America's most under-the-radar isles aren't just for Bill Gates and his billionaire kin.
There's a star spotter's map advertised outside an old store by the side of the road past where the car ferry drops me off on Orcas Island. I pull in, wait my turn behind a couple of slow-moving locals and ask for one. "Oh, honey," the storekeeper says. "That's a joke." I bid a hasty retreat to my rental Kia Rio, with my head down so low I find the mints under my seat I thought I lost in Seattle. These San Juan Islands may be full of celebrities, but I'm fast discovering: these San Juan islands keep their secrets.
Speaking of secrets: who's actually heard of the San Juan Islands, anyway? It's located barely 150 kilometres north of Seattle and easily reachable by regular car ferry (and regular flights), and locals here appear fascinated that I'm even here at all. "I think you're the first Aussie I've served," a barman at the local craft brewery on San Juan Island tells me. And that's as he's pouring me his specifically named Aussie lager. Kangaroo House on Orcas Island is the longest continuously run B&B in the San Juan Islands, but they're not sure they've housed an Aussie either (and it's been open since 1907). The US might be the third most popular country on Earth Australians travel to - and the West Coast is one of the country's biggest tourist drawcards - but clearly no one's getting the memo on the San Juans.
You'd be forgiven for thinking you're in Canada. I'm so close to Vancouver Island here that my American phone service provider switches every few minutes to a Canadian phone company. Stand on the shoreline of most islands of the San Juan group and that's Canada you can see over the water.
These islands were the scene of history's nicest war. The Pig War of 1859 between America and England flared up over the shooting of a porker. No other shots were ever fired, and eventually the armies shared the meat at a picnic. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm I was asked to mediate. He awarded the San Juans to the Americans. But though you'll find the stars and stripes waving proudly on the breeze, the villages here look like pretty English seaside hamlets, surrounded by evergreen forests.
I arrive in town on a car ferry from Anacortes, on the mainland. I stand on the top deck and look out across islands that look like a less tropical version of our own Whitsunday Islands. There are 172 islands here, though only four are reachable by car ferry. The ferry ride in is one of the best tourist attractions - since these islands are home to the largest population of resident orca on Earth. The San Juans are the best place to see them on the planet. They're also the best place in the USA for "other" whale watching - from humpbacks to grays to minkes. Here's also where you'll find the greatest concentration of bald eagles in the USA. And because we're in the rain shadow of Seattle's Olympic Mountains (they're an impressive sight from my spot on the deck) I can expect 250 days of sunshine in a year, and half the rainfall of Seattle. The climate's temperate, too - it won't get above 24 degrees in summer, or below seven degrees mid-winter.
I don't see orca but porpoises come to surf the bow waves below me. There are homes in these islands built so deep in the woods I can barely see them. And there are locals around me who no doubt live in them; bearded types, dressed in flannelette and army green. Though there are as many arty types in primary colours. Bill Gates - who has a holiday home on one of these islands - isn't riding the ferry today; his kind of local prefer helicopters and seaplanes. I befriend one of the bearded kind, a biker called Dave. He moved out here in 1978 and never looked back. "Best place on Earth," he tells me, and adds with a wink. "Don't tell anyone." I keep my notepad in my back pocket.
Orcas and harbour seals can be spotted in the water from the cafes, restaurants and bars that line the hills above the ferry landing.
Chris Pratt lives out here - on the San Juans' most populous and popular island, San Juan Island. He's not at the wharf as we dock. For those not familiar with the name, he's a pretty big deal: he's Star-Lord in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he's married to Arnie's daughter, Katherine Schwarzenegger. Like other celebs, Pratt came here for the easy life, and the fact no-one cares who he is. He might be absent, but the town I arrive into, Friday Harbor, looks like a movie set. Orcas and harbour seals can be spotted in the water from the cafes, restaurants and bars that line the hills above the ferry landing. They can also be spotted painted on the sides of buildings - one's even painted in the bath-tub of my hotel room - and the marina is full of orca-spotting boats.
Town's not much more than four-or-so streets on a grid beside the water set with blooming flower boxes and old heritage buildings. Once this place - with its rugged timber-cutter residents - was nicknamed Sin City, now it's more about atmospheric wine bars and perfectly kempt gardens. If you're a fan of Netflix's Virgin River, this could be the setting for it. Locals gather for free live music in the park beside yachts in the marina, and the biggest party come Friday night is the raffle draw for locals at the American Legion bar (think: an Australian small-town RSL) which has jackpotted to $5000. Come the July summer holidays, town goes crazy for a month-or-so, but visit any other time and you'll have it mostly to yourself.
You don't have to go far out of town, to be far out of town. I pass farm stands selling produce, roads with names like Hoot & Howl Lane and Dead Man's Bay and deer loitering close to the road. The road careers out over the ocean, offering orca-spotting options from your vehicle. It's positively agrarian; but there are tourist treats between the cow paddocks and bush - a stunning winery (San Juan Vineyard) built beside an old church, a farm-to-table restaurant (Duck Soup) built in a cabin in the woods beside a quiet creek with food so good locals book it out weeks in advance. There's a marina on the other side of the island where John Wayne used to eat and drink between fishing trips.
You'd be a fool to come here and ignore the orca and whales. I book a sea kayak expedition because I want to get as close as possible after I discover orca never attack humans. We might know them as killer whales, but that's because their original name - "whale killers" - or ballena asesina - came from sailors who watched them prey on larger whales. But there's never been a recorded fatality in the wild. The only deaths have been in captivity - that's four - three of those were by Florida's SeaWorld orca, Tilikum, who died in 2017.
We take off from Smugglers Cove, where guide Tim Morris tells me to get ready for close contact. "I've had orca come right up under me," he says. "I could've spit down its blowhole. But no orca has ever bit anyone, like, ever. Even dolphins have bitten people. We would be so famous if it happened... and we survived."
There's a mixture of resident (who eat salmon) and transient (who eat mammals) here. Though I'm as impressed by the enormous homes that straddle the cliffs above us here. "I've had orca coming right at me here," Morris says. As he says this, a fin over 1.5 metres high (orca have the tallest dorsal fins of all cetaceans) comes from nowhere. An orca surfaces, with an explosion of air, then drops back to the depths just as quickly. I'm not scared, but I'm not not scared either. It doesn't surface again. The rest of my paddle's a blur: that was really, really cool.
It's easy to travel between the San Juans - your car ferry ticket lets you take whatever route you like after leaving San Juan Island (it's the furthest west you can travel). Orcas Island is a an hour ride north-east. It's dubbed the Emerald Isle and I'd been told it's the prettiest of all the islands, but being here is something again. This island's so gorgeous I just drive and stare. Sometimes I pull over just so I can stare without the driving part.
Sun glistens across the water, seaplanes fly overhead, green valleys split by ridgelines meander on towards the most homely town on the planet: Eastsound, a refuge for artist types, and Oprah (for a time).
Wineries, cafes, breweries, restaurants and pubs are set between gardens facing an unrippled blue ocean. Bees buzz, butterflies flutter, purple wildflowers bloom and people sit on white lounge chairs on a green lawn looking for sea creatures. Residents seem a mix of hermit-types and the complete opposite. There are food co-ops, ice creameries, art galleries, gin tasting rooms, beer gardens and everything else wholesome and American. Come Saturday mornings between May and November the farmers market gets every resident out of their bush hide-aways for a few hours at least.
I drive out past hidden bays into quiet neighbourhoods where locals garden outside homes with long, wooden docks that lead to yachts. Oprah Winfrey moved out here; I look for her estate down the end of a secluded dirt road which winds through a forest, past a creek and along the ocean. Locals here drive pick-ups and look suspicious of slow moving rental cars: I'm not sure Oprah came round for dinner.
I stay out here in a cabin within a meadow beneath mountains. Between trips to town for long, lingering meals in the twilight, I hike on trails above the ocean, and paddle along the water edge, marvelling at the clarity of the water. Any time I feel lonely out here, I hightail it to Eastsound for a slow dose of community living, San Juans-style.
I won't stumble on a single celebrity in five days - and I only ever see that one orca - but when it's time to leave it's hard to tear myself away. What about my dawn walk looking for whales and orca? And the coffee afterwards, on the dock, by the ocean? And lunch? And the sundowners? And the stars in the sky when I'm out gazing last thing before turning in? While the community on the San Juans is as eclectic as any you'll find in America, there's a sense of belonging to it all the same.
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Getting there: Fly to Seattle via LA with Delta Air Lines (delta.com). Hire a car at the airport, then take a car ferry from Anacortes (wsdot.wa.gov), or fly from Seattle (kenmoreair.com).
Staying there: Stay in a historic hotel in the heart of Friday Harbor at Bird Rock Hotel (birdrockhotel.com). Enjoy the tranquillity of cabin life by a sleepy coast on Orcas Island (blackberrybeach.com).
Eating there: Dine on some of Washington State's best locally sourced produce and foraged edibles at Duck Soup Restaurant (ducksoupsanjuans.com) and taste the best local seafood on the edge of the harbour at Downriggers (downriggerssanjuan.com).
Playing there: Take a sea kayaking tour (or bike tour) with orca on San Juan Island with Crystal Sea Kayaking (crystalseas.com), or spot whales and orca from the comfort of a vintage boat (watchwhales.com).
Explore more: stateofwatourism.com; visitsanjuans.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Washington State Tourism and Visit San Juans.