When local media buzzed last year with news of Oprah Winfrey’s $8.275 million estate purchase on Washington State’s Orcas Island, the reaction was unsurprising: After all, with all the money in the world, buying a house on this U-shaped island in Puget Sound would be high on anybody’s to-do list.
Yet the best news is that you don’t have to be a multimillionaire to enjoy the charms and beauty of Orcas Island—but the magical scenery, community, and cuisine will make you feel like one.
One of the largest of the almost 200 isles that make up the San Juan Islands, Orcas, with its rolling hills, provides stunning scenery from Mount Constitution—the highest point in the archipelago—along with clear lakes for kayaking and a culinary scene that could compete with that of a major city.
The only downside to Orcas is also an upside: It’s not easy to reach. From Seattle, it’s an hour and a half drive (in the best of times), followed by an hour on the ferry. While the ferry is a lovely way to travel, it also requires a reservation (which means getting there at least 30 minutes before the boat’s departure) and/or waiting in lines that eat away even more time. But the remoteness helps ensure the island’s charm, and by the time you walk upstairs to the fresh ocean air of the ferry deck or settle into one of the window booths where some previous traveler has left a partially done puzzle for you to work on, the travel woes melt away.
Greeting newcomers to the Orcas Island shore is Champagne Champagne, “an irreverent natural wine temple by the sea,” by its own description, and a natural-wine shop and cocktail bar to the rest of us. Pop in for their tongue-in-cheek version of a shandy: a beer with a popsicle inside. From there, as visitors wind their way up the hill into Eastsound, the main village, sandwich signboards advertise community events—a pancake breakfast, night golf event, or salmon barbecue—a balance of small-town sweetness with eminently tourist-friendly activities. Campaign signs weave in, touting candidates in a dog-mayor election for charity.
Cute bed and breakfasts dot the town, while home rentals and hotels border the horseshoe of coastline looking in toward various bays. Whether you’re looking to stay in a furnished yurt with clothing-optional saltwater soaking tubs (Doe Bay Resort), the Cliffhouse suite at Rosario Resort, or even just an affordable rental cabin, there are a few things almost guaranteed on Orcas: You’ll be within minutes of the water—if not directly on it—and will run a high chance of meeting wildlife between your car and the entrance.
Curious deer glance sweetly at visitors from front lawns and the namesake orcas ply the water: Some visitors might be lucky enough to spot them from the ferry or the bar at Champagne Champagne—but for anyone else, whale-watching tours by a few different companies leave daily. The heart-melting scenes that the gentle giants provide are par for the course on an island so mystifyingly innocent that an honor-system farm stand offers earnest notes from the young girl who stocks the quail, duck, and chicken eggs. (Intrigued? Learn more at her website.)
But while the eggs make a great rental house breakfast, Orcas will quickly fill up your meal schedule. Plan to either buy supplies or picnic at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm, where you should ignore the “U-pluck chickens” sign and dig into the tanks full of oysters raised a literal stone’s throw away in the bay stretching out in front of the shop. Clams, crab, and other local shellfish can be bought for taking away or for eating on-site, with all the tools plus a quick lesson in shucking provided for those who need it.
For a more refined version of the island’s shellfish, Roses Bakery Cafe is your best bet, serving spaghetti with clams from neighboring Lopez Island; a halibut, clam, and mussel chowder; and a local Dungeness crab po’boy, among other dishes. Locals gravitate to The Kitchen, where simple build-your-own bowls feature locally grown produce, and protein options include local salmon and wild-caught prawns. Cozy neighboring Barnacle is the best bar in town, with nautically themed craft cocktails that match the decor.
But if there’s one must-do on Orcas, it’s Hogstone’s Wood Oven. Ostensibly, this is James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist Jay Blackinton’s pizza restaurant. In reality, it’s his homage to the beauty of the island’s culinary bounty. Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but when you’ve already gotten over the eye-rolling sweetness of a dog election and a preteen’s honor system farm stand, you begin to accept that Orcas is the kind of magical place where cynicism needs to be suspended. Especially when it comes to the sorcery of Hogstone’s food. Do order a pizza—particularly a seasonal special like the allium, mushroom, and fresh cow cheese; or the kale, garlic, and hay-smoked fresh goat cheese with chili and cured hen’s yolk. Even the simpler offerings, like the smoked tomato with fresh goat cheese and herbs, impress with a hint of tang in the blistered crust.
But the Plates section of the menu shows off Orcas’ finest: ember-roasted morel mushrooms, fava shoots with grilled clams, and “oysters from 344 yards away,” served alongside local kelp. The dishes, like so much on Orcas Island, could be described as over-the-top if they weren’t so perfectly executed and easy for anyone to grab while dining at one of the outdoor picnic tables.
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