You know you have stumbled upon a hidden gem when the guests, finding out you are a travel writer, ask you not to write about the location because they don’t want anyone else to discover this special experience. So shhh, don’t tell anyone about the Smuggler’s Villa Resort on Orcas Island; it will be our secret. You will want to visit sooner rather than later as rumors abound on the island about Oprah’s recent extensive real estate purchases on the island.
Mike Stolmeier has managed the property for almost 30 years and is also an owner. The resort has individually owned townhouses that are offered as vacation rentals. “We get a lot of regulars. I am now seeing kids who I watched take their first steps now bringing their own kids here. This is a place of firsts—first step, first time swimming or making s’mores. That’s what makes my day here,” he said. “We say we like kids and tolerate adults.” The resort is very family friendly.
Quiet season is a special time in the San Juan Islands, and Orcas Island is a perfect location to unwind before or during the holiday season. “Guest coming here love there are no malls. Families will visit to do holiday baking and spend time enjoying each other’s company,” said Stolmeier. “One of the popular things we do each night is our fire pit. Typically there are three shifts which begin at sunset. The first is parents with younger children, followed by families with older kids, and then you will get adults sitting around the fire until 1 or 2 in the morning.”
Located on the North Shore of the island, the pebble beach affords breathtaking views of the San Juan Islands, Mount Baker and lovely sunsets. The outdoor swimming pool is unheated but open year round. Many guests try a European spa experience by jumping in the icy water and then getting into the hot tub or sauna. Kids will love the menagerie of animals from parrots and guinea pigs to aquariums. Cuddles, a super friendly bird, greets everyone with a hello when they pass by her cage. The resort also has a marina and kayaking, and fishing charters or whale watching tours are available adjacent to the villas.
As the quiet season slips on to Orcas Island, the summer crowds fade away and some businesses close. Make sure to visit the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce website (see The Specifics). Each week they post a “Blast” which gives you a schedule for all the activities taking place on the island, and they also have a listing of what is open. A must see during your visit is the little town of Eastsound with its quaint shops and restaurants. You can walk from Smuggler’s but it is about a mile or so. This time of year it is easy to find parking in town. Stop at Brown Bear Baking for good coffee, fresh pastries and hot-out-of-the-hearth bread—all baked daily. The baking kitchen is open so you can watch the masters at work. With a very friendly staff, you will find yourself a regular during your stay on the island.
Plan to spend a day on the other side of the island. Moran State Park with its pristine lakes and lush forests is the jewel of Orcas Island. It is much larger than you would expect and is actually the fourth largest state park in Washington. Drive up to the top of Mount Constitution, which rises nearly a half mile above Orcas Island, or plan to park and hike up. There are a couple of options for shorter or longer hikes. At the top of the mountain is a watch tower, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. From the top of the tower is the best view of the San Juan Islands. Locals call it one of the top water views in the world. Although that is not verifiable, it is pretty incredible. On a clear day you can see Mount Baker and Mount Rainier and all the way into Canada.
After spending time in the park you are sure to have worked up an appetite. The Rosario Resort is not far away and is a beautiful location to enjoy a late lunch at the Mansion Restaurant. (Note this time of year lunch is only Friday through Sunday.) The restaurant is in the historic Moran Mansion in what was once the veranda overlooking Cascade Bay. The hotel also has a free museum with information about the historic mansion and the Moran family. A former mayor of Seattle and a shipbuilder, Robert Moran donated much of the land, which became Moran State Park, to the State of Washington.
If you are lucky enough to visit on a Saturday, you can experience the unique performance by musician Christopher Peacock. He regales the audience with tales of the mansion’s history interspersed with musical interludes on the 1900 Steinway Grand Piano and the 1914 Aeolian organ with 1972 pipes and a slide show of historic photos. The grand finale is the original silent film version of “The Phantom of the Opera” featuring Lon Chaney in the title role. The silent movie is accompanied by Peacock on the organ. It is mesmerizing. The presentation is free and takes place at 4pm on Saturdays.
The San Juan Islands Scenic Byway has a portion on Orcas Island. This is a great way to explore and points out all the highlights of the island. The self-guided drive begins at the Orcas Island ferry landing in the cute little Orcas Village. There is an eclectic market with upscale groceries, a few shops and Boathouse Ciderworks. It will take two to three hours to drive around the island. The byway will take you through small hamlets and scenic bays. The views really open up this time of year after the fall foliage is gone. Deer Harbor has a nice public sandy beach which is worth a visit. For more information on the byway, check out the Visit San Juan Islands website (See The Specifics).
Orcas Island really shines in the quiet season where one can relax and unwind without the crowds of the summer. Winter weather is very mild with average temperatures of 46 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit and a lot less rain than the mainland—in December you are likely to see a sunny day during your visit! After touring the island, enjoy some downtime at the Smuggler’s Villa Resort. Disconnect from technology and reconnect with your family or friends. Stroll the quiet beach or take a private charter with Outer Island Excursions located on site. You can schedule a fishing charter or go see some of the lighthouses from the water. Bundle up, throw some steaks on the grill and enjoy the views from your deck.
For peace of mind, make a ferry reservation and note that you will need to make a westbound and eastbound reservation. Make sure to arrive 30 minutes prior to departure or you will lose your reservation. TakeaFerry.com
Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce - OrcasIslandChamber.com
Visit the San Juan Islands - VisitSanJuans.com
Where to Stay
Smuggler’s Villa Resort - Smugglers.com
Where to Eat
The Brown Bear Baking Company - Facebook.com/BrownBearBaking
Boat House Ciderworks - BHCider.com
Things to Do
Outer Island Excursions - OuterIslandX.com
The Rosario Resort - RosarioResort.com
Moran State Park - MoranStatePark.com