Scattered like emerald nuggets in the sapphire that is the Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands offers travelers a glimpse into the secret life they might have if they threw caution to the wind, quit their jobs, and gave up Starbucks and mall shopping for life.
Step aboard one of the state’s trademark green-and-white ferries in Anacortes  and glide over to one of the chain’s four largest islands—Orcas , Lopez , Shaw , or San Juan —to find pastoral land grazed by livestock, winding country roads, and not a chain store or restaurant in sight. Peer over the shoreline to scan for orcas spyhopping and lobtailing in nearby waterways. Look overhead to spot bald eagles circling over lakes and glades hidden within island interiors.
While the thread of natural beauty unites these most popular San Juan Islands, each has its own unique personality and individual flair. Lopez Island  attracts low-key people who care less than most about an extravagant lifestyle, people who are comfortable alone or in a small community. The island is quiet, rural, and a cyclist’s paradise .
San Juan Island  contains the biggest town, Friday Harbor, with impressive dining , lodging , and recreation possibilities, including whale-watching  and sea kayaking . San Juan is also rich in history, and home to San Juan Island National Historical Park , where a war nearly erupted over a pig.
Shaw , the quietest island, is known for its residents’ hands-off approach. Visitors are welcomed here but not catered to, so the only lodging here is available under the great blue yonder at the island’s small campgrounds. This is the place to get away from it all—including swarming tourists.
Wedged between Washington mainland and Vancouver Island, the San Juan archipelago is more than just these four islands. The chain is made up of 786 islands at low tide and more than 172 named islands. Those with a boat can widen their base of explorations by paddle, sail, or motor to discover a kaleidoscope of tidepools, rocky shorelines, and hidden campgrounds enough to satisfy even the most pressing case of wanderlust.
To get to any of these islands by car, you'll pass through the mainland town of Anacortes , a charming port city that definitely merits a stop for a night or two. If you're driving around the islands, be sure to fill your tank in Anacortes before getting on the ferry. Because of the cost of shipping fuel here (and because they can get away with it), gas stations on the islands charge at least 30 percent more for gas than on the mainland.
If you can only take one ride aboard a Washington State Ferry (206/464-6400, www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries ), the trip from Anacortes to the San Juans should be the one. When the ferry pulls away from the Anacortes dock, it is almost like departing on a cruise ship. The scenery is so beautiful that even amateur photographers can get spectacular sunset-over-the-islands shots.
The ferry system operates on a first-come, first-served basis, during the peak summer season, it’s wise to arrive at least two hours early on weekends, or an hour early on weekdays. Avoid the crowds by traveling midweek, early morning, late evening (except Friday evenings), or better yet, by foot, kayak, or bike.
Passenger-only ferry options include the Victoria Clipper (206/448-5000 or 800/888-2535, www.victoriaclipper.com ); the San Juan Island Commuter (360/734-8180 or 888/734-8180, www.islandcommuter.com ); the San Juan Island Shuttle Express (360/671-1137 or 888/373-8522, www.island-adventures.com , $59 adults, $49 seniors, $39 students, $5 bikes); and the Puget Sound Express (360/385-5288, www.pugetsoundexpress.com , $68 round-trip, bikes and kayaks $10 extra). Check out the ferry websites for current routes and schedules.
Kenmore Air (206/486-1257 or 800/543-9595, www.kenmoreair.com ) has scheduled floatplane flights from Lake Union  in Seattle  and Lake Washington in Kenmore. Kenmore Air also offers charter service to other destinations in the San Juans and flightseeing trips.
San Juan Airlines (360/293-4691 or 800/874-4434, www.sanjuanairlines.com ) has daily wheeled-plane flights from Anacortes  and Bellingham  to most of the San Juan Islands. San Juan Airlines also offers flightseeing trips over the San Juans from Bellingham for about $175 for a half-hour flight on a five-seat aircraft.
Another option is Sound Flight (425/255-6500 or 800/825-0722), which provides regular floatplane service between Renton and the San Juans mid-June–mid-September. Northwest Seaplanes (425/277-1590 or 800/690-0086, www.nwseaplanes.com ) also flies out of Renton, with floatplane charter service to Lopez Island, Rosario Resort, West Sound, Friday Harbor, and Roche Harbor.
Rose Air (503/675-7673, www.roseair.com ) offers charter flights between Portland International Airport and the San Juan Islands.
Island Air (360/378-2376 or 888/378-2376, www.sanjuan-islandair.com ) has charter flights and flightseeing trips from San Juan Island Airport. Fares vary, with a three-person flight from Seattle’s  Boeing Field to Friday Harbor starting at $275 one-way.