Isn't It Romantic?

By David Volk
For Seattle Homes and Lifestyles

I've never been one to play by the book, especially when it comes to romance. I proposed to my wife by driving to Seattle's kitschiest places, then saying one word of the proposal at each stop. (I think she got the gist of it after "WILL … YOU … MARRY ….") When we exchanged vows I turned to her at the altar and said, "I'm so excited. I just can't hide it. I'm about to lose control and I think I like it."

After a year of this silliness, however, she deserved a break. So, I went by the book when it came time to celebrate our first anniversary. Instead of introducing her to the Church of Elvis down in Portland, I chose a place synonymous with romance: the San Juan Islands.

Lopez was the logical place to start. Not only is it the shortest ferry ride away, it's the most isolated island with lodging, making it an ideal place to forget about the afternoon rush up Interstate 5. After all, as residents put it, the most exciting thing on Lopez Island is … nothing at all.

Just a few short blocks after we eased off the ferry, we felt island time take hold. We knew we needed to check in at our B&B and make dinner reservations, but couldn’t resist a detour to the tiny town center of Lopez Village. Driving the curving, farm-lined country roads into the island's interior made me feel like I was back in the rural Midwest of my college days. In fact, I had almost forgotten I was on an island until I saw the waters of Swifts Bay a few yards off to my right shortly before we reached the Inn at Swifts Bay.

Although the two-story Tudor B&B has five rooms, the two attic suites are the best of the bunch for a romantic evening. Both have private entrances, queen-size beds, skylights, gas fireplaces (my wife particularly loved the crackling sound the fake logs made as they "burned") and fleece robes. Because we arrived just after dark, we missed our chance to watch the sunset from a sliver of private beach the inn shares with its neighbors, but we still had plenty of time to catch dinner at the Bay Café.

Just steps away from Fisherman Bay in Lopez Village, the Bay Café is the kind of place locals discuss in hushed tones while proudly letting slip that it's the San Juans' best restaurant. Even in the off-season we might have had difficulty getting in if the owners of the Lopez Pharmacy hadn't called on our behalf.

The Bay Café's reputation for great atmosphere and exceptional food is well-deserved. From the moment you walk in the door and see a kayak hanging from the ceiling sporting a sign saying "pray towards the heavens, but row towards shore," you know quirky island casual is the rule. At the same time, its sunset views from every table and deck seating overlooking the bay make it ideal for serious hand-holding.

The restaurant may be known for its wild Mexican prawn satay and seafood tapas, but we loved every bite of our grilled portobello mushroom, grilled tofu satay and risotto cakes. Our dessert, a pecan chocolate walnut tart, ended our meal on a sweet note and allowed us to act like newlyweds as we fed each other tasty morsels.

If we had had bikes the next morning, the weather would have been perfect for an early ride, especially after an Inn at Swifts Bay breakfast of muffins, fruit and a frittata. Instead, we drove to Spencer Spit State Park, a long, lonely stretch of land protruding into Lopez Sound, ending just yards away from Frost Island. The park is great for hiking, swimming, camping, crabbing and clamming during the summer.

Shark Reef Park on the southwest side of the island also came highly recommended as a place to hike and watch river otters, but the trail was completely submerged when we visited. So we stopped by the Lopez Island Pharmacy soda fountain for a caramel milkshake, then caught a ferry to Orcas Island.

Where Lopez is largely rural, Orcas has the slightly more settled feel of a distant suburb that hasn't been discovered by city folk yet. There seem to be more shops, restaurants and inns in the village of Eastsound than in all of Lopez Island, yet those who want to get away from it all can escape into the vastness of Moran State Park.

Orcas was also home to our favorite B&B, The Turtleback Farm Inn. Set in a valley just below Turtleback Mountain, the original building is a fully restored farmhouse from the late 1800s with seven guest rooms. The real showcase, though, is the Orchard House where we stayed. From the outside this cedar building resembles a wooden barn, but each of the four generously sized rooms inside features a king-size bed, sitting area, gas fireplace and private bathroom with a clawfoot tub and separate shower. Tall windows and balconies in each room overlook the 80 acres of farmland below.

I'm not usually an early riser, but I awoke early enough to watch the sun come up over the fields. Thanks to a small door that allows the staff to leave breakfast in the room without waking guests, we also had breakfast in bed with homemade granola and the lightest, fluffiest pancakes I've ever tasted.

What really made Turtleback our favorite B&B was its owners, Susan and Bill Fletcher. When I called to ask Susan if the rooms were romantic, the wise-cracking daughter of Tarzan star Buster Crabbe assured me they were, then added, "The rest is up to you." The day we stayed, Bill responded to a couple raving about the inn's king-size beds by joking, "Are you sure it wasn't the margaritas?"

Unseasonable weather kept us from wandering too far for dinner, so we opted for the Sunflower Café. Located in the former home of the Italian restaurant La Famiglia, the Sunflower Café boasts international cuisine, exposed-wood beams, a Latin-influenced soundtrack and Miss Pritt, a gray tabby cat that weaves her way among the tables several times an hour. The servings of our charred salmon and ginger-infused tofu were so generous we still had plenty left over for lunch the next day.

Other Orcas restaurants that come highly recommended include Christina's in Eastsound, Sean Paul's at Deer Harbor and Café Olga in far away Olga.

After dinner we saw a concert in The Living Room. It wasn't in someone's house, though--the show was in a small performance space in downtown Eastsound. The three-year-old venue seats 80 in comfortable camping chairs and has hosted recording artists such as Tuck & Patti and Scott Cossu. During the summer it has a full schedule of concerts and events.

If nature inspires you, Mount Constitution in Moran State Park is another worthwhile stop. The view at the top brings northwest maps to life and includes Vancouver, British Columbia, the Olympics, Mount Rainier and the rest of the San Juans.

Although my sources at our final stop, San Juan Island, had recommended another place, my wife wanted to try the Friday Harbor House. She got her wish. I might not have been married long, but I've learned a few lessons along the way. Besides, she knows where I live.

It took us 15 minutes to find Friday Harbor House because it's so well hidden it took a while to realize it was the unlabeled building next to a restaurant parking lot at the end of West Street. Our search was rewarded with a beautiful room and balcony overlooking the harbor, a gas fireplace, a queen-size bed and an in-room Jacuzzi.

Although Friday Harbor House describes its rooms as being Northwest contemporary style, they seemed Asian in their austerity and emphasis on clean lines. The theme was also continued in the restaurant, where my wife and I quietly played a game of charades between courses while we waited for our food, acting out the names of songs describing our first year together. Oddly, both our selections were Rodgers and Hammerstein classics. I picked My Favorite Things, she chose Getting to Know You.

All our wordless gesturing ended when the meal arrived. Once our waitress served my wife's pan-roasted, curry-rubbed king salmon and my oven-fried ling cod with horseradish tartar sauce, there was nothing left to do but eat, enjoy our surroundings and appreciate each other.

When we finished off our stay with a breakfast of granola, toast and light-as-a-cloud vanilla scones, I knew my wife had chosen very well indeed.

That's not to say my choice wasn't just as good. In fact, once my wife saw Lonesome Cove Resort on the island's northern tip, she knew we'd be coming back soon. Granted, Lonesome Cove doesn't have the frills of Friday Harbor House or a beautiful restaurant, but it doesn't need it. That's because it has six cozy log cabins overlooking Spieden Channel.

Peeking inside a cabin, we could easily imagine ending a day eating dinner on the private deck as we watched darkness fall, then closing the sliding glass doors against the world and warming ourselves in front of the large stone fireplace.

Lonesome Cove also had something Friday Harbor House didn't: manager Larry Penquite. After 20 years running the place, he has plenty of colorful stories, and he shared them while showing us the resort. One centered on the honeymooner who almost burned a cabin down when he surprised his bride by spelling "I Love You" in fireworks. In his excitement to show his wife, the man locked them outside without any clothes.

The story made some of the things I'd subjected my wife to during our trips seem miniscule. Sure, I'd talked her into riding a wire hundreds of feet above a Costa Rican rain forest and dragged her on the Paris sewer tour, but I'd never gotten us locked out of a hotel room naked.

Of course, there's always our second anniversary … .

David Volk is a freelance writer and humorist who writes about travel, food, business and science.

If you go …

The Inn At Swifts Bay
856 Port Stanley Road
Lopez Island
(360) 468-3636
Rates range from $95 for a room with a shared bath to $185 for an upstairs suite. Minimum stay required during tourist season.

Bay Café
9 Old Post Road, Suite C
Lopez Island
(360) 468-3700
Reservations recommended during tourist season.

Turtleback Farm Inn
1981 Crow Valley Road
Orcas Island
(360) 376-4914
Rates vary from $70 midweek during the off-season to $225 for a weekend night during high season. Minimum two-day stay during weekends and holidays from June to October.

Sunflower Café
A Street and Plum Alley
Orcas Island
(360) 376-2335

The Living Room
North Beach Road across from the Healing Arts Center in Eastsound
Orcas Island
(360) 376-5180
Tickets typically cost $8 - $12.

Friday Harbor House
130 West Street
San Juan Island
(360) 378-8455
Rates range from $130 for a small room during the quiet season to $300 for a third-floor suite during summer. Minimum stay requirement.

Lonesome Cove Resort
5810-A Lonesome Cove Road
San Juan Island
(360) 378-4477
$115 a night, double occupancy. Additional charges for additional guests. Minimum five-day stay during tourist season, two-day minimum in slow season.