This past weekend, Susan and I took advantage of the lovely weather and the start of the off-season travel, to head to Orcas Island, one of the most magical islands in the San Juan Island archipelago.
The San Juan Islands is made up of 128 islands, four of which are reachable via the Washington ferry system. Susan and I have visited San Juan Island, likely the most popular with tourists and charming in its own right. But this time, we jumped the ferry at Anacortes bound for Orcas.
After a brief stop at Shaw Island, we made the short passage to Orcas where, upon disembarking, we made our way through Orcas Village, heading towards our B&B of choice, the Turtleback Farm Inn.
The Turtleback Farm Inn, once described by Travel and Leisure magazine as, “ a hideaway that perfected country life”, is a gem of a place. Located near the base of Turtleback Mountain, Turtleback Farm Inn combines country amenities, warm beds and great food with broad sweeping views of the valley below. Additionally, for no extra cost, hiking, farm life and the kindness of two amazing innkeepers are included.
The Inn is run by Bill and Susan Fletcher, two incredibly hospitable and kind people, who still take the time to give you something extra at every point of your stay.
Bill greeted Susan and I outside. He’s a very kind fellow, a cross between a rancher and an academic, which Bill would likely find a funny juxtaposition considering I overheard him tell another guest he never attended college. Perhaps it’s his calm and well thought out answers or his circular glasses that gave me this impression. Needless to say, he’s the real deal. A guy you want to just sit and listen too, because you know you will be better for it.
Susan, Bill’s wife, checked us in with equal caring and then Bill showed us to our room.
Our room, aptly named, The Nook, is a small but very charming corner of the main farmhouse. Equipped with an equally small but surprisingly suitable bed for two, The Nook does have a full bathroom adorned with a beautiful clawfoot tub and pedestal sink. Turtle Back offers many other rooms, some very large with far greater accommodations, but for Susan and I, the Nook was perfect.
Bill explained how he and his wife procured the antique lock and key to our room from a soon to be demolished building in Seattle and then he went on to tell us a funny story concerning The Nook, a State Senator and his wife and the proximity the bed affords its occupants. I will leave you and your journey to Turtleback Farm to learn the rest of the story.
We walked with Bill to the kitchen to discuss dinner options. He pointed out the house sherry which we were welcome to nip at later that evening, should the mood strike us.
Bill then methodically walked us through local dining options. It was at this time that Susan Fletcher, ever so casually, mentioned the existence of a rather friendly sheep named Chompers and that, if we wanted, perhaps we could feed Chompers her meal of choice – bread.
My mind raced. I was already planning future visits in my head, envisioning Chompers and I, running slowly towards each other in the field below, my hands clutched around large bags of bread. Susan, meanwhile,quietly reveled in her choice of inn, having been only aware of the charm and facts of the inn (and not the existence of the bread eating sheep named Chompers) prior to booking. But, dinner was upon us, so, Chompers would need to wait for morning…
Having loosely determined our dinner location, we took a short hike on the drive that winds down through the property, past old growth trees, some older structures from a time long past , and a pond.
As we started our walk, Bill set off down the road as well, on his bike, towards their home that rests at the bottom of the valley. Having said goodnight, we continued down the road.
Susan and I walked the road, turning back when we reached an insurmountable fence towards the bottom of the valley. During our stroll, I found myself, if only in my mind, calling out “Chompers…Chompers”, with the same passion and desire as little Timmy did for Lassie.
The entire property is well over 100 acres and is just stunning. In the distance, a confused rooster called out as the sun began to near the horizon, sheep belonging to Bill and Susan blended into the brown countryside, and deer wandered nearby.
I could only assume the deer were up to no good and partaking in things Susan Fletcher would not be entirely pleased with, as she had politely scoffed at my “ohh, you have deer!” remark, moments earlier. I get it.
Having walked part of the property with the idea of saving the walk to the farm’s 150 year old maple for morning, we set out for dinner.
We made our way into Eastsound Village, located in the middle of the island on the north end of East Sound. We parked, walked a bit past other quaint inns, shops and pubs and then past a beautiful church (both Lutheran and Episcopal services offered),.
We strolled through the meditative labyrinth and took in the water views which are visible everywhere.
We then decided to head to dinner at the Inn at Ship Bay. Located on Ship Bay, the Inn is a resort, offering amazing views of the bay and, as we came to discover, incredible food.
We settled in for a drink at the bar, as there was a short wait for a table, since we had not made a reservation.
The restaurant had a large outdoor deck, perfect for al fresco dining, a sun room that was open to the elements for that meet in the middle feel, and a traditional indoor dining room. After a glass of prosecco for me and and vodka/St. Germain cocktail for Susan, which was garnished with a sprig of blossoming lavender, we made our way to the sun room.
The sun was just easing into its evening position, allowing us to view the bay.
Having eaten a late lunch on the road, we were not especially hungry. That said, this menu looked too good to have taken the “I’m too full’ attitude.
Susan started with a roasted beet salad, which was as fresh as you would expect from a farm to table restaurant.
I opted for the cold melon soup, which was amazing. Amazing.
We shared and each enjoyed a glass of wine with our starters. Our second course involved a starter order of Penn Cove mussels for Susan (plenty to be shared) and the seafood bouillabaisse for me.
Both were incredible, fresh from the sea and plentiful. The bouillabaisse had clams, mussels, squid, scallops and two large pieces of salmon. Simply the best I have ever had. The nearby bread, fresh, was of course, great for dunking. We had a wonderful caramel desert and some after dinner drinks, desert wine for Susan and a wee dram of scotch for me.
After dinner, we headed back, unlocked the door to the inn, prepared for bed, and squeezed comfortably into the snug Nook bed.
I was sleeping soundly the next morning. What it lacked in space, The Nook made up for in comfort. So, being on vacation, I slept in until 7. I was awoken by Susan, presumably up for hours, tending to our schedule, patiently waiting for me to rise, whispering in my ear “don’t you want to say hi to Chompers?” Susan’s Jedi mind-trick successful, my eyes snapped open, envisioning a pile of stale bread awaiting me and, you know who.
We greeted Bill and Susan and other hungry guests as we sat on the outside deck, taking in the morning air and view.
Bill, Susan and one of the staff members brought us fresh fruit, dark and perfect coffee, fresh juice and had set out a granola and yogurt bar earlier that morning. I ate my fruit, got a bowl of granola and yogurt for Susan and I, and then was presented with my veggie frittata. Delicious.
The food was delicious, the service and setting impeccable and well, Bill’s socks…they were pretty nice as well.
After breakfast, I refreshed Bill’s memory about the offer he had made the night before concerning one bread eating sheep. He promptly gave me a small bag of bread accompanied by some important instructions involving the feeding of Chompers.
Susan and I entered the field. A group of sheep off in the distance were grazing, unaware.
As we grew near, I looked for subtle signs of acknowledgement of our pending arrival. Alas, nothing. Suddenly, from the pack, one head lifted, had my call of “Chompers…’ finally reached the appropriate designate?.
Little did I know that Susan, walking behind me, was waving her bread in the air, like a matador waving a red cape in front of a bull. Soon, the head rotated towards us, eyes affixed on the Pavlovian tool Susan waved behind me.
Assuming it was me, I said in my best high pitched voice “Chompers!”, not realizing that Chompers at this moment had zeroed in on the white bread Susan so casually paraded behind me. Chompers then broke from the pack, trotted towards us and was greeted with pieces of bread from me and then, Susan.
After many pets, scratches and snuggles, we left Chompers, to make the short walk to the 150 year old maple tree, which was, of course, spectacular.
Off in the distance, Chompers waited, so, we walked back for one last scratch and then left Chompers, who slowly sauntered back to the group.
Arriving back at the farmhouse, Bill made us aware that Chompers was pregnant and that the due date was Dec and that we should come back for the occasion (event noted in calendar, bottle of champagne ordered).
After our encounter with Chompers we headed out towards our main activity for the day, a three hour kayaking tour in and around Smugglers Cove.
Located due north of Eastsound, Smugglers Cove is home to Smugglers Villa Resort which is home to Outer Island Excursions. Outer Island Excursions offers fishing charters as well as kayak tours and rentals.
As we stuffed our dry bag with camera gear, a couple apples and a banana, we were introduced to Chris, our guide for the day. Chris, outside of being a proficient kayaker and well versed naturalist, is exactly what you want in a guide. His life experiences to date, both rich and unique, had culminated into an enthusiasm for life and the ecosystem he was about to guide us through. Susan and I knew right away that we were in great hands.
After donning our life jackets and listening to a short and humerous safety briefing by Chris, we splashed our boats into the Salish Sea, final destination, Doughty Point.
The Salish Sea is fed by the Strait of Georgia, which is a 150 mile (240 Kilometers) long strait that separates Vancouver Island from mainland Canada. Susan and I, our guide Chris, and 10 others made our way with ease in double kayaks, along the shoreline, in search of sea life, including harbor seals.
Surely, not too far into our journey, we encountered a group of harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks.
They were wary of our arrival, but one always appears less threatening when you are at sea level on a kayak. Perched on a rock above was a turkey vulture, very aware of his surroundings.
The turkey vulture is not the best looking bird, but he’s fun to watch when he takes to the air. We continued on, spotting lions mane jellyfish, floating in the water. Chris made the not-so-smart decision of grabbing one for our entertainment and education. Silly Chris.
The water was crystal calm, lots of visibility and the group was full of fun and energetic people. As we approached Doughty Point (a wildlife area, only reachable by boat), Kingfishers flew about. We rounded the point, hugging the rocks on our way to what was to be our final destination – the beach of Doughty Point.
Since we had made such great time, Chris suggested we paddle a bit more towards a tiny and remote island named, Birthday Island.
All agreed and we continued on, a short 15 minutes until we rounded and ultimately beached at Birthday Island.
Guide Chris was as excited as all of us, having only been to the island once during his three year career with Outer Island Excursions. We pulled the kayaks up, viewed amazing creatures in the tide pools, including crabs and sea anemones.
The beach was loaded with mussels and other edibles, including seaweed. After a group selfie, we jumped back in our kayaks and did a slow paddle back, telling stories and jokes and enjoying our remaining time on the Salish Sea.
After pulling up on shore, saying so long to Chris and the others, Susan and I toured the eastern part of Orcas, with the Rosario Resort as our lunch destination.
The Rosario Resort was first built as a retirement home for Robert Moran, a stressed out Seattle shipbuilder.
Moran, in 1904, after years in business and a two year stint as Seattle’s Mayor, moved his family to Orcas after being told by his doctors that his health had deteriorated so much due to stress that his life expectancy was no more than three years. Moran, wanting to live his remaining days in a tranquil location, moved his family to Orcas and the 7000 + acre piece of land and started to construct his mansion.
The mansion, now the resort, was designed with nautical themes in mind. Moran also hired famed landscape designers, the Olmsted Brothers, to design the grounds. Amazing enough, Moran, given only three years to live, actually died in 1943, 39 years later. In 1921, Moran, influenced by his association with John Muir and admiration for the conservation practices of President Theodore Roosevelt, donated over 5000 acres of land to the state of Washington. Moran State Park is now the largest public recreation area in the San Juan Islands, with over 30 miles of hiking trails, two lakes and Mount Constitution, the island’s focal point, with an elevation of 2,409 feet (734m).
Over the years the resort was sold twice. Today, the resort is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is a must see when you visit Orcas.
Having had a delicious lunch at the Cascade Bay Grill, down by the marina, we headed out, towards the ferry.
We got to the ferry, almost 2 hours ahead of time and yet the ferry was already filled. This is the only element of frustration when traveling to the San Juans, so, prepare. (The ferries will be taking reservations starting in January 2015 – we can hardly wait!).
During our wait for the next ferry, we took the opportunity to drive another part of the island, the most southwest part of the island known as Deer Harbor. We drove around the beautiful harbor and then back up towards the Turtleback Inn, passing Bill and Susan on their bikes coming from town. We had hopes of catching a glimpse of a large bull we had seen earlier.
We enjoyed the drive and made it back in time to get near the front of the line for the later ferry.
Having had some drinks in town and bought some gifts, we boarded the ferry and bid adieu to Orcas, knowing that we would be back in December, for the birth of Chompers babies.