“Don’t change Lopez Island,” one cheerily hand-penned sign read in the window of a village shop. “Let Lopez Island change you.”
There is something magical about crossing water to reach a destination. Even when that location is only roughly 90 miles from home, I could not believe how different Lopez Island felt.
As the honorary contributing beverage writer for Rain or Shine Guides I wanted to pick a destination not too difficult to reach, but still within a day’s drive. One of the San Juan Islands seemed ideal, and after reading about a blazing newish restaurant (more on that soon), I booked a full weekend on Lopez Island to explore.
Spoiler alert: Do not travel to Lopez Island just for the beverages. Lopez Island Brewing Company may have a website and a physical address, but neither yielded tangible results. As for Lopez Island Vineyards, tastings are held as “pop ups” or at Summer Farmers Markets — neither of which we located on a November weekend. Our beverage scouting will have to wait for further developments.
Having said that, DO visit Lopez Island for everything else. Here are the top hitters.
The Scenic Calm
Lopez Island is quiet and dark with very few cars and unpolluted skies flush with stars. As my husband and I lay in the bed of our garden cottage next to a warm wood stove, we fell asleep watching The Milky Way tilt and slide above us through the skylights. If you need a place with 63 miles of stark, hushed coastline, you could do worse than Lopez Island.
TIP: Many businesses, and even Spencer Spit State Park, are fully closed during the offseason, (shhhhh! we hiked to the spit anyway). However, if solitude is what you seek, consider the lower cost and non bustle of booking a Lopez trip in the offseason.
Stepping out of our cottage I was surrounded by friendly jackrabbits. Just by walking 300 feet to the coastline, I spotted a lazy seal turning somersaults in Fisherman Bay. A clear day yielded to a stunning salmon and terracotta-streaked sunset featuring a lone, gliding bald eagle. Nature envelopes you at every turn on Lopez Island, from quaint farms filled with braying goats to fish leaping from brackish ponds.
TIP: For an unadulterated coastal vista filled with sea birds, seals, and sometimes orcas and porpoises, visit Shark Reef Sanctuary on the south-western end of the island. Leave your car in the tiny pullout and hike a half mile to the cliff edges along a well-marked and maintained trail. Nature favors those who wait, so bring a sandwich, perch on a rock, and see who decides to pass by.
Famously nicknamed “Slowpez,” nothing moves quickly on Lopez Island. Being open to adventure will serve you well. Cafe closed for the winter? No worries! Just a few miles down the road at Sunnyfield Farm we encountered the Lopez Island Little Winter Market. Crowded with local vendors peddling fresh bread, herbed cheeses made right on the property, and spiced cider, you can support the thriving local farm trade while enjoying a string band playing in the hay rafters.
TIP: Don’t be alarmed when everyone on Lopez waves at you from their cars. It’s polite, customary, and becomes completely natural within an hour or two. It’s just another piece of local charm that solidified Lopez Island’s place in my heart.
But the number one reason to visit Lopez is to try Ursa Minor, a creative agrarian Northwest restaurant right in the heart of the village. Recently featured in Edible Seattle, this rustic and imaginative dining experience did not disappoint and ranked as highly with us as our recent experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants in France. This is the closest to food terroir I’ve had yet in the northwest.
Make Ursa Minor the star of the evening and stay late to share plates like the burnt cabbage, sunflower seeds, wild onion & chestnut dish or tide-tumbled fresh oysters topped with frozen kimchi. Our entree of chicken, potatoes, chanterelles & black garlic was artfully presented and quickly devoured. And for a lady who doesn’t like dessert, I struggled to share the hay ice cream, poached quince, malt, and honey crumbles with my date. I will seriously dream of those honey crumbles for weeks to come.
A fairly priced and solid wine list made pairing easy with glasses of sparkling Fruili to start and a 2013 bottle of Crozes-Hermitage to take us the rest of the way through the meal.
TIP: While there’s no tasting menu (YET) at Ursa Minor, do talk to co-owners Chef, Nick Coffey and Front-of-House, Nova Askue to hear what’s good right now. Most items are sourced on the island so they will know what’s showing best when. Reservations are recommended, so book ahead.
So close to home, yet so very different, try Lopez Island. Do reserve your space on the outbound ferry as passage is never a guarantee. Bring binoculars for the amazing sights you will see far and wide. And let me know if that brewery ever opens its doors to visitors. Salud!
Amy L. Dickson is a communications professional, freelance writer, Level 1 sommelier, and a contributor to Rain or Shine Guides. Follow her at @amyldickson75