Ferrying Around

By M.L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 16, 2002

Day-trippers headed to the San Juan Islands often arrive at the ferry dock frantic. They've braved the 90 miles of congested highway north from Seattle, checked and double-checked the ferry schedule, and made the mad dash to the boat, hauling backpacks full of cameras and games and books, picnic baskets with baguettes and cheese and apples.

Suddenly the engines shudder, the ferry pulls out of port, and the hectic travelers who've squeezed this must-do island visit into their Northwest itinerary grow quiet.

Their transformation-by-water has begun.

Soon they'll be moving slow, talking low -- walking advertisements for what a half-day cruise on a 382-foot boat can do for the soul.

Cost of this interior makeover: as little as $6.80.

Six bucks-plus gets travelers a walk-on ticket aboard the sturdy green-and-white ferries that serve the lush archipelago of islands, spread across the boundary waters that separate Washington state from British Columbia and are accessible only by boat or aircraft.

That may mean private jets and two-tiered yachts for the Hollywood celebrities, rock-and-roll stars and techno-billionaires who have bought up precious, pricey waterfront acreage here in recent years. But humbler sorts rely on the Washington State Ferries, which depart more than a dozen times a day from Anacortes, a salty sea town about two hours north of Seattle that links the mainland and the four most heavily populated islands. While islanders may need their cars, day-tripping travelers don't. And the wise ones leave their automobiles in Anacortes.

Ferry-line waits for cars can get ugly on peak weekends; three hours or more is not uncommon. Once drivers finally arrive on the island, they may spend all day -- and sometimes all night -- trying to get off. The cost of driving a vehicle aboard during the peak hours (5-9 a.m., 3-7 p.m.) of high season (July and August): $36.

It's another story for walk-on travelers. Once they fork over their fare, they can stroll on -- and off -- the boats at leisure. They can opt for a 2 1/2-hour quickie cruise or an eight-hour, day-long, total immersion. Choices are limited only by time, mood and the seasonal schedule of island arrivals and departures.

The boats are no luxury liners. Ferry cafeterias specialize in corn dogs, burgers and fries. Benches are padded vinyl. Children run willy-nilly through aisles and, with seating for approximately 2,500, it can get crowded. Jeans and sweats and windbreakers are de rigueur. Windows are streaked with salt and sea gull guano.

But the view through those windows makes this the ultimate scenic bargain cruise.

First stop on the ferry route is Lopez Island (pop. 2,176), a friendly, pastoral place with organic farms, funky wooden boats and a flat topography loved by bicyclists. Second is Shaw (pop. 223), the most private island, with a dock run by Franciscan nuns who throw orange safety vests over brown habits. Third is Orcas (pop. 4,445), with beautiful old fruit orchards, lovingly tended gardens and an abundant crop of free-thinking philosophers and artists. Last stop is San Juan (pop. 6,724), the westernmost island, with a lively downtown in Friday Harbor that offers easy-access pubs, art galleries, antique stores and bookstores.

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