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
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.
Lopez’s rural and coastal vistas have cyclists reaching regularly for
their brake levers. There is a comforting gentleness to its agricultural
landscape, less populated than nearby San Juan Island, the capital of the
archipelago, and less precipitous than its northern neighbour, Orcas Island.
Lowering the rural paranoia further is the lack of any dangerous critters and
the fact that you are never more than a short pedal from the nearest bed and
breakfast; The Edenwild Inn and the MacKaye Harbor Inn are two
well-established favourites, and the latter has the added bonus of free
mountain bike use. A patchwork of verdant fields is bordered by the kind of
brambly hedgerows that would not look out of place in southern England. Cars,
though common, drive slowly, and there is not a hint of road rage. Instead,
Lopez’s fieriness is stored up and released en masse every Fourth of July during
an Independence Day fireworks display that is, allegedly, one of the loudest in
When you run out of Lopez miles (pedal thirty and you will have covered
the island’s highlights), numerous restaurants beckon. The most sought-after
local delicacy is Lopez Island lamb, an item that finds its way onto the menus
of establishments such as the gourmet Bay
Café in Lopez Village. The Love Dog
Café specialises in locally-caught salmon
and maintains a strong “fresh and organic” ethos. Holly B’s Bakery leads the early morning coffee and pastry run,
luring in the hungry with the aroma of freshly baked rolls.
The San Juan Island boat-bicycle voyage does not have to end on Lopez
though. Regular ferries connect to Orcas Island (30 to 45 minutes) and San Juan
Island (80 minutes), both home to handy bike rental outlets and replete with
dreamy rural lanes brimming with good old-fashioned romance.