The San Juan Islands of Washington State are no longer a secret. They are a
tourist destination of some renown, luring bicyclists, boaters, and other pleasure-seekers
to their shores year-round.
Fine restaurants and resorts have sprung up over
the years on Orcas (home of Rosario Resort and Mount Constitution), Lopez
(still bucolic, but home to several upscale B&Bs and a couple of good
eateries), and San Juan itself (home of bustling, tourist-friendly Friday
Harbor, as well as numerous restaurants, resorts, inns, and shops). But there
are other islands in the chain, including 7.7-square mile Shaw with its
campgrounds and population of 200; Cyprus, a protected nature preserve, and
James, a marine state park. And just north of the jumping-off town of Anacortes
is a little plot of land seldom discussed in the "travel rags:" Guemes Island.
Guemes (GWAY-mus) is a residential island a stone's throw off the shore of
Anacortes. The county-run ferry that makes the 5-minute trip to Guemes is
different from the state-run ferry that travels to the better-known San Juan
Islands. The little 22-car raft zips back and forth between the Guemes dock and
the Anacortes dock about two dozen times daily to take residents from their
island homes to work and shopping on the mainland.
On the island, commercial services are pretty much centered in one small
general store and restaurant combination at the ferry landing. Some 15 miles of
paved roads complete the island's traffic infrastructure. There are a couple of
parks -- Schoolhouse Park at the island's center and Young's Park at the north
end --but no public campgrounds.
Guemes Island Resort at the island's north shore -- a simple collection of
houses and cabins with kayaks for rent, but little else in the way of services
-- is the only other tourist facility. The rest of the island is comprised of
homes, some for the 550 year-round residents, others for an approximately equal
number of seasonal residents. Much of the waterfront property on Guemes is
privately owned. When I go there, I stay with friends or rent a private home
from a seasonal owner.
The aboriginal inhabitants of what is today known as Guemes Island were the
Samish Indians. The Island was discovered and named by European settlers in
1791. Credit for naming Guemes and its adjacent Padilla Bay goes to José
Narvaez of the Eliza Expedition. Exploration in the area was brisk toward the end
of the 18th century; it was in the following year that the Vancouver Expedition
came through the area and George Vancouver and Joseph Whidbey discovered and
named nearby Deception Pass and Whidbey Island. The seagoing mammals, including
otter and beaver, drew fur trappers to the area. Early European settlers
planted fruit trees and cole crops, and began raising cattle on the island.
Amos Bowman founded Anacortes (naming it for his bride, "Anna
Curtis") in the late 1876. He envisioned the port town as a shipping
Mecca, the Pacific terminus of the transcontinental railroad. Rumors of his
grand dream brought a boom to the area by 1890, and the city was incorporated
in 1891. While the town became a modestly successful shipping port, the main
transcontinental lines were built to Seattle, some 70 miles to the south.
Anacortes grew up around fishing, shipping, fish processing, lumber, and
shipbuilding, bringing the nearby island of Guemes along for the economic ride.
When the town of Anacortes initiated an annual Arts and Crafts Festival in
1962, Guemes became recognized in the arts community as a fine, quiet, and
inspiring place to live and create. Today, artists, craftsmen, and writers
populate the island and sell their wares in Anacortes and beyond.
Why Go To Guemes?
In a word: the quiet. Guemes residents, for the most part, like their solitude.
You won't find anything resembling nightlife on Guemes, although Anderson's
store/restaurant at the ferry landing does have occasional live music on Friday
nights. The hottest ticket in town on New Year's Eve was a local homespun band
playing at the community center at a cover charge of $5, and children were
Until mid-2006, the final ferry to Guemes was in the early evening, around 6
p.m., making the island impractical as a bedroom community for dot-commers from
the Seattle suburbs. Changes in the schedule (not universally popular among
Guemes residents) now enable on-and-off-island traffic until midnight most
Yet Guemes, with its many beachfront homes (from humble to grand) and its 15
miles of sleepy 2-lane paved roads, remains a perfect getaway for writers,
artists, and others seeking the inspiration of the water and the calm of
another era. It's a place to refresh, recharge one's psychic batteries, and
renew one's connection to the rhythms of nature and the sea.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a Washington State native who lives, hikes, and
rambles the backroads of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. She has written four
Pacific Northwest travel guidebooks and over 300 columns for The Sportsman's Guide website, sportsmansguide.com.