Oases in the sea

The San Juans are an archipelago of amoeba-shaped isles scattered in the straits between the Washington mainland and Vancouver Island. Geologically, they're ridges and plateaus and mountaintops, whatever didn't get rasped into seabed by the last retreating glaciers 12,000 years ago. They number either 172 or 743 or some figure in between, depending on who's calling what an "island."

Many are just nameless rocks that break the water at low tide, providing sun decks for sea lions. Orcas and San Juan Islands, respectively 57 and 55 square miles in area, are the largest ― and are the tourist destinations, sprinkled with shops and B&Bs.

Climate forms part of the San Juans' allure: The islands squat in the rain shadow of the Olympics and Vancouver Island range, so an average year's rainfall runs a little more than half of Seattle's 38 inches. Kayaking photographer Joel Rogers describes it as "a Mediterranean experience in an evergreen landscape." Locals call it the "banana belt."

Wise boaters take these descriptions with a grain of sea salt: San Juan weather can pivot on whim, suddenly funneling Arctic gales between islands or blooming with woolly fog. Twice daily the Pacific tries to pour itself into the straits, and the water churns like a Maytag. But it can also be achingly beautiful, its color ranging from platinum to ancient jade, depending on the light it's reflecting.

The archipelago's recorded history opened with tentative Spanish forays in 1790, which left a few surviving place names such as Patos ("Ducks") Island and Rosario ("Rosary") Strait. The British surveyor George Vancouver explored in 1792, his crew raiding the islands for wild strawberries and onions but otherwise paying scant attention. In the 1850s and '60s, both American and British interests began farming San Juan Island, and the dispute over which nation owned it almost triggered a minor war.

Tourism dates from the 1850s (San Juan Island's Hotel de Haro, built in 1886, is still in business), but it wasn't until 1922, when ferries began regular island calls, that it began to evolve into a serious economic force.