Wintering at a summer resort in Roche Harbor, Washington
You might not think of vacationing at a summer resort in the dead of winter. Well, think again. On Christmas Eve, we headed to Roche Harbor and were in for a real treat – a landscape of soft grays and faded greens, quiet, calm and escape from it all. We left rainy Vancouver at 10:30 am, caught the 2:45 ferry from Anacortes, Washington, to Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, and drove the last eight miles to the Roche Harbor Resort, arriving just past 4. A storm and high waves rocked the ferry at the beginning of our journey. But soon, the sea quieted, the rain subsided and we entered what islanders refer to as the “rainshadow of the Olympic Mountains,” where it rains half as much as in Vancouver. Between Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor, the island is open and hilly, offering fields farmed in the summer but in winter golden green and quiet. Along the drive, we saw a lone camel in a field, a young deer near the road, an eagle perched on an old cedar and only a few fellow travelers. Christmas houselights slowly brightening as day faded to evening and we arrived in the village resort of white clapboard buildings, white lights, trellised pathways and gardens and a harbor that would make any postcard proud. The historic Hotel de Haro’s Fireside Lobby, where we were definitely the only guests checking in, was cozy with garlands and an old-fashioned Christmas tree. Our room, on the other hand, in the Quarryman Hall, the newest of the hotels built in 2007, had every modern amenity and a contemporary décor. A fire was burning in the fireplace when we arrived. A balcony with table and chairs, and five huge windows overlooked the harbor. The sitting area, in beiges and browns, includes a pullout couch, two large chairs, and a large screen tv. And the marble bathroom is luxurious and grand with a large tub, shower and two sinks. We had dinner at the only place open, the old McMillan House, which has been converted into a first-class restaurant and a cozy, dark bar and grill. Almost every table has a harbor view. The excellent holiday menu included a choice of specially- prepared salmon or prime rib with horseradish sauce, both combined with potatoes and local vegetables. When not serving a special menu, the restaurant offers a variety of seafood, fish, risottos, and locally-farmed beef and lamb. Main courses ranging from $21 to $42. Most other diners were rushing off to a Christmas play, put on by Island Stage Left, a local theater group that also performs Shakespearean plays on the Quarry Trail in the summer. Once they departed, we were left with a soft wind moving through the trees and deserted buildings, the haunting sound of moored boats clanking against the dock, and the cold, bracing air. Historic pic The resort is rich with history. For hundreds of years, the Lummi, Songhees and Salish peoples inhabited the island. In 1787, Spanish explorer Captain Lopez de Haro, for whom the Haro hotel and Haro Strait are named, arrived with his crew. But it was John S. McMillin, a Tacoma lawyer, who put Roche Harbor on the map by creating the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company, which reaped the benefits of the largest and richest deposit of lime in the Northwest. By the 1890, the company town of Roche Harbor had a population of 800 residents and was the largest lime works east of the Mississippi. With the depression, lime production decreased and by the 1950s Roche Harbor was on its way to being the world-class resort town it is today. Our Christmas morning began with the sound of bells playing Christmas carols from the chapel. Each day, the bells are programmed by Sam Jacobson, the Lodging Director, to play music at 9, noon, 3 and 6 pm. This sweet opening to the day was the beginning of our enchanted stay, which included indulging in excellent food, wandering the grounds, and visiting Friday Harbor. There was also the added treat of a visit to the Afterglow spa, on the ground floor of the Quarryman Hall, which included a hot rock massage and a visit to the steam room. The hotel provides a brochure with a walking tour of the grounds, a great way to learn some history and explore. Yellow bricks line the path outside the hotel. Down the path and sitting at the top of a long staircase is the chapel, built in 1892 and later converted to the only privately-owned Catholic chapel in the US. Ruins of craggy old stone abound, including the remains of the kilns, a huge outdoor fireplace and a throne to Jupiter. We particularly liked two longer walks -- the Quarry Trail, through the forest southwest of the hotel, and the San Juan Sculpture Park trails, off the resort grounds. The Quarry Trail meanders between the quarries where the lime was extracted from the earth to be carried down to the kilns, burned and transformed to limestone. There are many other hiking trails on the island, some up to 8 miles long. The Sculpture Park, easily walkable from the hotel, has trails that vary from 10 to 30 minutes in length, all offering a wonderful combination of sculpture art, by local artists and of nature. The work runs the gamut from more traditional sculptures of animals and people to installation pieces of dragons and umbrellas. And finally, not to be missed, is the mausoleum, a stone and cement National registry monument. Reached at the end of a long winding trail through the forest and past an eerie, old cemetery, it is quite unique, combining Masonic and McMillan family beliefs. Be vigilant in your search for it and stay on the trail by following the signs with an “m.” Another highlight of our stay was Christmas dinner in Friday Harbor at the Coho Restaurant (120 Nichols Street, www.cohorestaurant.com) The restaurant belongs to chef and co-owners Anna Maria de Freitas and David Pass, who moved to the San Juans from the East coast with their dream of opening a bed and breakfast. (They now own and run both The Tucker House and The Harrison House Suites.) They opened the Coho Restaurant three years ago to help fill the gap in fine dining options, especially during the holidays. “We love food and wine so much,” explains an animated Anna Maria. “This is our passion.” The five-course, holiday meal, prepared by the newest chef Alphonsine Haslet-Phillip, was superb. It included a starter of crostinis with ricotta, lemon and mint, followed by sweet potato soup and a refreshing grapefruit salad. For the main course, we chose Cornish game hen with lemon and nicoise olives and roasted winter root vegetables. The desserts, prepared by catering and pastry chef John Hamilton, were fabulous –poppyseed angel cake with lemon cream and a divine chocolate mousse. For the five courses it cost $75. Main courses range from $26 to $32. Make sure you book well in advance. This is a very popular restaurant, for good reason. There are other food options at Roche Harbor. The Lime Kiln Café is open for breakfast and lunch and there is a grocery store, both are on the dock. While the room in the Quarryman Hall suited our needs, if you want more antiques and coziness, there are the McMillan Suites, used by honeymooners. There are other choices for families as well. Behind the Hotel de Haro are posh new townhouses; and down the path contemporary condos. The Company cottages, quaint, simple clapboard houses once used by the workers are near the pool, playground and tennis courts (but these are closed in the winter). Unless you like things a bit dark and dank, and like to share bathrooms, you may want to avoid the rooms in Hotel de Haro. As the resort states, “Unlike many other old hotels, it has never undergone major renovations (and has) creaking and sloping floors.” Prices range from $130 (room with shared toilet in Hotel de Haro) to $900 (three bedroom condo), and vary by season A few tips: Arrive at the ferry at least an hour before it is scheduled to launch. You may need to return from Friday Harbor to Anacortes on the international ferry. Don’t worry, you scoot right though customs if you have been staying on the island. If you plan to travel in the winter months, no need to book in advance for the Roche Harbor Resort, but you will need to call for a reservation at the Coho Restaurant (give them two or three weeks notice). For summer months at the Resort, you need to book three or four months in advance. If you can’t make it to the Coho Restaurant, you may want to pick up Anna Maria’s cookbook online “La Cucina Anna Maria: Good Life Recipes from San Juan Island.” Each of the 225 recipes contains a little story about where she got the recipe, and once made, you can pretend you are there. Yes, you can go to Roche Harbor and kayak, boat, bike, play disc golf, swim, play tennis, visit artists booths on the peer, or you can do what we did and slip away from the hustle of it all and cozy into peaceful winter bliss. Either way, you are in for a treat.