Many people new to the San Juans are surprised that the islands, so close to each other, are actually quite different from each other. I can speak most easily about San Juan Island, because that is where I live. I do have experience with islanders from the other islands, though. My daughter married an Orcas man and she and he have a business and home there. I visit her and my grandchildren there often, a short half an hour ferry ride. I have had some wonderful times with people on Shaw Island; I went to Turkey with several of them on a textile tour and have since that time have listed and shown properties there. Lopez is the island where most of my family’s horses now live, a very rural and beautiful place. Here is what I would say about the differences I have observed between the islands. It’s my opinion only.
Some of the differences are dictated by the topography of the islands. San Juan, being shaped like a football with all roads going between Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor, is fairly compact. It doesn’t really take much longer than half an hour to get from one place to another. Also, San Juan is distinctive in that the town itself is at the ferry landing. In Friday Harbor, the county seat, there is also the marina, community college, several restaurants and stores, and a nearby community college and airport. The newest feature on San Juan is Peace Health hospital, which replaced a small medical clinic. This is the county’s one hospital. Friday Harbor is still a one street town, with the looks of the former fishing village that it once was. On the island there are two beautiful national parks, English Camp and American Camp (from the days of the Pig War.) Both of these parks are on the water, providing everyone with waterfront access. Our island is also the island with the Whale Watch Park and the Whale museum as the Orca resident pods ply the waters off the west shore of our island.
Orcas is a hilly island, with Mount Constitution and mountainous roads which lend it to having beautiful view locations for homes. The main town is Eastsound, a quaint village with most amenities. There are hamlets on Orcas, small enclaves. Deer Harbor, for example, with its marina, or Doe Bay. Like San Juan, there are many artists and writers; it’s a creative place. Being shaped like a horseshoe with Eastsound in the middle, it does take a while to get around on Orcas so each little community has its own flavor. A lovely State Park, Moran, is a constant tourist attraction during the summer as there are wonderful trials and camping. It is not on the saltwater but has several fresh water lakes. Traffic to Moran in the summer can clog up the roads and the ferries for Orcas. Orcas also has a children’s camp, Camp Orkila, which has the same effect in the summer.
Lopez is definitely smaller and flatter and more rural. It is very popular with bicyclists for the scenery and terrain. The town is small, with grocery store, a few places to eat, a bookstore and not much else. On Lopez people who drive by you wave even though they don’t know you. They like to be known as the “friendly” isle. Fisherman’s Bay on Lopez is a lovely channel and we go there to set in a crab pot and enjoy the views. Many of the people on Lopez know each other and several have lived there for many generations.
Shaw is a special island because there are no tourist facilities and only one store at the ferry landing. The rest of the island is residential, with a few lovely parks. There is a one room schoolhouse and a community center and a historical museum and a lot of very rich people. The people on Shaw don’t like to have any publicity about their island; they like to keep it their own little secret. They get together frequently as a community and are good stewards of the land. It’s not for everyone but those who live there are very happy with it and are most likely to sell to friends or neighbors.
So, which island sounds appealing to you? From experience I can tell you that one island will feel more “right” to you than the others. Plan a trip with visits to all the islands and see where you will fit into the puzzle.
Regarding the ferries: It is more difficult to deal with the ferries going to the islands rather than the ferries going from the islands to the mainland. Each island has a ferry terminal, and Shaw would of course have the least crowded lines. People who live on the islands typically have two cars; they take one downtown and park it in line and then go back home on the other one. They plan their comings and goings to not conflict with the visitors and their weekend and holiday schedules. Although Lopez takes less time to travel to than San Juan, which is the furthest out from Anacortes, this is a very insignificant thing as far as real life goes. We are talking maybe half an hour. For ferries, Islanders use the downtime to read, knit, converse, or take a nap. It is no big deal. You may be interested in reading my blogs about the ferries: http://sjchoice.wordpress.com/feed/ Go to the older posts to read more.
I hope this helps and I look forward to hearing your reactions. Let me know what you think. The best way to choose is of course to visit each island and experience it for at least a day or two. I advise the undecided to stay on San Juan as a home base if they think it is their favorite. It is easy to take day trips to the other islands on a smaller ferry that does not go all the way to Anacortes – no lines, a quick half an hour or so trip. I have ‘lost’ very few people to other islands, so it is natural to assume that San Juan is my favorite!