Cycling the San Juan Islands
A trip to the San Juan Islands begins with a 45-minute ride on the Washington State Ferries. (Aurora Open/Getty Images)
In a nebulous archipelago in the extreme northwest of the United States lies a diminutive island whose bike-friendly roads provide an excellent excuse to leave the car behind.
Thirty-square-mile Lopez Island sits amid the jumble of 170 other islands, islets and rocky eagle perches that comprise the San Juan Islands, an idyllic rural escape popular with stressed-out Pacific Northwesterners, where traffic lights have yet to penetrate and malls are where people on the “mainland” go shopping.
For outsiders, Lopez acts as a bucolic bulwark to the sprawling suburban culture that has colonized so much of continental America, a subtle throwback to a simpler, less homogenized era; pastoral, distinct and unsullied by urban interferences. For the 2,200 local residents, it is a jealously guarded home, a place where you can leave your bicycle unlocked outside the organic coffee shop and it will still have both wheels attached when you come back a few hours later.
A trip to Lopez begins with a 45-minute ride on the Washington State Ferries San Juan Island service, departing from the port town of Anacortes, 40 miles south of the Canadian border and 70 miles north of Seattle. Weaving its way through a maze of broccoli-coloured islands in waters where Orca whales can be spotted during the summer months, the journey crosses the invisible frontier between the urban frenzy of Seattle and the soporific rhythms of the Puget Sound, the inland sea in which the San Juan Islands are located . If you are planning on cycling, leave your car in Anacortes. The island’s main accommodation, the Lopez Islander Resort, offers free parking at the Anacortes ferry terminal, while the local bike hire outlet, Lopez Bicycle Works will pick you up from the island’s tiny ferry dock between May and September and kit you out with a two-wheeled rental. Bring your own bike if you are planning this trip any other time of year.
Upon arrival in Lopez, most people slip into a different mindset. While none of the San Juan Islands could be described as clamorous, “Slow-pez”, as the island has been honourably christened, is even more chilled-out than its neighbours. Bereft of the tetchy “no trespassing” signs that characterise intensely private Shaw Island next door, the bonhomie on Lopez is natural -- and contagious. Within minutes of leaving the ferry dock, visiting cyclists will encounter the customary “Lopezian wave”, a cordial acknowledgement offered by local motorists that involves lifting two fingers off the steering wheel in an energy-saving greeting. The ice can be broken further in the small selection of shops and coffee bars that pepper tiny Lopez Village, where opinionated residents happily incorporate outsiders into their feisty banter. Topics range from rising property prices to the best spots to forage for stinging nettles for a sustainable dinner.
If you can prise yourself away from the chitchat, circumnavigating Lopez’s teardrop-shaped landmass can easily be done in a couple of hours, though outings invariably get stretched to a full day. Aside from spontaneous delays (a busker in a tie-dye T-shirt strumming Pink Floyd songs or stall-holders swapping roast lamb recipes in the local farmer’s market), there is a small vineyard plying crisp, dry white wines, a selection of esoteric art studios displaying glassworks and metal sculpture, and the bird-watching bonanza of Spencer Spit State Park where two sand spits have formed a wildlife-rich lagoon where everything from ospreys to otters can be spotted.
Lopez’s popularity among cyclists stems from its flatness as much as friendliness. In the mountain-studded Pacific Northwest punctuated by such volcanic behemoths as Mount Rainier (14,411ft) and Mount Baker (10,781ft) -- the latter clearly visible above Lopez’s lazy pastures -- the island’s gradients are relatively minor, and a well-established bike culture means motorists give cyclists plenty of breathing space. The community even has its own bike race, the defiantly non-competitive Tour de Lopez where contestants race for burgers rather than a yellow jersey during the last weekend in April each year.