Although the weather outside is frightful, the allure of the islands is delightful, and now is the time to dream of a summer sailing adventure in the Northwest. Bellingham, WA is the perfect place to board a small-ship cruise through the evergreen San Juan Islands.Â (Content in this post has been updated for 2018.)
Within view of downtown Bellingham, the San Juan Archipelago encompasses 172 islands and rocks in the Salish Sea, including 75 sites officially designatedÂ San Juan Islands National Monument. Truly the best way to view the islands is by boat, and particularly on a small ship. Three local cruise companies out of BellinghamÂ offer a variety of one-day and overnight options for sailing, whale watching and exploring from May through October:Â San Juan Cruises, the Schooner Zodiac and Northwest Navigation.
Day Trips and Evening Sails
If your schedule only allows for a day or an evening in the San Juans, it is easy to get out on the water from Bellingham (with no waiting in ferry lines) and there are many options to explore.
San Juan Cruises
- San Juan Cruises offers full-day Whale Watching Trips to Friday Harbor. Trips depart from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal on Saturdays and Sundays through May 5 -20, and seven days a week May 26 – Sept. 30, 2018.Â The voyage is well known locally for its complimentary salmon and chicken BBQ lunch on board, and a 2-hour shore excursion in Friday Harbor before returning to Bellingham. The route passes Eliza, Sinclair, Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Islands.
- San Juan Cruises also offers full-day Bird Watching Excursions on two summers Fridays June 29, July 13, and 27, 2018. Naturalists help guests locate bald eagles, great blue herons, cormorants, caspian terns, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, and more with a great view point on the water.
- Or, spend a full day on the Sucia Island Picnic Cruise. Sucia Island is a Washington State Park that is only accessible by private yacht or charter vessels. The gorgeous 564-acre island includes a trail system and 77,700 feet of shoreline. This cruise departs each Saturdays and Sundays, July 7 – Aug. 26, 2018 and includes a picnic lunch on the island.
- Dinner cruises on Bellingham Bay have become a specialty for San Juan Cruises. The Chuckanut Cracked Crab Dinner Cruise, runs June 15 – Sept. 23, 2018. The Bellingham Bay BREWS Cruise, sets sail each Wednesday, May 30 – Sept. 19, 2018, featuring Bellingham’s Boundary Bay, Chuckanut, and Kulshan Breweries. And, unWINEd on the Bay Cruises take place on Thursdays, July 5 – Sept. 20, 2018. The secluded Chuckanut Bay is a popular destination on these cruises and also part of the new National Monument.
- The Schooner Zodiac offers Friday Night Bellingham Bay Salmon Dinner Sails, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the following dates: June 8, 22, 29, July 6, 20, 27, Aug. 3, 10, 17, and Sept. 14, 2018. This is a great opportunity to enjoy our beautiful sunset out on the water, and get a “taste” of the Zodiac experience (see below).
- July 4, Fireworks on the Bay Dinner Sail, 6:45 to 11 p.m. Get the best seat in the house for the magnificent fireworks show over Bellingham Bay. Enjoy an evening dinner sail aboard the Schooner Zodiac, then settle into your own corner of her spacious wooden deck to observe the “bombs bursting in air” to celebrate our nation’s birthday. Get tickets early. This is sure to sell out!
- Ales and Sails Brewery Dinner Cruises are offered on Thursdays, June 7, 14, July 5, 19, Aug. 2, 16, and 23, 2018. A Bellingham craft brewery is hosted on each sail, with a unique meal created to pair with the beers. Sample the flavors and discuss the process with the brewers, while savoring the sunset.
Multi-day Overnight Adventures
The largest of the Bellingham fleet is the majestic Schooner Zodiac, with the tallest working mainsail on the West Coast of America. On my first step aboard, the feel of nautical history surrounded me. I instantly admired the enormous wood masts, the spacious wood deck and the vintage helm. The view below deck is even more impressive. Originally built for the Johnson & Johnson family in 1924, the Zodiac has been meticulously restored with polished trim, fixtures, bookcases and tables. Sleeping berths and cabins can accommodate up to 20 passengers for overnight sails.
Trips on the Zodiac focus on a variety of themes throughout the summer, including Lighthouses, Family Father’s Day Escape, Breweries, Seafood and Wine, Nauti-Gals Women Only, Family Labor Day Escape, Wooden Boat Festival and Autumn Sailing Adventures. The Schooner Zodiac’s 2018 schedule is now available for booking. Passengers learn to raise and lower the massive sails, take the helm and man the charts. Of course, everyone looks forward to the dinner bell, as hearty meals pour forth from the galley.
For me, the ultimate moment of relaxation was sitting quietly with a steaming mug on deck at daybreak, watching the sun rise over Lopez Island with glassy water in the foreground and the glow of a lantern overhead, while the rest of the world was a million miles away.
Another meticulously restored wooden boat is the Motor Vessel David B, operated by Jeffrey and Christine Smith of Northwest Navigation. What theÂ Zodiac offers in spaciousness, the David B provides in adorable coziness.
It is a 65-foot workboat, built in 1929, that has been converted to carry up to 6 overnight passengers for relaxed luxury cruises in 4 inviting cabins. Two key features endear passengers to the David B: her antique engine (Jeffreyâ€™s baby) and her antique wood burning stove (Christineâ€™s baby). The couple bought the boat in 1998 and lovingly restored it to begin offering trips in 2006. Each cruise emphasizes nature, local history and gourmet cooking.
â€śNo pre-made bread is ever served on the David B,â€ť says Christine. Each morning she wakes up at 5 a.m., to light the fire have coffee ready by 6:00 (for the early risers), homemade muffins at 8:00, and bread rising while Jeffrey takes passengers ashore at mid-morning. By lunchtime, the cabin smells delectable, and the table is set with china for a feast.Â Christine also takes special care to serve local Northwest ingredients, which are plentiful in the summer months.
My family and I have taken cruises on the giant ships to Alaska, and they have their merits, but small-ship cruising is a completely different experience. It is so personal, friendly and authentic. I’m looking forward to our next adventure out on the water!