If like us, before our visit, you’ve never heard of Lopez Island, then you’re in for a very pleasant surprise when you visit the Pacific Northwest of America.
The San Juan Islands, of which Lopez is a part, nestle in the ‘bay’ triangle between Seattle, Victoria (the capital of British Colombia) and Vancouver and are some of the few American owned islands within the otherwise Canadian seaway.
To say that time has passed Lopez by would be an understatement but it’s this facet which the islanders protect and promote – not wishing to rush into this, or the last, century in too much of a hurry.
We’re driving ourselves from Seattle to Vancouver with a detour to Lopez by ferry. So our port of embarkation is Anacortes, a pleasant but unremarkable town in Skagit County, Washington State and the nearest point to Lopez.
The car ferry (which is worth booking ahead as capacity is limited) threads its way between the islands and is a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half before disembarking via the concrete slipway onto Lopez.
The first thing we notice is the speed limit for vehicles – 25mph! We assume this is just at the ferry landing but are dismayed to find that a heady 40mph is as fast as anything is permitted to travel anywhere on the island. In some places it’s reduced to 15mph.
Not that we’re in a hurry to go anywhere but even 30mph on an open road in the countryside is soporific – and in our opinion more of a hazard, from the driver goofing-off, than any additional speed might present! Speed limits are rigorously enforced by the local police.
One initially charming aspect of driving on Lopez is the habit of local drivers waving at you as they pass. As we’re spending most of our four days on the island touring by car, this pleasant gesture quickly becomes tedious and the danger of RSI a distinct possibility. There’s some humour to this as visitors don’t all know the habit, so we’re constantly ‘wrong-handed’ by waving at the wrong people and failing to do so to locals. We do realise that we need to chill-out a bit, rather than object to this friendliness.
The island itself is only about 14mls (24Km) north/south and 8mls (17Km) east/west so it won’t take you too long to cover most of it – unless you detune your travel to the local pace.
We’re staying with a friend in a cabin on the water’s edge near the ferry landing in the northeast of the island – in a cabin with lovely views across to Blakely Island together with the comings and goings of local boats on the calm sheltered waters.
Each day we meander around the island, exploring different bays, inlets, coves and viewpoints. Each has their own appeal although none offer white sand beaches – the closest to this is a beach we come across being Watmough Bay, found at the end of a short wooded walk to the shore from the car park in the extreme south of the island.
The rest of the coastline is more often than not occupied by large amounts of driftwood that is a legacy of old logging practices on adjacent islands, with timber for the mills having broken free of its tethers and floated ashore to bleach and decay. It’s strangely attractive in its own right and has been added to by falling timber from the steep-sided island coastline.
Lopez island is a mix of rolling farmland, coniferous forest and rocky cliff-side or shingle coastline.
It doesn’t take very long to detune our desire to speed through life and to embrace the local relaxed approach – and other local activities give us a true flavour of the people who live here in their little corner of paradise.
We decide to play tennis at the only island courts, which are well maintained/surfaced and although it’s on a pitch-up and play basis, we’re able to get a court every day and the locals are most welcoming.
We also choose to seek out the local golf course. The club members are really hospitable, the course well looked after and we’re able to take our pick of about thirty different bags of random clubs to each cobble together a set to play with. It’s the only course we’ve ever played on where you can’t Tee-off if there’s a plane on approach to land! The local airstrip is adjacent to the course.
The Farmer’s Market and local craft market and art gallery attest to the ‘arty’ nature of Lopez but we’re fascinated by the ‘Take it or Leave it’ waste dump (we only visit the best places) where you can drop off serviceable goods and seek out others to take home, rather than just dump them for landfill. The remaining ‘stuff’ is segregated into numerous classifications for recycling or disposal.
We next book onto a ‘Whale-watching Tour’ out of Fisherman’s Bay on the west coast but despite several hours where the skipper literally ’goes the extra mile’, we see nothing other than Sea lions and birds feeding over a shoal of fish. Although we’re unlikely to take up the offer, we’re given a voucher for a free trip next time we visit, as the ‘whale guarantee’ has failed to deliver.
All in all, we get the feeling that people on Lopez are not only generally hospitable but also unusually ‘nice’ in that with a lifetime of stress now behind them, the largely retired community is simply too chilled to agonise over anything – which permeates into their interaction with any visitors.
If you’d like to take some pace out of your life, then spend a few days on Lopez yourself but don’t stay too long or you might find you can’t regenerate sufficient energy to leave!