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postcards from seattle: orcas island

September 15, 2011

Here’s my essay on why I raced tide and time to grab one last glimpse of Orcas Island.  It’s as we’re leaving, the ferry pulling away from the dock with a speed that seems inconceivable on a ship of this mass and bulk, that I get that dream-race feeling where I, the hare who can surely conquer anything, swallows a throat-lodging truth: time, the tortoise in the metaphor, has plodded on and will indeed cross the finish line first.  I walk, then power-walk, then jog along the ferry’s length, heading toward the back deck to watch the Orcas Island landing disappear into a disorienting fog.  I snap a few pictures.  My telephoto lens compensates for the distance that so quickly yawns between boat and shore.

And just that swiftly, our time in the San Juan Islands closes behind us.  Time, that sneaky pest, snickers at me from the finish line.

I’m not new to island vacations.  But I’ve never quite experienced the isolated freedom of an island that requires one of the following arrival methods:

A) 1 hour ferry ride

B) Extensive knowledge of sailing plus a detailed nautical map (ability to navigate by stars a bonus)

C) Sea plane equipped with emergency manual on water landings

We opt for A because my knowledge of sailing or flight is nil.  But I can drive a car onto a ferry and line up where directed.  I can also drive off the boat and onto winding roads that flirt with glimpses of blue bays, sally up to towering hills, and stroll through wheat fields and cattle pastures.  As we navigate the horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island, we pass a hand-lettered sign at the edge of a dirt driveway that trails into a copse of pine trees: “Homemade Sausage, Jams, Vegetables, Eggs.”  I decide to extend my stay by a month.  Or a year.

Driving through the wooded sections of Orcas Island, I find Robert Frost’s words rolling through my mind: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”, and while I know he was describing the New England deciduous forests, the truth is that he was also writing about the maritime forests of the San Juan Islands.  I just wish I had similar lines of Truth to describe the waterscapes on Orcas.

This is the view from our hotel room.  I want to say that in a smug, bragging voice, but my hand merely handed over the plastic rectangle of credit card to secure myself two night’s R&R at Cascade Harbor Inn looking out at this masterpiece that God’s hand painted.  From the porch, we watch sea planes land.  We spy a deer picking its way through the trees below us.  We hear indistinct but happy voices drift to us from sailboats anchored with sails furled.  We let the light and silence and breath of pines wash over us.

I believe you can tell much about the soul of a place by what appears on a plate.  Judging by the food on Orcas Island, the soul here is rich, true, and sumptuous.  Dining becomes an interactive procedure for each meal and snack in between.

At Wild Flour Bakery, as we choose “one of each” of the bread rolls (gorgonzola and spinach, jalapeno and cheese, tomato and cheddar, ricotta and blueberry), I chat with the owner who has fled the muddy rivers of her childhood Ohio home for the crystalline rivers of the Northwest.  Her pregnant belly swells under her t-shirt.  The shirt has smudges of flour from where her hands have rested on a restless baby.

Little Friend procures a bowl from our hotel suite’s kitchen and heads to the unrestrained berry patches that choke the island roadsides.  She and her grand parents harvest black berries still warm from the sun for our lunch.  At Passionate for Pies, the pastured pork shepherd’s pie with a butter crust quickly earns a slot on our menu.  Likewise the blueberry-nectarine pie baked with rapadura sugar.  The food philosophy belied by these ingredients makes me feel like I’ve stepped into my home kitchen.  I decide to extend my stay by two years.

We make reservations at Allium, a Slow Foods Seattle pick, for dinner.  The menu is so tempting, we decide on a smorgasbord of plates and allow our forks to roam around the table sampling liberally .

The show stoppers of the evening turn out to be the entrees: a white king salmon in a chanterelle cream sauce and seared scallops served with a foie-gras madeira sauce.  Four adults fight over which dish should be crowned supreme taste winner.  Even after the last swipe of sauce has been shoveled into a mouth via homemade buttermilk biscuits, we have to declare the contest a draw.

While we’re dining at Allium, we catch glimpses of a sea otter frolicking in the water just outside our window.  I eavesdrop on a six-top beside us where a middle-aged gentleman is providing a treatise on the history and ills of canola oil in America.  I lose a swift game of rock-paper-scissors and truck downstairs to the bathroom with a Little Friend who swears she has “to go.”  She still wears diapers.  She never needs “to go” when I suggest it.  So off goes the saturated diaper.  Onto the throne goes Little Friend.  She pushes.  She grunts.  She declares, “I think my body has no pee.”  Really?!

To the car for a diaper we go.  No diaper bag.

Back upstairs we go.  The ninety-year-old woman at the six-top is sharing her review of a Seattle theater experience.  I notice that three-quarters of the entrees have disappeared in my absence.  I look around the table fruitlessly until I acknowledge the disaster: we have no diaper.  The diaper bag sits forgotten back at the hotel.  I sit Little Friend down on a decidedly less-padded bottom.  I strategize.  Do we play diaper roulette and hope that the bladder stays dry through the rest of our meal, risking the integrity of the brocade chair seats?  Do we dig the squishy, oozy diaper out of the trash and strap it back on? It’s Big Friend who finally breaks down and agrees to run over to the grocery to buy a back-up pack of diapers.

While he’s gone, I make swift work of my stress by attacking the salmon and scallops.  There’s little worry in life that a terrific bite of king salmon in cream sauce cannot ameliorate.

It’s at The Inn at Ship’s Bay where we enjoy perhaps our most enjoyable meal on Orcas Island.  Wood fired pizza on the lawn.  Hot from the hand-made wood-burning oven constructed by the pastry chef at The Inn.  Because these are the type of people who want to live year-round in the San Juan Islands.  I decide to extend my stay to three years.

We order one of each pizza.  When faced with such culinary bounty, why restrain oneself?

All three pizzas are delicious.  Sweet sauce, silken dough, tangy toppings.  But the green pesto, basil, summer squash, onion and mozzarella pie garners loving praise from my tongue’s heart.  Other diners arrive for take away.  Others spread blankets on the lawn around the Inn.  One couple drives up in an oddly converted dune buggy.  They unfold their limbs, which combined probably equal 120 years in age, and sally up to the oven to place an order for “their usual.”  Because these are the types of people who want to live year-round in the San Juan Islands.  I decide to extend my stay to three and a half years.

Little Friend takes my hand saying, “Come here Mom.  I want to show something to you.”  We wander off in search of this elusive something.  We wander through an orchard of heritage plum trees.

I rhapsodize about the view.  Little Friend seems oblivious to its charms and instead shows off her newly found “walking stick” discovered in the aisles of the orchard.  She jumps a few times with it to test it out and deems it worthy of her exploring.

Main Street in East Sound, Orcas Island offers the expected array of quaint gift boutiques and coffee shops.  It offers Darvill’s Bookstore, an indy book lover’s paradise that quickly pickpockets much of my hard-earned cash.

The Episcopal Church, which has wedged itself into the middle of town with prime views of the bay, offers a meditation labyrinth to anyone who needs more relaxing after all the other relaxing available on the island.  It’s also the backdrop for a jewel-toned wedding party snapping pictures on the lawn as we first drive through town.  I decide to get married on Orcas Island.  (Ignoring the small technicality that I’m already married, of course.)

With a toddler in tow, a trip to Orcas Island means a lot of feasting, exploring, shopping, napping, and ice cream licking.  We watch deer, we point out the moon, we stain our fingers with blackberry juice.  We don’t charter a whale sight-seeing tour.  We don’t bicycle around the island.  We don’t kayak.  We save those delights for later, because, well,by  now I’ve decided to extend my stay until Little Friend’s, say, twelve.  Maybe by then I’ll have soaked in my fill of beauty, relaxation, food, and exploration.

Now do you see why I had to race time and tide to cherish the last glimpse of Orcas Island?

Orcas Island, San Juan Islands



Darvill’s Bookstore

Tres Fabu


Inn at Ship’s Bay

Wild Flour Bakery

Rose’s Bakery and Cafe

Passionate About Pies


The Kitchen


Inn at Ship’s Bay

Cascade Harbor Inn

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Megan permalink
    September 15, 2011 7:16 pm

    Beth-amazing, seriously amazing!

  2. Nancy permalink
    September 15, 2011 9:29 pm

    I want to go. Love your writing and the Island sounds magical.

  3. September 16, 2011 3:15 pm

    Wow! That’s all I can say–wow.

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