A visit to the San Juans is best not programmed. Make reservations for overnight lodging, of course. After that, set your agenda to the local clock, or to nature's. The natural world still dominates here. The archipelago is a trove of biological treasures. Most prominent are the orcas, the killer whales. Three pods, or extended families, spend their summers around the San Juans. Gray whales also chug by on their annual commutes between Alaska and Baja. As a result, whale-watching has become an island cottage industry. There are 20 whale-watching charter outfits currently listed with the chambers of commerce, aided by a mountaintop spotting service on Vancouver Island that radios coordinates to the skippers.
The human side of the islands is equally engaging, and surprising. The key, perhaps, is to open yourself to anything. I visit Neil's Mall on Lopez Island, an only-in-the-San-Juans omnium-gatherum, where residents and some visitors bring cast-off clothing, appliances, car parts, cassette tapes, and rusty bikes; and other residents and visitors drop in and take whatever they want. No membership fee, no charge, no questions. It's either pure recycling or communism perfected, but it works, and it's fascinating.
Emily Reed, who writes about the islands' artists, tells me about an amazing private art museum in a home on Orcas Island. I phone the proprietor and score a two-hour, personal guided tour. It isn't a favor for the press; he'll do it for anyone who calls ahead and pays $10.
"I limit the collection to San Juan County, which is not a big limitation because there are a lot of artistic people," says Leo Lambiel, who has been buying and commissioning island art since 1975. The tour of 172 artists' paintings, photographs, and sculptures winds through Lambiel's living room, bedroom, bathroom, and wine cellar, and finally takes in his own creations, a 2,500-year-old Greek temple and a fantasy grotto. It's a remarkable deal―Lambiel's curatorial taste is sharp and his personal commentary more informed than that of any museum docent.
A number of small galleries are clustered in the three principal towns―Friday Harbor, Eastsound, and Lopez Village―but the one that arrests me is Anthony Howe's 9 acres of stainless steel sculptures, his own, 1/4 mile west of Eastsound. In a secluded clearing, pieces spring from gardens, soar out of hillsides, cling to trees. Some suggest nature―a fish, a snail, a teardrop―while others are retro 1950s sci-fi. "Orcas is a great place for a sculptor," enthuses Howe, who came from New York City. "It's never too hot for working. You don't have to lock your shop. The best thing, when people come here, they open their eyes to new visual experiences. We've sold sculptures to people who've never bought a piece of art before."