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Roche Harbor


[Mural at Roche Harbor, Annie Howell-Adams]

[By the way, this post is long. If you get bored, you may wish to skip to the photos at the bottom.]

Last April, at the annual auction dinner for my favorite museum, we successfully bid for a day trip to Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. San Juan is the most populous and second largest of the San Juan Islands, which lie between the northern Washington State mainland and Vancouver Island. Just north are the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, with the US-Canada border snaking in between along a route settled in 1872 by international arbitration after years of dispute between the US and Britain. Roche Harbor sits to the northwest of the island, with Henry Island just to the west and beyond that the border, no more than three miles from Roche Harbor. Thus, it is just about the northwesternmost point of the lower 48 United States.

The San Juans are beautiful. I’ve observed over the years that they aren’t all that well known across the country, which is fine with us. Even though we do know and love them, Gail and I never get up there often enough. One reason is that it’s such a chore. Drive ninety miles to Anacortes. Get on a ferry, possibly after a multi-hour wait, then take another hour or two to get somewhere.

There’s an alternative: Kenmore Air and its fleet of de Havilland seaplanes. They fly out of the south end of Lake Union, just north of downtown and only three miles from home, landing in harbors through the islands (and Victoria, BC, too). We have never availed ourselves of this service—why, I don’t know—though cost and fear of flying in small planes certainly have something to do with it.

The day trip we bought was to consist of a flight up to Roche Harbor, an outing on the hosts’ boat, lunch at their cabin on Pearl Island just a few hundred yards across the harbor, then another outing, with the possibility that we’d see an orca whale pod along the way, the day ending with a return to the Roche Harbor docks and the flight home.

Since we so rarely get up that way, we decided we’d fly up the day before. Our companions, Russ and Tobae, agreed to do the same. Since they live a ways north of Seattle, they would drive down to Kenmore Air’s home base in Kenmore, at the north end of Lake Washington, and board the flight there. (Many flights to the islands originate there, make the short hop to Seattle, then head north.)

Our flight was scheduled for 11:00 am. We arrived around 9:50 and spent some time parking. There’s a small free lot by the terminal, but it was full. The website spoke of a pay lot next door. We interpreted that to refer to the strip of public parking just off the street to the north of the terminal, found a spot there, paid for the day’s parking (Friday–it’s free Saturday), and checked in. I mention this detail because I will return to it in another post, the choice being a poor one.

We were surprised by how crowded the terminal was. Why became clearer when they began to announce boardings for Friday Harbor (on the other side of San Juan Island), Friday Harbor again, Eastsound on Orcas Island, then Victoria. There must have been half a dozen flights leaving in a 15-minute period. I suppose this is typical of summer weekends, but I had expected us to be leaving early enough to beat the peak. With so much traffic, they were able to fill the plane in Kenmore with Roche Harbor-bound passengers as well as a flight out of Seattle, so Russ and Tobae flew there directly rather than coming to Seattle, which meant they arrived just about the time we were taking off.

I would have paid closer attention to some of the terminal details if I weren’t spending 40 minutes on the phone participating in a bi-weekly teleconference for a committee I’m part of. Gail was a little concerned that we were going to miss our plane. But they actually call out passenger names one by one when boarding time comes, so if we don’t hear our name, they don’t want us. They have planes of varying sizes, the largest being de Havilland’s DHC-3 Otter, and that seats ten. It’s what we boarded a little after 11:00.

Up front in the Otter is a small cockpit with room for the pilot and one passenger. Behind are three rows of two, a seat on each side by the windows. Then there’s the door on the left and a window seat on the right, and behind that one more row of two seats, with a small cargo space to the rear where bags are stowed.

Seats are small, legroom minimal. There’s a strict 25-pound weight limit for all belongings and a length-width-depth limit for each bag as well. When you board, the pilot and an attendant first get all the bags in the back, then board us, with seats unreserved. Gail sat in the seat behind the pilot, with a partition in between, and I sat behind her. The pilot got on last, stood in the doorway, and raced through a safety speech, pointing out also that earplugs were available in the seat pockets in front. I opened a bag and put in a pair. Soon we taxied out.

And taxied and taxied. Had we been taking off to the north, we would have taxied out and gone straight into our takeoff. Instead, because we were taking off to the south, we taxied all the way to the north end of Lake Union. It must have taken close to 20 minutes. Interesting views of the city from the middle of the lake, but I was eager to get in the air. Which suddenly we were.


I don’t think we ever flew above 2000 feet. What views! We were in the air maybe 40 minutes. Once airborne, we cut to the west with downtown just outside our window to the left, then Elliott Bay, then we turned north, with Bainbridge Island across Puget Sound in full view. We know the island well enough now that we could pick out many landmarks. Indeed, there were familiar landmarks a good ways up, culminating in a fantastic view of Port Townsend and Fort Worden. Then we were over the open waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait, with Vancouver Island in the distance to the northwest. In a few minutes, we could make out the city of Victoria, as well as the southern end of San Juan Island. We began our descent, turned over Henry Island to line ourselves up for a landing to the south, and came down over the narrow channel that separates Roche Harbor from our destination the next day, Pearl Island.

Roche Harbor has an extensive dock system, the outermost dock of which is for Kenmore Air’s use. There’s no one there to greet the plane. The pilot pulls up, opens his door, jumps out onto the dock, and ties up, just as a boat pilot would. We got off, the bags were passed out to us, and Russ was standing amongst the outbound passengers waiting to greet us. There’s no terminal. Just the dock. The plane comes in, people get off, people get on, it takes off.

It’s a five-minute walk through the docks to shore, where Tobae was waiting. We walked up the hill to our hotel, checked in (Russ and Tobae were too late in booking to get space there and were instead staying in Friday Harbor), checked our bags—the room not due to be ready for a few hours—and walked down to the island shuttle bus to ride to Friday Harbor. The bus filled up another two stops down the road. It was hot, crowded, uncomfortable, and probably a poor choice all around, since four bus fares were almost equal to a taxi fare. But that’s what the woman at the hotel recommended when we asked about taxis, so that’s what we dutifully did.

Friday Harbor is home to the ferry terminal, which naturally is where the bus lets everyone off and which is nowhere near Russ and Tobae’s hotel. It was 1:00 and we decided to eat lunch, which we did at a bar and fish place looking out over the water. Then we walked a half mile or so to their hotel, they checked in, we all walked back into town, and wandered around. After an hour of that, Gail and I called a taxi and headed back to Roche Harbor.

We were in our room at about 4:00 pm, with three hours until our dinner reservation at McMillin’s, the resort’s principal restaurant. I suppose I should explain that unlike Friday Harbor, which is a real town, Roche Harbor is a privately owned marina and resort. There’s no downtown. No town at all. Just the marina amenities. One building has a large grocery store that was packed when I walked around the neighborhood at 5:30 or so. Also in the building is the main breakfast and lunch place, the Lime Kiln Café. It’s casual. You order at the counter, grab a booth or table, they bring the food to you. A post office. Public bathrooms with showers that you put coins in to buy time in. This building is right at the entrance to the docks. Off the docks is the historic Hotel de Haro, where we checked in, with a store on the main floor near the front desk, filled with the usual stuff–sweatshirts, t-shirts, hats, candles, knick-knacks. A newer building has a fancy home furnishings store, the spa, and guest rooms above. Then there’s the building we stayed in. It was the old McMillin house, moved a short distance to this site and divided into four suites. Beyond that is the chapel, higher up on the hill overlooking the water. Our suite was long and narrow, with an entrance on the end far from the water, then an entry area and bathroom, a closet, the bed, and a living area with table and couch, beyond which is a sliding door leading out to a wraparound balcony that looks out over the harbor. Between us and the water, as already noted, is McMillin’s, which is the more upscale dinner restaurant, and down below in the same building is the bar.

Photos would help. I’ll put some in. Keep in mind that if you click on any of them, you’ll get a much higher resolution image.

First, the building with the grocery store, restaurant, showers, etc. You’ll notice (especially if you click for the better image) a wedding rehearsal underway by the side of the restaurant.


Here’s the historic hotel.


The spa building, with a corner of the hotel over to the left.


Our building, with our room on the lower floor with the entrance to the front and the side of the wraparound balcony towards the rear to the left and the harbor in the distance below.


The restaurant and bar, viewed from the water side, with our room on the lower floor of the building straight above. See the upper row of windows running from the left to just right of center? We ate dinner at one of those, probably the third from the right.


Here’s a shot, a little too dark, of the harbor.


I have yet to explain Roche Harbor’s rich history. It was a company town, the business being lime, as you might guess from that first photo if you clicked on it. The largest lime works west of the Mississippi, as is written on the building’s side. The island had imestone, forests with wood to burn, bricks brought from Vancouver Island brick makers, kilns, a harbor for boats to bring the lime down the coast. The lime was used in the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake. There are some excellent history signs throughout the resort, from which I learned what little I know as I walked around before dinner.

One sign below (just click and you’ll be able to read the text clearly).




And this one tells of the building we stayed in.


Take a look again at the first in this sequence photo. You’ll see that the building pictured there has a mural on the side. Here it is:


And here is the credit:


I took all these photos while wandering around in the late afternoon. Then Russ and Tobae arrived from Friday Harbor, we all sat on our balcony enjoying the harbor view, and when 7:00 came, we proceeded across the way to McMillin’s for dinner. I’ll save the details of that for another post. Our activities yesterday can be the subject of a third post, with more photos. Eventually.

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