Island Fever: Cycling WA's San Juan Islands
by MEGAN MCMORRIS
I've cycled halfway up 2,409-foot Mount Constitution in the San Juan Islands when I make an important discovery: in times of two-wheel trouble, "Granny gear" can be your best bud.
As I inch my way up the winding six-mile uphill, quads quavering, I wish I had someone to whom to grunt and moan. I'm out of luck: all of my compadres on this bike trip - save for the hard-core triathlete of our group who has long since left me in the dust - have displayed sanity and chose instead to hike up the mountain.
Regardless, my reward at the end of my climb is well worth the muscle fatigue, as I rest against a rock and take in a sweeping view of Mounts Rainier and Baker, Canada's coastal mountains and the rest of the islands far below us.
It's this "go at your own pace" philosophy that is central to Backroads, the California-based tour operator with whom I traveled to this cluster of 743 rocky islands, located 90 miles north of Seattle. Our tour would take us to the scenic mainland town of La Conner and to three of the larger islands: San Juan, Orcas and Lopez.
Down by the Sea
Our six-day adventure kicked off in the small fishing village of La Conner, set 75 miles north of Seattle and the "gateway" to the San Juan Islands. A small historic fish-ing village, it's lined with galleries, antique shops and seafood restaurants.
After introductions, our group of seven cyclists convened for a bike basics lesson and then headed out on a gentle, 16-mile spin through the Skagit Valley, famous for its tulip and daffodil fields. A backdrop of the white-capped Olympic mountains provided scenery for our leisurely first day. It was just enough to get us in gear for a welcome wine toast and seafood feast at La Conner's renowned Palmer's restaurant.
My original concerns about going on a group trip (would I have to make idle chitchat with strangers when I really just wanted to pedal solo?) quickly dissipated on this first outing, when I found out how flexible the itinerary would be. Since everyone has his/her own directions for the route, cyclists can cruise along as fast or as slow as they want.
This doesn't mean that riders are left completely to their own devices, however. Throughout the trip, tour leader Paul and co-leader Joshua took turns driving the "sweep van" and riding along on the route, so we never felt like we were stranded in times of need.
Their aim was simple: to take care of all of the details so groups could focus on the ride. Only when I admitted that I wanted to impress a guy with my flat prowess did Josh show me how to fix a flat tire, explaining that his goal was "that no one has to even so much as touch their own bike."
Rules of the Road
The days would go something like this: Every morning at breakfast, we started with a "route rap," where we were presented with our day's itinerary. Daily mileages averaged 20-30 miles, with longer and shorter options each day. Then we were free to cruise at our own pace, whether that meant challenging uphills or mellow meanders with plenty of stops along the way, until meeting up for lunch.
And what a lunch it was. These guys take food seriously, too. After a hard morning of hilly riding, trust me when I tell you that a picnic lunch set up in a park was definitely a welcome sight.
And while my idea of a picnic generally includes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple, Backroads has a different definition of the term. Not content to whip up "just" pasta salads and smoked salmon sandwiches (the guides had a kit-chen in their van), once Joshua even spread Hershey's kisses and fresh wildflowers over the table. (A girl can definitely get used to such things!)
After spending our first night at the cozy Channel Lodge in La Conner, we set off for Orcas Island, the largest (and as we quickly learned, the hilliest) of the San Juans. Among the attractions: the famed Mount Constitution (the highest peak in the archipelago), and Moran State Park, which includes five freshwater lakes and 5,000 wooded acres.
There's something about biking that lets you soak in the surroundings more. Our 30-mile spin that day took us past scenic lakes and woods (not to mention enough hills to truly test our bike gears!) before we rested for a picnic and returned to the sleepy town of Eastsound, our home for two nights.
While Eastsound is known for its solitude, our next stop, Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, was more lively. Lined with shops and restaurants and exuding a decided fishing village feel, Friday Harbor is the place for the type who wants to dissect his/her day over some local suds. While each island has a unique personality, San Juan Island earned my vote for its views and nightlife.
Here, we lodged in my personal favorite of the places we stayed: Friday Harbor House, where delightful Jacuzzis overlooking the harbor offer a tub with a view, if you will. In the hotel restaurant, I indulged in more than a few of the best blueberry scones I have ever eaten in my life. This combination of scones and the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in (besides my own) made me want to stick around for longer than the two nights we spent there.
It's a good thing I did fuel up on scones, because the next day brought a busy 43-mile loop of the island with an optional kayaking stop midway through the day. On this loop, the real beauty of the islands sunk in. As I rode along the beachside road, I had a breathtaking view of the Olympic Mountains on the other side.
In addition to the great biking, I realized that side trips are a definite bonus when going on guided tours. Since the trip leaders have such intensive knowledge about the area, they know about out-of-the-way places. Add such personal touches as filling up our bike's water bottles every morning, and even taking charge when a certain person lost her hotel keys, and you really feel like you're being taken care of.
Our own side trips included a trip to Orcas Island Pottery, where local artists have whipped up everything imaginable. One woman on our trip developed a fetish for the famed banana slugs (don't ask), and she even managed to find a ceramic version of her new favorite creature there.
The itinerary also included other activities, such as the sea kayaking on San Juan Island, and a whale-watching trip on Orcas Island. After a strenuous ride on Orcas the day before, our afternoon on a whale-watching boat was a welcome alternative. At one point, we were completely surrounded by orcas whales, with only the sounds of blowing air to fill the silence.
A Reluctant Farewell
But as they say, all good things must come to an end. So it was that we departed San Juan Island and went our separate ways. (Of course, my original fears of idle chitchat had long been replaced by major bonding - my abs got a workout from laughing at this hilarious crew!)
I took one last, longing look at the Backroads van as I went on my way, and then I turned to my car in mild panic. After a week of having everything taken care of, I felt a little lost as I tried to navigate my own way to the highway. What would I do without my trusty laminated directions to guide me? What would my itinerary look like for tomorrow? And where the heck did I put my house keys, anyway?
Luckily, my still-twitching thighs would keep me company to remind me of my trip - as soon as my muscles recover, I'll know it's time to book another Backroads getaway.
Backroads spins through the San Juans from May through September ($1,998 per person includes accommodations and all meals except one). For details, call 800-GO ACTIVE, or log on to www.backroads.com.
For information on additional programs and tour operators, go to the Activity Index under "Bicycle Touring-WA."
Photo courtesy of Backroads/Markham Johnson