Winter on Orcas Island

Orcas Island has been one of our favorite local spots to vacation. Our family used to camp regularly in the summers at Moran State Park, memories that our daughters still hold today. Lately, with the kids now grown and having their own families, my wife and I have been going to Orcas during off-seasons to avoid crowds. In the summer months, taking the ferry can be an exercise in frustration. Still, I’ll never tire of ferrying through the San Juan Islands.


We had never gone there in February and are not apt to again. It isn’t that we won’t appreciate the slower pace or minimal number of tourists but that many recreational activities and attractions are not available or open for the year. When we arrived on Sunday, the weather was still frosty outside. The higher elevations, like Turtleback Mountain, were covered in snow. I thought it would be spectacular to get a 360-degree view of the San Juans all covered in white from atop Mount Constitution, but as I suspected, the entrance was closed. And, when Monday rolled around, it snowed—quite a lot. In the town of Eastsound, Orcas’ hub and commercial center, which is a little above sea level, 8″ or so of fluff accumulated, more higher up. And the nights dipped below freezing. Lucky for us, one of our favorite bookstores, Darvill’s, was open for business.

Restaurants, we discovered, are spottily open, at this time of year typically closed for two days of the week. We did appreciate that they must’ve arranged among themselves to stagger the closures on different days to always have a restaurant or two for tourists’ sake.

For a small town, Eastsound has a number of very good restaurants and cafés. With not much else to do, we still did manage to eat quite well. Continue reading

Turtleback Farm Inn (Orcas Island, WA)

Situated on Orcas Island, Turtleback Farm Inn is listed in 1000 Places to See Before You Die. Other travel publications have chimed in with equally effusive praise, backed by the reviews of the many visitors who have stayed there. Susan and Bill Fletcher purchased the farm when they were simply looking for a second home, a getaway from the Bay Area where they lived. Over time and after a lot of hard work, they transformed the farm into a bed & breakfast. In the process, they retained the farm’s original character, including the Orchard House that was subsequently built to resemble a barn.

Why is this B&B regarded so highly? The inn’s eleven rooms are very comfortable, furnished with appointments thoughtfully selected, each room having a unique character, with daily and unobtrusive maid service. Several of the rooms have their own decks with outside seating and views of the surrounding meadows and forests. Freshly baked cookies and sherry are provided for afternoon relaxation. But, these are amenities that almost any good B&B will provide.

What most inns don’t provide is Turtleback’s beautiful setting, nestled in 80 acres of mostly pastureland for sheep, surrounded by rolling hills, forest and Turtleback Mountain. Whether you’re simply gazing out toward the pastures or taking a leisurely walk through the property, you can literally feel the stresses you may have arrived with simply melt away. On top of this, you are on Orcas Island, the crown jewel of the San Juan Islands.

Valley View Room in the main farmhouse

But, the crowning touch is arguably Susan Fletcher’s breakfasts that change daily, served on fine china, her famous granola available every morning along with all her homemade jams and freshly squeezed fruit juices. It has been said that she serves the best breakfasts on the island. Her cooking has won so many admirers that a cookbook with many of her recipes was published in 1990.

Susan Fletcher’s outstanding breakfasts are served on fine china, with al fresco dining when the weather is nice.

Banana and toasted walnut pancakes with bacon

The proprietors are so friendly and gracious, always making guests feel at home and thanking you for your stay. We’ve been here twice now; it certainly won’t be the last.

By the way, when you look at Susan Fletcher, you can see that she’s the daughter of Buster Crabbe, about whom a framed newspaper clipping is proudly displayed at the front entrance.

Turtleback Farm Inn
1981 Crow Valley Road
Eastsound, WA 98245

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Turtleback Mountain Trail (Orcas Island, WA)

A view of the western half of Orcas Island and the Canadian Gulf islands

Several years ago, Orcas Island residents opposed plans to develop Turtleback Mountain, once privately owned by Norton Clapp of the Weyerhauser Corporation, and sold to a foundation. They filed a lawsuit in court and won. The mountain is now an island preserve. Additional trails beyond the logging roads have been developed in the park, with one connecting the north and south trailheads, almost 6.5 miles along.

We took the south trail that led to magnificent views of the western half of Orcas Island and the Canadian Gulf islands. The trail eventually veers off the ridge and into the forested area. The temperature was ideal for hiking, in the lows 70s, and perfect for a picnic lunch overlooking the waters to the west.

There are plans to add more hiking trails. The trails are only open to foot traffic and are for day-use only.

Forest denizen

Dinner at Sazio’s (Eastsound, Orcas Island, WA)

Ever since the closure of La Famiglia many years ago, Orcas Island didn’t have a good Italian restaurant to go to. Portofino hardly qualifies since it’s mainly a pizza joint. That all changed when Bill Patterson purchased Chimayo and opened Sazio di Notte. His plan was to convert Chimayo, a favorite Southwest restaurant among locals, to a full-time Italian restaurant, but because of pleas from the residents, the restaurant now has a dual personality: Chimayo for lunch (en la dia), Sazio for dinner (di notte).

The restaurant prides itself on using fresh ingredients, including organic produce, and meats sourced from the island, which would include pork, lamb and goat. Judging from the menu, I would guess that the emphasis is on Northern Italian cuisine.

Our meal started out with a very fine dinner salad, actually an inventive variation of a Caesar without the anchovies, the olive oil infused with garlic and a little kick from jalapeño chiles. The salad is then crowned with finely shredded Parmesan. This, it turns out, was a favorite at Chimayo and has crossed over to Sazio.

Dinner salad, a reimagined Caesar

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Dinner at Chiladas (Eastsound, WA)

The venerable Bilbo’s Festivo, a popular and long-time Mexican restaurant in Eastsound, is now Chiladas, after having gone through several ownership changes. The current one is Bilbo’s original owner. While the menu has changed and aims higher than standard Tex-Mex fare that mostly (though not entirely) made up its previous menu. Now, the entrees represent a broader range of Mexican cooking with more traditional and Northwest ingredients. The interior is still as festive as it ever was. On a nice day, with the sun shining through the windows, you’d swear you were down south.

The carne adobada came with marinated pork tenderloin medallions, grilled to perfection over mesquite coals, served with a very nice achiote-flavored potato mash, braised chard (tart with vinegar) and pickled onions.

Carne adobada

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