Christmas Holiday on Orcas Island

Jim McCarter and Kelley Duffield spent December 24-28, 1999 on this wonderfully peaceful island.

Orcas Island is one of many land masses within the San Juan Archipelago. The cluster of islands is considered San Juan County, Washington. Orcas is home to nearly 4000 people who benefit from tourism, live there in retirement, or make a living through some form of agriculture.

Even before we left the Washington main land I saw a good omen in the form of a bald eagle sitting in a tree beside Interstate 5 north. This was special to me since I had never before seen an eagle in the wild!

We took the ferry from Anacortes, WA through the San Juan Islands stopping at Shaw Island along the way. My Jeep was our mode of transportation when not on the ferry. The ferry ride was pretty exciting for me. It was a clear cool day once we were away from foggy Seattle.

I saw many island homes on the banks of Lopez and Shaw. They ranged from simple shacks and trailers to million dollar hideaways. The number of ferries traversing the area impressed me too. The ferry ride took a little more than an hour since it was not tourist season.

Our first few days on Orcas were spent at Rosario Resort. Here's a brief history of the origin of Rosario as it appears on the resort's web page (

In 1904, Robert Moran, former mayor of Seattle, was fatigued from the strain of his stress-filled business life. At the age of 46 he was mentally and physically exhausted and his doctors gave him only a few years to live. So, Moran gave his business to his brothers, purchased over 7,000 acres of land on Orcas Island and built his retirement home which he named Rosario. Wealthy and free from the pressures of his business, Moran recovered completely and lived to the age of 86. He died on Orcas Island in l943.

The Resort is considered a health spa and in general, a place to splurge on self-indulgence. The Friday night seafood buffet was amazing. The four-course Christmas dinner featured wines chosen for each course selection. There was a Sunday brunch that rivaled the Friday night dinner. If we both did not gain 5 pounds that weekend we must have been doing something wrong during meals. We browsed the gift shop on Saturday and I did manage to get in a workout and swim some laps in the indoor heated pool on the Sunday. Christmas day was very lazy: 8am to 11am open gifts and call relatives; 11am go to breakfast; noon explore the resort grounds; rest of the afternoon read, nap or watch football.

The trip wasn't always so sedentary. When we arrived by ferry on Friday, we drove directly to the Moran State Park and to the top of Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. The weather was clear and from the lookout tower monument we could see the North Cascade mountains, Vancouver Island, BC, the Olympic Peninsula and all of the many other islands in the archipelago. We were above the clouds in some cases so the setting sun put on quite a show for us. This was just the beginning of our explorations.

On Sunday after brunch, we checked out of Rosario and spent some time watching harbor seals moving around the marina and near the resort's shoreline. There we also mergansers, loons, cormorants, and of course sea gulls. We explored Madrone Point Park, a property of the Lummi Tribe. The ancient and weathered cedars and the graceful Madrone trees were a strange contrast to the rocky coastline. Binding these together were lush green mosses on everything that was stationary. I took many pictures that can't do justice to this beautiful place.

Next we drove to the town of East Sound and found our way to Beach Haven, where Libby and Lee had rented a cabin for the holidays. We dropped in on them and members of their family around 3pm. They were splitting the responsibilities of checking crab pots from a rowboat and working on a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. We joined in on the effort on the puzzle and stayed spectators to the crab harvesting efforts. I met Libby's sister Sue, her husband R.J. and Sue's grand daughter Chelsea. Libby's son John and his girlfriend Jen were among the crowd as well. When the sun went down, enough Dunginess and Rock Crabs had been harvested to make a complete meal for all 9 of us with a large green salad and lots of focaccia bread and smoked meats and cheeses.

Jim had gone by Smuggler's Villas early in the evening on Sunday and gotten our key. When we got to the cottage after the big dinner at Beach Haven, it took little effort to fall into bed. When I awoke on Monday morning, I got my first view of the surroundings. Our cottage (half of a duplex) had a nice wooden deck that faced a slip with lots of small pleasure boats. Not far from the slip was the island's airport where small prop planes came and went occasionally. We went to the grocery store for provisions and returned to find three fat rabbits casing the joint. They kept and eye on us much of the morning just in case we were in the mood to feed them. Jim made a fire in the wood stove/fire place that wasn't easy to start, but really made the cottage toasty all morning.



After a breakfast of bagels, fruit and juice, we did some reading and visited with the manager whom we had constantly missed seeing up until this point. I made some sandwiches and packed our lunch and we struck out for a day of siteseeing. We went to West Beach and visited a couple of pottery places. Next it was on to Doe Bay, to see a very picturesque seaside village and fairly good-sized marina. Then explored the countryside away from the tourist areas. All day I marveled at the rolling pastures and small farms that made up the landscape of the island's interior. Sprinkled among the obvious locals were those dwellings that fit into the category of "dream home". It did not take long to feel the lure of the island lifestyle and begin the usual lottery fantasies. But the real treat came when we spotted otters in a pond along the road. We stopped and watched their foraging activities as a gentle mist gathered over the pond. They were shy and the photos I took only indicate little protrusions in the glassy water of the pond. For the remainder of the trip were keen to notice every little body of water for otters and the coastline for harbor seals.

We had a standing invitation to come back to Libby and Lee's cabin at Beach Haven. We showed up around 4pm on Monday afternoon. A new puzzle was on the table, 1000 pieces this time and much harder. We joined in while Jen and John made a Mexican dinner of burritos, yellow rice and pico de gallo. Another big meal that put me to sleep (the beer I had before dinner did not help). Sue, R.J. and Chelsea left earlier in the day, so it was a quieter gathering, but just as much fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the company of these folks. There were times during our visits with them, that the only sound was the crackling of the fireplace and the occasional giggle or groan associated with the labor over jigsaw puzzles.

On Tuesday, the clear weather we had enjoyed since Friday came to an end. It started out as fog and stayed overcast the rest of the day. After eating smoked turkey melt bagels for breakfast, and getting all packed up again, we checked out of Smuggler's Villas. We planned the day around taking the 2:40pm ferry back to Anacortes. So, we went to some other points of interest in our Orcas Island guidebook. We found Olga, went to the local art gallery/cafe/gift store and drooled. Next it was off to the shops in East Sound for intense browsing and a few little souvenirs. We drove to the town of Orcas and parked in the ferry queue about 90 minutes before it was scheduled to leave. We walked over to the Orcas Hotel to get some lunch and consider our next visit, perhaps in warmer weather.

We boarded the ferry right on schedule and spent the crossing in the passenger compartment sipping hot chocolate and observing the passing scenery. The trip was even shorter this time with no stop at Shaw Island. The weather seemed to be less and less appealing as we got closer to the mainland. It was about 4pm when we landed in Anacortes, but seemed later with the fog and darkening skies. In some ways getting back on I-5 was a bit depressing; the traffic congestion and need for aggressive highway driving was not welcome after those stress-free few days on "island time". By the time we got to Laurelhurst, the skies were perfectly clear and nearly dark. It took some doing to get Jim's stuff out of the Jeep and divvy up the food and Christmas goodies. I used Jim's computer to check personal email and let my Mom know I was back from Orcas safe and sound. [Aside: in the past 4 weeks Seattle has made the national news almost nightly with the WTO violent demonstrations, the recent terrorist plot to set off a bomb near the Space Needle and the eventual cancellation of the Millennium celebration at Seattle Center.]

So, the journal of this trip is complete. I think this will go down as the first peaceful Christmas I have had since the mid 60's when I spent the holidays at my grandmother Ussery's home in Kershaw, SC. I remember that we would all go to the big house's living room after dinner on Christmas eve and hold a family service. We took turns reading aloud the bible passages describing the holy nativity. That big family made a lovely choir using the piano in the room. We sang the hymns I knew by heart and held hands as we asked for the New Year's blessing upon us all. Although this was a non-secular Christmas for me, I actually felt closer to God through the quiet moments of contemplation that accompanied the fellowship of good people and the natural beauty of Orcas Island.