by lyle e davis
When I began to write this article I thought a clever title would be . . “Orcas Island. A Nice Place to Live . . . But I Wouldn’t Want to Visit There.”
But then I thought that would be unfair to both the island and the gentle folk that people it.
We had a very unpleasant experience on Orcas Island but it was not the fault of either Orcas Island nor of the residents of that island.
The island itself is absolutely lovely, as are its residents.
I first took notice of the San Juan Islands while returning from Victoria Island, British Columbia, about 10 years ago. We were onboard the Jet Catamaran and it was sunset. I don’t know as I’ve ever seen a prettier sight. I vowed that someday I would visit these gorgeous islands and learn more about them.
I have begun that exploration and hope to go back again and learn more about all of the islands.
The San Juan Islands are ranked #4 for North American Islands by Conde' Nast Traveler and #5 for Continental U.S. and Canada Islands by Travel and Leisure.
Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Islands have been luring explorers and visitors since they were first discovered.
They are all accessible by the Washington State Ferry Service, by your own sailboat or cabin cruiser, or by float plane. However you get there, you’re likely to have a lifetime memory of a beautiful island and of beautiful people.
But back to Orcas Island. The horseshoe-shaped island is a magical mix of lush forest, farm valleys, placid lakes and stunning mountains, all wrapped around a beautiful fjord.
Orcas, in case you didn’t know, is the name scientists give to what you and I know as Killer Whales. They are a beautiful member of the dolphin family, the world’s largest.
A Pod of Orcas Cruising and Resting in the San Juans
They are found in all the world's oceans, from the frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to warm, tropical seas. They are versatile and opportunistic predators. Some populations feed mostly on fish, and other populations hunt marine mammals, including sea lions, seals, and even large whales.
Orcas are highly social and travel in “pods.” The pod we spotted was the “I” pod. The “J” pod would often meet up with the “I” pod and breeding would ensue. Typically, Orcas do not breed with members of their own pod. We were on the lookout for “J” pod but they did not show up on the day we were cruising for Orcas viewings.
Although Orcas are not an endangered species, some local populations are considered threatened or endangered due to pollution, depletion of prey species, conflicts with fishing activities and vessels, habitat loss, and whaling. Wild Orcas are usually not considered a threat to humans. There have, however, been isolated reports of captive Orcas attacking their handlers at marine theme parks.
The Orcas that cruise the waters around Orcas Island are known as Resident Orcas (as opposed to Transient or Offshore Orcas). These are the most commonly sighted of the three populations in the coastal waters of the northeast Pacific, including Puget Sound. The resident Orcas' diet consists primarily of fish and sometimes squid and they live in complex and cohesive family groups known as pods. They are known to visit certain areas consistently.
The island itself is many things. Orcas Island…is called the Gem of the San Juan Islands. They all look beautiful to me. In truth, Orcas Island is tranquil, beautiful, secluded, pristine.
People visit or live here for various reasons, but all of those reasons are invariably linked to the natural beauty the island possesses. Unfortunately, it’s not all that easy to live on Orcas Island unless you’ve got a million or two of petty cash. Real estate prices have soared sky high and you generally see the nicer properties starting at $1 million and there are a number of $5 and $10 million properties. This often makes it hard for the locals. They might find work on the island but will they find the work that pays them enough to find decent housing? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a bit tighter squeeze than what we’d find here on the mainland.
The wildlife enjoys the island as well. Here, eagles soar, whales breach, various species of birds gather, deer graze contentedly and otters and fish swim in the surrounding waters. We saw many deer. To us, that was a treat. To the islanders, they are something of a nuisance. There are so many of them that it’s almost like being in Australia with all of their kangaroos.
A grazing deer.
One lovely lady we met owns Spirit of the Northwest, a very upscale store with a wide variety of merchandise, all top class. Carmen Izakson is ‘mommy’ to a herd of about 50 deer. They come into her home . . live in her front and back yard and readily feed out of her hand. She has even named them. She also had a female moose at her home in Alaska. The moose would occasionally come in her house or would routinely stick her head in a door or window to be fed.
Until she had her baby.
Once the baby was born Carmen backed off. No matter how friendly a moose appears to be, if you get between a mommy moose and her baby you’re likely to get severely injured or even killed. It’s Nature’s Way.
I badly wanted to do a story on Carmen, get lots of digitized photos of her family of deer and tell her story. No dice. She doesn’t want any publicity. CNN, several major networks have contacted her and she declined to participate in filming. She’s worried others, without the necessary training, would do what she does and either injure themselves or the herd. Probably a pretty smart decision.
Orcas is best described as rural. Opportunities for outdoor activities abound. Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan archipelago, promises splendid vistas from its 2407-foot summit. The state park features several lakes which host various activities. Miles of shoreline ribbon the island with numerous beaches, both public and private.
Surrounding land masses offer the San Juans protection from harsh weather, so the islands enjoy a year round climate that is more moderate than other locations in the Pacific Northwest.
The islanders gather in several quaint villages dotted around the island, with Eastsound being the major hub of island activity. Eastsound is about four blocks square . . . lovely, very chic, sometimes trendy, shops . . several excellent eateries. You absolutely have to dine at Vern’s Bayside in Eastsound Village. We had a window seat with a view of the Sound . . . and had a whopping big breakfast at a very reasonable cost with a superior waitress, Michele. I had Bayside’s Southern, two biscuits smothered in homemade Southern style sausage gravy, with two eggs, over medium well. $7.95. More than reasonable. Evelyn had the Bayside Basic, two eggs, hashbrowns, biscuits, and bacon. $8.95. Also more than reasonable.
The variety of Orcas lodging options ranges from new to vintage, from small and cozy cottages to more traditional inns, hotels or lodges able to house many guests. Whatever your fancy for a home away from home, you will be able to find it on the island.
Just don’t go to the Rosario Resort/Hotel. And therein lies our tale of woe:
There we were . . . ready for a long, romantic weekend . . . filled with adventure, wondrous sights and sounds . . . all planned out, pre-trip phone calls made . . . arrangements in place.
Everything would work out just peachy-keen.
My cousin told me he had stayed there, enjoyed it, said it was a very upscale resort and he "had the best buffet I've ever had." Sounded good. I reserved the top of the line room, the best and most expensive room they had listed. I wanted this to be a really relaxing, enjoyable weekend and damn the cost.
The Rosario Hotel was converted to a resort from the Moran Mansion, built by a very successful Seattle shipbuilder and former Seattle Mayor, Robert Moran. It is located at the head of a large bay . . . has its own marina, often has float planes fly guests in and out, is located adjacent to Moran State Park, has hiking trails, a large campus, an indoor and outdoor heated pool, spa, a museum, a full scale restaurant and a plush grill area. Sounded good.
I called the resort and asked, "we're coming in this Friday evening for a long weekend. Will we need a rental car?"
"Oh, no, Mr. Davis. You'll have shuttles to take you to most anywhere you want to go. Shuttle buses go to all the adventure locations on the island. You won't need a rental car."
The shuttle bus system for the island does not begin until June 23rd. We were coming in from June 15th through June 18th.
Further, the Rosario Hotel/ Resort is about 15 miles from anywhere. Anywhere being EastSound, a small village . . . and it is even further from some of the other resorts and activity centers. Without a rental car you are at the mercy of if and when the hotel shuttle has to run to the ferry to pick up arriving guests.
En route to the San Juan Islands Evelyn and I ate up the scenery while on our final descent into Seattle. You fly right over Tacoma and you can see Mt. Saint Helens and Mt. Ranier . . . and the vast waterways surrounding Tacoma. I had flown this route before but always at night or above heavy cloud cover . . . and had not realized how pretty the Tacoma area and its waterways were. We landed at Seattle, grabbed our Airporter Bus which was to take us to Anacortes, where we were to board the ferry to Orcas Island at either 6pm or 6:35pm.
On Northbound Hiway 5 there was a major accident with two fatalities. Northbound 5 was bumper to bumper. It took us 4 1/2 hours to get to Anacortes (normally a two hour trip). We missed the 6 and 6:30 ferry; had to wait till 9:45 to catch the next ferry.
Typical Inter-Island Ferry
Okay. Things happen. We'll survive. I had planned on arriving, checking in, having a nice steak dinner . . . getting to bed early, prepared for an exciting Saturday.
Remembering my Boy Scout days and the motto . . ."Be Prepared," I called Rosario to advise them of the traffic accident, that we would be arriving late, could they send a shuttle to pick us up when the ferry arrived?
"Oh no, Mr. Davis. We don't send shuttles outside of regular hours. You'll have to call a cab upon arrival at the island. The fare to our place is, I believe, $25."
We arrived at Orcas Island and called the taxi company. "You mean the hotel isn't going to pick you up? I've never heard of that! We'll send someone right away; be about 30 minutes for the car to get there."
I had not heard of this ever before either. We practically always stay at an upscale hotel. A cardinal rule in the hospitality industry is, you never leave a guest stranded. Never. If it costs you a couple of bucks to accommodate a guest, you do it. I called the hotel back and got a different person. At first he was not going to send a shuttle and said we should have called earlier. "I did," I responded. "From Anacortes." He asked me to hold, checked with someone, came back and said they'd send a shuttle, to wait about 30 minutes. We canceled the cab and waited.
Nice young lad from Russia (actually, the Ukraine, but to us Yanks it's the same) picked us up. Petr, the driver, headed toward the resort and saw a couple of hitchhikers and asked if we minded if he picked them up. They were nice young kids, skateboarders, in for some skateboarding tournament. "Of course not," we said. "It's the middle of the night. Let's pick them up." Right away I liked Petr. He was a caring person, and pleasant to talk to.
Upon arrival at the hotel Petr led us to our rooms. However, he neglected to point out that there was a step down from the entry to the hall where our room was located and Lyle fall down and go boom! Lyle missed the step, lost my balance, landed with my left hand, spraining a finger, remembered to roll when falling, then landed on my right shoulder, the one with arthritis, felt a sharp pain, scraped a piece of skin off an elbow, and slammed my head into the floor. I lay there for a few seconds trying to determine if I had died. Or if I broke anything. Evelyn wasn't sure what happened to me but, being really wise, she figured rather quickly that I probably did not belong on the floor. Poor Petr, I think he was scared to death that he had killed me and would probably be fired for allowing a guest to injure himself. I figured out I was probably going to survive, got up, dusted myself off and we managed to find our room. If I was the litigious sort I could probably have wangled a healthy settlement out of the hotel for injuries . . . but I'm not that type. (But I admit the thought had crossed my mind, given the earlier events). Besides, I didn't want to chance getting Petr fired. He was a nice kid.
Exhausted, we hit the bed and immediately fell asleep.
I remember thinking how proud I was of myself for keeping my cool, for not losing my temper, for not cursing the ill fortunes that had beset us. "Be positive," I told myself. "Today is only one day. It's all part of the adventure. Tomorrow will be a brighter and fun day."
Remember my cousin? The one who told me about this fantastic buffet. We had the breakfast buffet. $15 per person. It was, at best, adequate.
Determined to make the best of the day, without a car, we walked the campus grounds, saw the marina, enjoyed the cold weather and the wet grounds . . . and decided we would not, in fact, go kayaking today as it was cold and wet and if we went kayaking we would get (1) colder and, (2) wetter.
I used the WiFi facilities to connect to the Internet and spent a number of hours working on The Paper remotely . . . which was no doubt great fun for Evelyn . . . who had tagged along on this trip because she heard it was going to be wonderfully romantic. Little did she realize that God's Gift to Women would be busily engaged in editing The Paper.
We checked the menu at the main restaurant and I immediately fainted from shock. $42 for a steak dinner! The menu prices were ridiculous and, after the rather pedestrian breakfast with slow service, we didn't feel like paying that kind of money. After Evelyn had revived me with a cold, wet towel, we decided we'd eat at the grill instead.
The Rosario Resort was rapidly shrinking in my admiration quotient. Others appeared to share our dismay at the prices and the service as the restaurant was rather bare of patrons. The grill served up a Reuben Sandwich, but the cook managed to impress me to no end by burning the rye bread on the grill. Still, no complaints from ol' lovable Lyle. I finished the sandwich.
Later, in the privacy of our room, I looked deeply into Evelyn's eyes and in my most romantic voice said . . . "I'm not enjoying this. Let's check out early tomorrow, go whale watching, then catch the ferry, the airporter shuttle, and head for Seattle. We'll have at least one day with Carl and Debi."
And that's what we did. The Whale Watching experience was quite enjoyable . . . a bit cold . . but nice. We saw the Orca Pod, but they were cruising and resting . . . no gigantic leaps . . . no acrobatics.
An Orca breaches
We went with Deer Harbor Charters and I’m very comfortable in recommending them. They had a superb crew, owner and captain Tom Averna, Ray Jason, also a captain and naturalist, and the Master of Ceremonies, Mike Hehre, an outstanding naturalist. There were extra blankets for cold weather, snacks, and a good, clean, comfortable boat. There were several other boats on station with us, also looking for the Orcas. One boat, a medium size Zodiac, caused us to take pity on its passengers. We thought this boat must have been the economy section of Whale Watch cruises but learned later that they were out of Victoria, B. C., and all passengers were fitted in cold weather clothing . . . and it was an “atmosphere thing.” They wanted the cold spray of the water in their faces, the nippy cold air . . . better them than us, I thought. I like to stay warm and it appeared to us that their patrons were clearly freezing their backsides off.
Our Whale Watching cruise cost $120 for the two of us. Excellent service, great senses of humor, no complaints at all.
Whale Watching Boat
So, I hope I have not frightened you away with our rather dismal experience at Rosario Hotel. There are many other fine places to stay. At one time Rosario was said to be one of the top resorts . . . but it has seen better days and better management. I found a website which I wish I had found before we booked reservations. Had I done so, we would likely have booked elsewhere. The comments of other patrons echo ours and the service has clearly been deteriorating over the years. In checking back with my cousin he pointed out that it was 10 years ago when he stayed at the Rosario. A lot has changed, and not for the better.
Look around. You’ll find places to stay that overlook the water, provide sweeping views of open valleys or are hidden on the evergreen-covered mountains of this beautiful island.
In terms of activities, there’s a lot to do . . . fishing, barbecue your dinner at a lakeside table in the state park after a whale watching tour, horseback ride, a round of golf or even a scenic biplane flight! All kinds of sailboats and/or powerboats are available for rent or charter, float planes fly in and out of the bays daily, sometimes hourly. Bicycles are available for rent . . .or you may just want to hike the many trails. Cab service is nice but very expensive. $20-25 to go almost anywhere on the island. Usually you don’t go more than 12-14 miles.
Since returning from our trip I’ve talked to several people in Washington state who know the Islands well. One of them recommends Roche Harbour as a destination . . .you have choices: a neat old hotel; cabins; or new condos. Also, good choices in restaurants and food. Friday Harbor, they say, is a friendly and interesting place to visit, and has good restaurants and fun shopping.
Wherever you go on the Islands, Enjoy!
Note: Jim Bankston, General Manager of the Rosario Hotel, was kind enough to return my call and respond to an emailed copy of our comments in this story. He acknowledged that his staff messed up and should have dropped what they were doing and had a van at the ferry to pick us up; also, that the gal who gave me incorrect information about the available shuttle service simply did not follow her training. He apologized for
Lakes, Moran State Park