If you’re looking for a special place to go on vacation, consider the Pacific Northeast.
If, however, you’re looking for something that’s special with a cherry on top, consider visiting an island town in the Pacific Northwest.
As with most island towns, those in the PNW are a bit insulated from the rest of the world and things tend to move a bit slower. Things have changed slowly in most of the PNW’s island towns and you can still find them much the same as they were if you visited them as a child.
The main difference is that, as tourism has grown, there are more amenities in these towns. Luckily, town residents recognize that the reason that tourists often visit is because they love island towns.
Because of this the stores stay small and quirky, the beer stays local, and Walmart stays away.
So if you’re in need of a place where you can relax and have access to breathtaking scenery and a beach (possibly right out your door) then let’s consider a few of the best island towns that the northern part of the Pacific Northwest (Washington and B.C.) have to offer!
5 Best Island Towns To Visit In Washington and British Columbia
1. Eastsound, Washington
Eastsound is probably one of the most popular small towns on one of the most popular islands in the PNW.
Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Florida, is the home to Eastsound, a town of about 5,000 residents.
This town is small enough to provide an excellent getaway destination but also large enough to provide an excellent getaway destination. In other words, it’s the perfect combination of privacy and luxury.
Seeing as how it’s the second largest town in the San Juans you can get regular ferry service here (as in, several times a day) that will service anything from foot traffic to motorhomes.
The main city of Eastsound is littered with dozens of interesting shops as well as several great restaurants and a couple of grocery stores.
Eastsound is a small village of about 5,000 residents that is the population center of Orcas Island. As you may know, Orcas Island is part of the San Juans and has a ferry service from the mainland terminal at Anacortes.
While you’re in Eastsound be sure to visit the Orcas Island Historical Museum which currently has nearly 6,000 items on display! While the iconic art from the Lambiel Museum is now gone, there are many small shops that also display/sell works from local artists if you’re in the market.
One of the most popular natural attractions (dare I say, natural wonders?) of Orcas island is Moran state park and Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. Even though it’s on an island, Mt. Constitution is a real mountain that offers really great views. In fact, at 2,409 feet, Mt. Constitution is higher than the highest points in 16 states!
If you’re planning on camping on the islands you’ll need to be on top of your game several months in the advance during the busy season. If glamping is more your speed there are several lodges and bed-and-breakfast inns on Orcas, not to mention a thriving vacation rental market that you can tap into on VRBO or Airbnb.
2. Langley, Washington
On a Whidbey Island bluff, overlooking the waters of Saratoga passage we find the (very) small town of Langley Washington.
If you want an island stay with beautiful mountain views then Langley will offer it to you with a grand panoramic view of the Cascades.
Langley has a ton of options for its size (thank you tourism) and you can spend your days seeing historic buildings, looking at art galleries, tasting wine, going on bike tours, and even chartering boat rides.
And when you’re worn out with those options you can opt to stroll down historic downtowns where you’ll find book stores, restaurants, trinket stores, and even antique shops.
Langley has a downtown that is perfect for strolling as you explore historic buildings, antique shops, boutiques, book stores, and restaurants — not to mention art galleries, which are always in generous supply when you visit an island town. Wine tasting also is a favorite pastime in Langley for locals and visitors alike.
There are tons of lodging locations available in Langley, many of which will put you right on the water or within easy walking distance of the island’s natural wonders. This is truly a top 5 destination in the PNW!
3. Ganges, B.C.
If you head north from the San Juans we find a group of islands which is often referred to as the “Canadian San Juans”. However, the comparison is a bit insulting as it does not take into account how unique and different the two are.
The Gulf Islands, off the coast of British Columbia, is home to a large island by the name of Salt Spring Island. Salt Spring Island, in turn, is home to a very small town by the name of Ganges,
Ganges is an incredibly popular destination for those that visit the PNW with a boat (or choose to rent one there). The fishing, scenery from the water, and available docks make this a stop not to be missed.
If you’re in the same boat that I’m in, however (meaning you’re boatless) you can still make it to Ganges. There is a ferry service from Vancouver right to Sale Spring Island and, from there, you can make your way around the island.
Another option is to fly straight to the island from Vancouver vis Harbour Air.
Ganges is an excellent destination if you’re into crafts, art, farmers’ markets, and other “green” types of things that the PNW is known for.
And if you’re feeling particularly arty and green you’ll be pleased to note that, as of my last visit, art galleries outnumbered gas stations in Ganges almost 3 to 1! (8 art galleries and 3 gas stations)
If you’re planning to stay the night, which you probably should, then you’ll have your pick from many inns and other local lodgings.
4. Friday Harbor, Washington
Friday Harbor is an automatic inclusion of any “best island towns in Washington” list simply because it’s so popular that people would riot at its omission.
Friday Harbor is larger and more developed than the other towns on this list but it still has an island vibe and is simply more accessible.
The town of Friday Harbor is packed with restaurants, shops, museums (including a Whale Museum and Art Museum), and parks.
While there are some outdoor activities available, Friday Harbor’s main claim to fame is its walkability. Personally, I recommend walking on the Washington State Ferry in Anacortes (saving your ticket money to spend at a restaurant instead) and spending the afternoon walking around the historic wharf and getting ice cream.
If you do want to explore more of the island there is a trolley and several shuttle buses that can take you around to see the historical attractions and incredible views.
Spending the night in Friday Harbor is definitely an option with many hotels and resorts available but I usually make Friday Harbor a day trip and return to Orcas or the mainland to sleep.
5. Winslow, Washington
Smack dab in the center of Bainbridge Island we find the town of Winslow. This is the most accessible island if you’re in Seattle as it’s only a 35-minute ferry ride away and many people choose to make a day trip out of it.
There are excellent dining options, antique shops, and the usual line-up of crafty stores and art galleries.
If you’re a bit more adventurous you can visit the Bloedel Reserve or head on to the Kitsap Peninsula or Hood Canal.
Regardless of whether you make it a day trip or something more Winslow is well worth the (quick) trip!
If you’re new to the PNW any of the above island getaways will be an excellent introduction to small island town life. The PNW is beautiful and laid back (unless we’re talking about Seattle) and the island is simply a distilled version.
So choose an island, choose a town, and get planning that vacation!