Discover Coastal Dream Towns

After canvassing all coasts for towns with seaside charm, a lively beach culture, and good housing, these are our top spots for planning quick trips or finding a new place to live.

So You Want to Live on ... San Juan Island, Washington

On this isle north of Seattle, you'll find friendly folk,
a thriving town, lovely vistas, and not a single traffic light.

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Step off the ferry in Friday Harbor, Washington, one day and by the next you'll start seeing familiar faces―that guy at the lunch counter at Vic's Drive-In shows up at Griffin Bay Bookstore; the author at the book signing appears at Thai Kitchen for dinner. Such is life on San Juan Island.

Though only 24 miles long and 9 miles wide, San Juan is the second largest island in an archipelago between British Columbia's Vancouver Island and the Washington mainland. It's also highest in population, with about 6,400 year-round residents.

Largely pastoral and wooded on the interior, the island has numerous beaches with prime views of the Olympic Mountains to the south and, in summer, migrating orca whales.

In the past, San Juan Island was primarily agricultural. Today, a burgeoning service industry nurtures tourists. Whale-watching trips, fishing, boating, and hiking all beckon visitors. History is also a draw: The island was the site of the Pig War, a 19th-century British-American conflict that ended with a pig as the only casualty.

Friendly people and spectacular scenery drew Susan Eyerly to San Juan in 1978. "It didn't even seem crazy," she says of her sudden decision. "It was just like coming home." Today she owns Griffin Bay Bookstore, a Friday Harbor mainstay where Duncan, her golden retriever, holds court. As in any small town, "your life is public," she says. But should you take ill, count on neighbors to weed your garden and bring you supper.

Paula Sundstrom, a real estate agent who grew up here, remembers a time before moped rentals and Microsoft millionaires. Despite them, a small-town feel remains. "To outsiders, it looks very rural," Paula says, pointing out fields that stretch nearly to the water. "But to natives, it seems like houses are popping up everywhere."

Andrew McLaglen moved here in 1976 following a prodigious career as a director. Thirty films, including five John Wayne movies, highlight his work. "It's just a great place," he says, noting such perks as the community theater where he still directs plays, a new winery, and a lavender farm. Not to mention the social scene: Andrew meets neighbors at a local hangout―San Juan's solid-waste facility. That's where a lot of people take their trash instead of paying for pickup service.

Typical of island life, medical care is limited, the ferry schedule dictates plans, jobs are hard to come by, and affordable housing is elusive. But devoted residents keep a positive outlook. A medical clinic provides routine care, and most folks buy insurance for emergency flights. Local officials have opened a dialogue with the state government to address the housing dilemma.

And a solution to the ferry problem? Says Mike Vouri, lead ranger/historian for the San Juan Island National Historical Park, "Don't leave."

(published 2002)

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