Fly to the Spectacular San Juan Islands
WHEN GETTING THERE IS AS AMAZING AS THE DESTINATION
A sojourn to the San Juan Islands in Washington State is all the more special when segued by seaplane. Oh come on. You can do it. FLY with me! Let’s start in Seattle.
Come fly with me, let’s fly
Pack up, let’s fly away.”
-Frank Sinatra, Come Fly With Me
San Juan Island, Washington
There are special places that leave watermarks on our heart. I’ve discussed them before. The San Juan Islands are one of those places for me. Nestled near the northwest corner of Washington State, this place has imparted an imprint of epic proportions.
I will admit that it may have been the nature of my first visit that helped make such an impact. But don’t worry, you don’t have to wait for your 10th wedding anniversary to experience the wonder of the San Juans. If you ask me, any day here is worth celebrating.
TAKE A SEAPLANE
But, what if you could make the journey to this place as splendiferous as the destination itself. I venture you can. And you should. Enter, the seaplane. An icon on the local skyline, seaplanes are as readily recognizable here as the towering Space Needle standing watch since the 60’s. And taking a tour by seaplane is a specifically Seattle thing to do. Kenmore Air is the seaplane king of King County and has been offering flights from the waters around the Seattle since 1947.
Kenmore flies many routes around the region and can deposit you at several different island destinations, including Victoria, British Columbia, if you fancy a cuppa tea at the Empress or a toodle around the beautiful and manicured Butchart Gardens – a wee bit of European sensibility in the wild Northwest. Fair enough. And while Victoria may impress me, I will still seek out San Juan Island. Time and time and time and again. Most particularly because it offers accessible proximity to see Orca whales. And so far, I have never been disappointed.
For our anniversary trip, we started our seaplane journey at Kenmore Air’s Lake Union terminal. From here, we set out for beautiful Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Take note, there are limits on luggage, by size and by weight. The planes only carry 6-10 passengers depending on route. After ticketing and bag check, we are sent down to the dock. Soon enough, we are on board, buckled in and efficiently debriefed.
Anxious and eager, it is time to cast off. We taxi the length of Queen Anne hill above us. We watch houseboats and sailboats and kayakers as we pass. It feels odd to be on this watery runway. We push along to the opposite end of Lake Union, nearly to Gasworks Park, where the plane does an about face. We pause there as the plane turns to point directly towards Seattle’s downtown.
Seattle from the sky
All clear. The engines roar as we surge down the lake. Up, up and away and it seems we are instantly airborne. Chills. Tingles. Ooh’s and aah’s! Smiles and gasps, pointing and clicking. The views at this height! The pilot makes a right turn at the end of the lake and we head out towards Elliott Bay. On the left side of the plane, directly at eye level – there – is – the – Space Needle. It is surreal to think we could wave at visitors at the top. I’m in love. It’s a whole new world up here. And look out below. You can’t miss the funky and colorful Experience Music Project building. And then the historic waterfront as it leads up to Pike Place. I see sculptures in the park and paths to the piers. This is Seattle. The Seattle I know and love. What a way to see it.
Out over the water, we watch the stately ferries carry passengers and cars. Plugging and chugging and churning out water and they lumber ever powerful to Bainbridge and Vashon. How different to be up here and not down there, where we’ve crossed so many times before.
PUGET SOUND and the Straight of Juan de Fuca
Aren’t so familiar with the landscape below? Check your seat back pocket for a map of the Puget Sound all the way up to the Straight of Juan de Fuca, on to the San Juans and then Canada. Try to follow along as you fly. Might as well as the plane hums along with a buzz that bars chatting.
In under an hour, the pilot announces that we will be making the first stop in the San Juans. We descend quickly towards the water. I will admit that it doesn’t feel right. Planes aren’t supposed to careen towards the water. You watch out the window as the surface comes quickly closer and closer. But sudden and smooth, we land like a glider, sliding down atop the pontoons. Splash. Safe. Crazy. Sigh.
Passengers trade places, some off and some on. But this isn’t our island. We turn and taxi and take off again. Now turning towards the last stop. Friday Harbor. San Juan Island. It isn’t long before we are heading down again. Towards the water. Splash. Again. Safe. Of course.
The plane turns into the harbor and we dock along the marina edge opposite sailboats and yachts. We made it. It was amazing. Buzzing and amped, we thank our crew. We have a few days on the island to explore and to do. There are eagles and seals and orcas to find. Oysters to sample and wine to try.
Three days to fall in love with San Juan Island. And fall in love we did. Somehow, knowing there is still a seaplane flight back to Seattle, makes leaving less painful. Back on board for our return flight, this time we fly right over our alma mater – the University of Washington. Out the window an aerial tour of all those places where we courted. From the sky, we can spy the paths of the Quad that lead to Suzzallo Library and Drumheller Fountain and on to Husky Stadium and Portage Bay and the Montlake Cut. Go Dawgs. Making aerial memories while others flood back. Happy Anniversary to us. We land once again, mid-lake on Lake Union. Full and grateful and buzzing and happy.
Want to make your own memories on a seaplane ride from Seattle?
Book your tickets online. Prices range from $129 to $165 per person one way and vary depending on season and day of the week. Kenmore offers daily seaplane flights to the San Juans out of their central Seattle terminal on Lake Union. Shuttles are available from SeaTac Airport from mid-March through October.
950 Westlake Ave N, Seattle, WA 98109, USA
- Floatplane passengers are limited to 25 lbs. (11kg) total baggage weight per person, regardless of the number of bags.
- All items are weighed and count toward the allowance — including hand-carry items such as purses, laptops, backpacks, etc.
- No single item may exceed 50 linear inches (127cm) (length + width + height); this equates to a standard 10 in. x 16 in. x 24 in. (25cm x 41cm x 61cm) carry-on bag as permitted on the major airlines.
Cheers from my younger self. Been to San Juan Island? Taken a seaplane from Seattle? What did you see?
Save it for later!