Forget Maui, Jamaica or Santorini—My Forever Island is Orcas

How a convenient destination for young families became an indispensable springtime tradition
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Father and daughter paddle near the shore

This article appears in print in the May 2020 issue, as part of our Getaways GuideClick here to subscribe. 

Editor's note: Due to the COVID 19 health crisis, we recommend you save this trip for a time when it's safe to leave your house. Many of these businesses are not fully operational, and some of the more rural areas we write about in our travel coverage don't need an influx of Seattleites right now. But it's fun to dream, isn't it? 

Our springtime tradition of visits to Orcas Island started in 2013. We were three young families, desperate for an easy getaway that would allow us parents to relax while our toddlers got into minimal trouble. We settled on Orcas—close enough for a long weekend, far enough that it felt like a vacation. Plus, there’s nothing a toddler loves more than a ferry ride.

That first year, we based our trip on the island’s northwest coast, at the charming, rustic summer-camp-esque West Beach Resort. There, the kids spent hours throwing rocks into the water at low tide, teetering on wee wobbly legs to keep from slipping on the slick seaweed washed ashore. My husband and his friends took a rowboat out in search of spot prawns—they came back empty-handed, and we dined on snacks from the small on-site market instead. Naps were taken—by everyone—on blankets spread out on the grass. We stood one evening on the pier, mouths agape at the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever witnessed. After just two nights away, we came back to Seattle feeling like new people.

The next year we booked a large rental house on the northeast shore, a quick drive from Eastsound, where we stocked up on essentials at Island Market and growlers of IPA at Island Hoppin’ Brewery. Each family added a little sibling the following year; now 12 people in total, half of them young and unruly, we never managed to eat out much. Instead, we packed sandwiches or picked up a spread of sweet and savory pastries—always the kouign-amann—from the excellent Brown Bear Baking to enjoy at the epic lookout atop Mount Constitution in Moran State Park.

There have been adventures over the years (road burns earned while mountain biking, a midnight firehouse visit when my son got a bad case of croup) and also blissful respites from Seattle reality (Mother’s Day spent soaking in the tubs at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat, books purchased from Darvill’s Bookstore and consumed in a weekend). Each year is a little different, but always there are laughs, board games, hikes, sun-kissed shoulders and (too many) drinks around the fire. One year, we even saw the deep, surreal swirls of the northern lights, confirmed by a flurry of excitement among locals the next day.

In 2019, we had our most successful trip yet, if success can be marked by the growth of children into tiny adults. During dinner at Hogstone’s Wood Oven, the legendary wood-fired pizzeria run by chef Jay Blackinton, we ate freshly foraged nettles atop chewy, charred crust from picnic tables on the patio. The next day, a group of us embarked on a whale-watching trip with Outer Island Excursions. After years of lamenting the fact that I’d never seen an orca from the Anacortes-to-Orcas ferry, I saw a whole pod of the majestic animals, plus a humpback slowly swishing his tail into the depths below. Overall, the pack of kids took care of each other, leaving us adults to while away hours soaking up the sun, silence and soaring eagles overhead.

There’s much left to explore on Orcas: I’m dying to get to Blackinton’s fine dining restaurant, Ælder, and someday hope to visit for the multiday Doe Bay Fest, though neither will happen with our collective six kids in tow. But as far as traditions go, this annual gathering gives me something to look forward to for months, and something to hold close to my heart year-round.

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