San Juan essentials

San Juan/sunset/travel/article/0,20633,1066606,00.html forays usually begin at the Washington State Ferry terminal in Anacortes. The boats deliver cars and foot traffic to San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw Islands. The ferry system is overstressed in summer; weekend waits of four to six hours for cars are common. One strategy is to not take a car ― book an island bike or moped rental or arrange pickup by your hotel or B&B. The other is to avoid weekend travel.

Peak tourist season is June through September. The local secret is that October is the best month, offering moderate weather, few crowds, and (sometimes) off-peak rates. In winter, some businesses and accommodations close, and activities such as kayaking and whale-watching are dormant.

Lodging is relatively expensive in the San Juans; in the high season, it's hard to find anything for less than $100 a night. Reservations are essential. Here, too, a September or October visit brings more choices.

Orca-watching in the islands should be good through summer. Numerous companies run whale-watching trips out of San Juan and Orcas Islands. Costs generally average about $50 for a three- to four-hour tour.

Ferry schedules: (206) 464-6400 or www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/.

Washington State Parks: (360) 902-8844 or www.parks.wa.gov.

San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce: (360) 378-5240 or www.sanjuanisland.org.

Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce: (360) 376-2273 or www.orcasislandchamber.com.

Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce: www.lopezisland.com.

San Juan Islands Visitor Information Service: (360) 468-3663.