Island Tour: Eating our Way through the San Juan and Gulf Islands

Photos by the author except as noted


In this week’s spirit of sharing gratitude, I bring you this vacation journal from our late summer bike tour through the San Juan and Gulf Islands. Now that the soggy season is here in the Pacific Northwest, the halcyon days of summer can feel like a dream—but you can vicariously enjoy the scenery and sunshine through this post. As Northwesterners, we can thank the seasonal ebb and flow of water for honing our appreciation of sunshine and daylight.

I began writing this post the first day back in the office after this glorious tour, though i have rewritten and revised it over a period of months with it sitting on the back burner a few times as my teaching work load and other demands got in the way.

Back in the office: September 6

Having just returned from my first bicycle tour of the San Juan and Gulf Islands I am still in a dreamy state of bicycling bliss. We spent six days and five nights travelling by train, bicycle and ferry making a big loop from Seattle and yesterday i went on a sweet mountainbike ride. As multi-modal travelers we only biked about 160 miles, though we covered several times that distance in less than a week. We were blessed with perfect weather, excellent trip planning, fantastic scenery, beautiful food, birds, sea mammals and sunsets. My better half, Tiva, took care of the logistics planning which really helped our trip go smoothly.

DAY 1: August 29  And…We’re Off (circa 35 Mi)

After leaving home in the dark on Wednesday August 29th 2012 we departed Seattle on an early morning train to Mount Vernon. Looking out the train windows, the foreboding clouds made me a little anxious about the weather.

foreboding clouds as seen from the train

getting ready to leave the train station

From there we rode the twenty plus miles to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal after picking up a few extra food items at the local grocery. Following a short ferry ride we arrived on Lopez Island. After a one mile ride from the ferry terminal we pulled into the Odlin Park camp ground, where we would spend two nights. Given our early start, we made camp and still had time to change for dinner and ride into town to have a fantastic dinner at the modestly-named Bay Café. The Bay is your place for an island fine dining experience. We celebrated Tiva’s recent birthday with an amazing meal of salmon, crab cakes, pinot grigio, coffee and a huge piece of flourless chocolate cake. We returned to camp for an amazing sunset and were off to bed early.

DAY 2: August 30 Progressive Dining on Lopez (circa 35 Mi)

Waking up to hear the waters of the Upright Channel lapping the rock beach  just a few meters below our tent, we were pleased to see clear skies and contentedly snoozed like we were on vacation. As planned, we had a couple of cups of tea and ate a simple breakfast in camp and geared up to ride the Tour de Lopez loop.  Our first stop was at Spencer Spit State Park, a delightful spot on the east side of the island.

looking south from Spencer Spit (Tiva Brown photo)

From there we rode beautiful country roads to our lunch spot at the South Island Bistro—a terrifically unassuming restaurant in the back of the gas station and convenience store. I ate what may very well be the best burger I’ve ever tasted, and of course it had been made with beef grown by the Jones Family farm, which we had just passed only a mile before the bistro.

From there we pedaled out to Iceberg Point where we spent a couple hours basking in the sun, eating fruit and watching and listening to the sea lions and seals.

horrible scenery

Tiva Brown, intrepid explorer

Iceberg Point marker

Tiva basking in the sun at Iceberg Point

From there we rode back to Lopez Village, showered at the public showers and then stopped by Vita’s for a light dinner.

just riding along on Lopez Island (Tiva Brown photo)

Determined to sample as much of the excellent food as we could, we moved along to Vortex Café and Juice Bar for a carrot, orange, lemon and ginger juice.

sitting in the sun behind Vortex (Tiva Brown photo)

Since Vortex did not have decaf coffee we then rolled on over to The Love Dog Café for some decaf and as it turns out we were compelled to get another rich chocolate desert. After a quick stop at the grocery we returned to camp and enjoyed another gorgeous sunset.

DAY 3: August 31 Crossing the Border (circa 15 miles)

I woke up to the rude squawking of Tiva’s alarm clock. We broke camp quickly, loaded the bikes and pedaled the mile up the hill to the ferry terminal. Shortly after checking with the ferry staff, there was an announcement that the boat we were planning to catch was cancelled. After some back and forth and a waiting game, arrangements were made for a different ferry to make a non-scheduled stop at Lopez to pick us up and take us to Friday Harbor and on to Sidney, British Columbia. This re-arrangement was a bit nerve wracking as we needed to make it to Sidney with time to ride up to Swartz Bay to catch our ferry to Salt Spring Island.

island idyll

The sun was literally and figuratively shining on us—and we easily made our connections. We even had time to stop for Greek food at a restaurant in Sidney and to make another stop for groceries and beer.

Once the ferry was underway we enjoyed the ride from an open deck.

on the ferry to Salt Spring Island from Swartz Bay

When we arrived at Fulford Harbour we opted to get burgers at the Rock Salt Restaurant, underwhelming though they were. While we were mentally prepared for the hilly terrain on Salt Spring, it was still a bit of a grind to ride out to Ruckle Provincial Park where we made camp.  The campground layout was unusual.  It had around 80 densely packed first-come-first-served walk-in sites near the shore.  Tiva figured that getting a spot wouldn’t be difficult with so many sites, and who does walk-in camping, anyway?  Canadians!  The place was busy for the holiday, but once again we made camp in a spectacular spot overlooking the water. 

DAY 4: September 1 Ganges, Mayne Island and Saturna Island in the dark (circa 25 miles)

After a night of rest listening to the lapping waters of Long Harbor we awoke to a glorious sunrise. Our tent was in dappled sun but even so it was a bit chilly, so we moved our kitchen setup to a table in the direct sun and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with two rounds of black tea.

picnic breakfast (Tiva Brown photo)

the great out of doors (Tiva Brown photo)

After breaking camp and loading the bikes, we had a challenging climb ahead of us. The pavement on Salt Spring Island is quite good, which was a treat after riding almost exclusively on chip seal on Lopez. The climb from sea level up to the divide really woke us up. By the time we got warmed up we weren’t too far from our day’s high point. From our high point we had a delightfully fast descent and traversed rolling and descending terrain before we reached Ganges. At some point on the ride I realized that I had not thought about work at all for a couple of days. I sure like my job, but it is always nice to clear the head of the practical concerns of typical everyday life. When we pulled up around noon the Ganges Saturday Market was in full swing.

harvest bounty

Folks were selling crafts, prepared food and produce and a friendly social atmosphere prevailed. We spent a few hours shopping, people watching and lounging in the sun.

Once we packed up and rolled out it was just a short ride to the Long Harbor ferry terminal where we would catch the ferry to Saturna Island via Mayne Island. While we were waiting for the ferry a handful of local bike enthusiasts rolled up and we had an entertaining conversation about bikes and differences between the U.S. and Canada. Once the ferry arrived the sailing time to Mayne Island was pretty quick.  We landed at Village Bay in the late afternoon and pedaled up and over the headlands to Miner’s Bay where there are a couple of restaurants and a grocery. We bought some groceries and had a meal at the local pub. The scenery and local flavor made the lackluster food more palatable. After dinner we remounted our bikes and rode back up and over the headlands to the ferry terminal at Village Bay. The ferry was running late and we weren’t underway to Saturna until the sun had set.

The ferry ride was gorgeous as the waning light of day presented us with a colorful sky.

Mayne sunset (Tiva Brown photo)

We were left to ponder the chill in the air and our ride in the dark to the other side of the island. The shower and beer that awaited us at the Four Winds B&B just hit the spot.

Day 5: September 2 Saturna Islad—Echo Bay and East Point (circa  25 miles)

After sleeping in we awoke to a magnificent vista from the bed, looking East Northeast out onto the Strait of Georgia, peeking around the corner we could see Mt Baker looming above the clouds. The marine life and bird activity added a lively dimension to the seascape and the peaceful and rhythmic lapping waves. After a round of tea we took a stroll on the beach and then had a tasty breakfast of Salt Spring goat cheese, tomato, lemon cucumber, bell pepper, tri-color carrot, and salmon.


the inimitable Tiva Brown!

We spent our one full day on Saturna exploring the island by bike with rather light loads, Leaving the bulk of our gear at the Bed and Breakfast. From the B&B we pedaled northwest to the Saturna General Store, where we bought provisions for a picnic lunch. From there we rode into the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve on Narvaez Bay Road. We parked our bikes and walked out to the point separating Narvaez Bay from Echo Bay where we sat and ate a leisurely lunch overlooking the water.

Echo Bay rocks (Tiva Brown photo)

Echo Bay

what a vacation!

After lunch we rode back to the B&B, ate some dinner and then we pedaled out to East Point to watch the sunset and look for sea mammals. East Point is known as one of the best whale watching spots in the Gulf Islands. While gazing into the changing currents, receding tide and swirling eddies we saw seals and what may have been an otter, but we did not see any whales. The glow of the sunset was delightful and we savored our last night of vacation.

East Point sunset

trusty steed at sunset

Mt Baker from East Point, Saturna Island, British Columbia

dusky East Point

Tiva and I were both so pleased by our time on the islands and the sunset made for an incredible last night of vacation.

Day 6: September 3 Cascadia is a small town (circa 25 miles)

The morning of our last day on Saturna we got up, ate, packed and washed dishes. We left our B&B and rode to the ferry terminal with enough time to spare for a cup of coffee and some local blackberry cake and to chat with other folks waiting for the ferry. After boarding along with the dozen or so bike riders we sailed to Mayne Island where we unloaded and waited about an hour.

While in the queue to load at Village Bay I noticed a woman with a Velo City 2012 logo on her helmet. I asked about the conference, which I had been unable to attend. We ended up chatting for a while about bicycle transportation—turns out she is a bike planner for the City of Vancouver, BC and that we have at least one mutual acquaintance. As we loaded bikes on Mayne Island there were about 50 bicycles. At each of the stops on Pender and Galiano Islands we added a dozen or so bikes and riders. The ferry was really not set up for so many bikes, so there was quite a bike pile.

Once we were underway across the Strait of Georgia it took less than an hour to arrive at Tsawwassen. The large number of bicycles and riders unloading from the ferry for the holiday weekend presented a problem for catching a bus into the city as we had planned. The bike rack capacity of the four buses waiting to take folks through the tunnel into Vancouver was overloaded and we were not going to catch a bus for hours. We thought that we might be able to catch another bus a mile or so away, but we were beaten to that stop by another pair of bike riders. Tiva and I decided to ride the ‘bike route’ recommended by Google from Tsawwassen through Delta and then catch the sky train to the central train station. The bike route follows the shoulder of a busy secondary highway and goes through a series of construction zones. Using the printed Google directions was challenging because at some point they stopped specifying the street, just “turn right after .2 miles”.  So, we lost and found the route a few times along the way.  The harsh conditions for biking threw me off, as I was still on ‘island time’ and not quite ready for the slap in the face of being a second class citizen on the roadway. Surely I have ridden more challenging roads, even by choice, but with the stark contrast to the island idyll I was cranky. Tiva handled it like the trooper that she is—rock solid. Tiva’s great attitude was inspirational, though I was not so inspired in the moment.

Once we got to the sky train we were on easy street and I was able to get over myself. Getting to the Amtrak station was straight forward and we had plenty of time to fill out our paperwork and get through passport control. While we were filling out paperwork and waiting in a long queue to check in I saw a couple who made me do a double take. Sure enough it was two of Tiva’s rowing buddies, Karen and Clint. I hollered out to Clint and Karen, who were surprised to hear their names called from across the room. The train and bike ride home were pleasantly uneventful.

After some initial unpacking, a shower and a couple of beers it was time for bed. In the immediate afterglow of our vacation, I had the stunning realization that Tiva and I could bike tour just about anywhere we wanted to go, bad bike routes and construction zones or not.

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This article was posted in Adventure, Attitudes, Bike Culture, Ferries, Northwest WA, People, Travel. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are closed.


  1. Aleta Fowler
    Posted June 9, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I tripped over this looking for a photo near our place on Cortes Island – and was pleasantly surprised to recognize Tiva’s name! It is a slice of paradise!

  2. JackHilovsky
    Posted November 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the great pics and recollections, Josh. Truly a trip to remember!