch at Rosario before the whale watching trip, and then only ate snacks.  The earliest anyone could seat us was 8:30pm.  Um, no.  So we ended up eating at the burger/fish n' chip joint at Rosario for the second night in a row.  It was good, but we really wished we could have experienced more of the food Orcas had to offer.  Oh well.  We did enjoy our one lunch in town at Chimayo.  Excellent Mexican fare.  

The town is adorable and we had lots of fun during the daytime perusing all the shops.  I highly recommend stopping by 'Orcas Arts and Gifts by Suzanne' with kids.  The shop owner gives a gift to every well behaved girl and boy.  My son talked to her nonstop after he was told this news, as if the goal was to entertain (which, come to think of it, is often his goal in life).  Since they were both very good and didn't break anything (which was a feat in that store) she gave big brother a shark tooth (ermagherd!) in a little bejeweled pouch and my daughter a small pearl, also in a little sparkly pouch.  This was probably the best part of the vacation for them - right up there with petting wild deer, staying in a hotel and, oh yeah, whale watching.


  1. This sounds like a fabulous getaway! I would love to visit that area sometime to go whale watching.

  2. So fun! The pics of you and your kiddos are too cute! I really really really need to go whale watching in the very near future!

  3. Sounds like a good getaway! Great tips. Hubby has been vying to get up there with the kids. I've never been whale watching in seattle. Live here all my life and never gone. Hawaii yes, Seattle no. I think it might be time!

  4. Someone pointed me to your blog - thank you for the kind words about my mom's shop, Orcas Arts. It really put a smile on her face to know she made such an impact on your family!

  5. Someone pointed me to your blog - thank you for the kind words about my mom's shop, Orcas Arts. It really put a smile on her face to know she made such an impact on your family!

  6. Someone pointed me to your blog - thank you for the kind words about my mom's shop, Orcas Arts. It really put a smile on her face to know she made such an impact on your family!

    1. Oh my gosh! That's fantastic and thanks for commenting. It really was a special part of the trip for the kids :)