Lopez Island in the San Juans #MikeandTobyTravels


We blew out of the Days Inn in Ellensburg, Washington, with its inedible breakfast (nothing but carbs and a few sad, bruised apples clearly a week past their expiration date) and got on the road for Anacortes. We were somewhere in the middle of Washington, and though the mighty Columbia river appeared and disappeared alongside us, it was pretty much desert—rolling hills peppered with rocks, golden stubbly dried grasses, and the minty-green accent of sagebrush. Vultures whirled by overhead and many, many giant big rigs rattled alongside, making me so nervous and jumpy I had to listen to the self-hypnosis recording of affirmations I made, much to Mike’s relief. (Putting my therapy practice into personal practice,I should have listened to it when I was freaking out on the ferry to Alaska–but I forgot I had it on my phone.)

After that, I was sleepy, and when we stopped for gas at an Am/Pm station and minimart, I bought a Monster energy drink—the healthiest one I could find in the limited selection, with “vitamins and Taurine, and 20% real fruit juice.” I’ve resorted to buying these hideous concoctions as a last resort caffeine boost since becoming a tea drinker.

A word about being a tea drinker: first of all, I never wanted to be one. I love coffee. I mean, really love it, and have my entire adult life. I like the smell of it, the preparation ritual in the morning, little green trees with their glossy leaves that grow it so well in Hawaii, the red of the berries, the brown crunchy beans you can eat. And somehow, in the way of the weird body chemistry problems I’ve developed in midlife, it’s one of my main allergy foods.

I’ve been “off” coffee for a year now, and I miss it. Mike tries to make his morning pot super early so I don’t smell it perking and moan and groan with longing. Occasionally I’ll indulge in a cup to see if I’m still allergic—and within hours I develop the rash around my lips that’s the main histamine reaction I get from eating (or drinking) the wrong things.

I am learning to like tea, but it simply doesn’t have the caffeine kick coffee does. On the trip, the situation was better in Canada because they are set up for tea drinkers there. Every restaurant had little metal pots at least, and some had delightful “brown betty” china pots, which is one of the things I’m coming to enjoy about tea. They had selections of tea, so I got to indulge in Earl Grey, English Breakfast, or chai, my favorites. They even served it like coffee in some places, the waiter coming around with a thermos pot of tea in one hand (orange pekoe Red Rose, the Canadian default tea to our U.S. Lipton) and a pot of coffee in the other hand. I was never made to feel a second-class citizen when I ordered tea in Canada.

That immediately changed when we entered the coffee-drinking U.S.A. As an example, I sat beside an English couple the morning I began breakfast alone in the Two Dog Flats café in Glacier National Park. Servers came by repeatedly with coffeepots, prompt and courteous, but when the three of us said, “We’re waiting for hot water for tea,” they passed on.  Our overwhelmed waitress very eventually rolled back with a single mug of hot water and a Lipton tea bag on a saucer for each of us.

We exchanged sympathetic looks with each other, but the English couple, clearly in the know, took out their own high-grade packets of Earl Gray while I squished the Lipton bag in the mug with a spoon, hoping to get more juice out of it.

This almost never works to get me the high-octane caffeine hit I crave in the morning. Water has to be SUPER hot, a degree or two off boiling, for tea to release properly in water. Then, it steeps for four minutes, according to my tea-drinking friend Holly Robinson, who introduced me to the plug-in electric teapot I use at home. In general, I steep my tea longer and make it stronger, a throwback to my coffee addiction.

Developing these allergy conditions has opened my eyes to the whole segment of the population (and it seems to be growing) who have sensitivities and can’t just eat whatever traditional food we’ve decided as a culture is what a meal (or beverage) should be. I’m always so happy when I see healthy alternatives on a menu, and I hope this trend picks up nationwide and beyond.

All this aside brought me to the moment when I bought a Monster drink, having been unable to get the lukewarm water and tiny Styrofoam cup at the Days Inn to steep the Lipton tea bag to anything like effective morning strength.

We eventually got into more what I’d expected Washington State to be as we rolled toward Seattle: green mountains and wooded hills. We caught the morning commute traffic to Seattle, confirming we never want to be part of that “rat race” again, and skirted the city, ending up in Marysville, a pleasant small town an hour from Anacortes, where Mike washed the van while I did a major shop at Safeway, stocking up for the week we have at one location, a cabin on the ocean on Lopez Island in the San Juans.

I’d made a meal plan because our two young adult children are joining us there, and it was a joy to wander the aisles with a shopping cart for the first time in three weeks, buying enough food for an army (or the Neal family, on vacation.) As much as I’ve come to love being an empty nester and Mike and my adventures together, I love it even more when we’re together as a family and I get to be a mom again, even if it’s only for four days.

We tried to get on the twelve o’clock ferry to Lopez, but didn’t make the standby cut so had four hours to kill in Anacortes. It’s an adorable town, a great mix of cute cafes and shops, and hard-boiled local boat/fisherman culture. Mike LOVED the Marine Supply and Hardware store on the main street, a fabulous combination of real-man spools of rope, chain, anchors, tools, antiques, and funky recycled parts for every possible boat and fixit need. There were several art galleries that showed a strong art community as well. By the time we’d walked around a good-sized forest park in the middle of town, Mike and I felt that excitement: we hadn’t even made it to Lopez yet, but we sensed we were close to somewhere that’s going to be very special to us.

The ferry ride, when it happened, was wonderful. We drove the van smoothly onto the monster boat, squeezed out between the cars to trek up onto the deck, and parked ourselves on the foremost point of the ferry to scan for orcas and other wildlife as we traversed the smooth green water between numerous forested islands. It was a delightful forty-five minutes to Lopez as I felt everything that was the best of British Columbia and Alaska coming to a head for me: the open water and sky, the smooth rich green water, the cool air, the sense of wilderness but with connectivity at all times: we had three bars of phone reception!

I admit I was predisposed to fall in love with the San Juans before we even got there: I’m an island person, through and through. I had also heard stories of how great the islands were from my parents, who visited a lot in the 1990s after Kauai’s hurricane and fell in love with it. Lopez Island is the perfect combination of quiet, open space and rolling farmland (even saw a field of large pigs, along with sheep and cattle) thick, wild forest, and cute but not pretentious tiny town. It has lots of boats, making Mike happy, a great fine dining restaurant called the Bay Café that we happened upon right after debarking the ferry. Driving along the flowered mellow roads where people wave to you and you can’t get lost (end to end it’s fifteen miles) I pronounced myself in heaven before we even got to our cottage.

Buying the cottage for a week was a real act of faith. It was the only one Mike could find at high season in the San Juans for under a thousand a week, not being particular at all which island we were on. It looked okay but not stellar in the photos. On the trip we’d learned that the secret  have low expectations, and that’s what we had when we finally turned down the graveled drive to find the cottage was…well, just amazing. Looking right at the nearby water in a view framed in trees off a large deck, it had a modern kitchen, was clean and updated, had a romantic gas stove and its own deck and yard. Two bedrooms and bathrooms would give us and the kids plenty of space and privacy, and it had satellite TV and speedy wi-fi.

“You’re never going to want to leave,” Mike said, and he’s right.

I think we’ve found the place for our second home.

12 Responses to “Lopez Island in the San Juans #MikeandTobyTravels”

  1. Greg & Jennifer McKee

    We have enjoyed your travels, Mike & Toby. Thank you for your diligence in providing the travelogue for us to enjoy vicariously. Great that you are in our backyard now. I (Greg) was raised in Anacortes. My grandfather, Efthemios (Mike) Demopoulos, founded the Marine Supply and Hardware. My cousin, Steve Demopoulos, now runs it. Jennifer and I lived for 8 years on Lopez Island just after our marriage in 1974. Our home (which we built) is located south off of Dill Road (we no longer own it). We now live on the North Fork of the Skagit River – near the mouth – on a delta island called Fir Island. Coincidentally, we are going out to Friday Harbor (San Juan Island) on Saturday to go on a whale watch trip with our daughter and her family. When you head back down to Seattle, take the Best Road route to I-5 – it takes you over Fir Island and through Conway to I-5 Southbound. We live on Fir Island just west of the Snow Goose Produce stand. Wave when you head home to Maui. We’ll be on Maui for 6 weeks this Fall – our “second home” – at the Maui Kaanapali Villas (just south of Airport Beach). Thanks again for taking us along on your adventures! God bless you both.

    • Toby

      Oh my gosh, how wonderful!!
      What a small world it is. Thanks SO MUCH for saying Hi and the travel route suggestions, will do if we can, I think we’re going one night out on the Olympic Peninsula before Seattle. Would love to have coffee or (or a mai tai!) when you’re next in Maui and we can “talk story” about the area.
      Thanks so much for sharing! We loved that store… So very cool.

  2. Tina

    Oh Toby, I feel for you girl!
    Tea, and I mean real…TEA in the U.S. is nearly impossible to obtain in most restaurants.
    Have you tried “David’s Tea”? There are countless stores here in Canada and you can also check them out online (davidstea.com). They not only sell infusers, cups, pots, etc., but loose AND bagged tea in endless flavours for countless ailments or tastes. You may find somewhat better than lukewarm water and plain ole Lipton tea. LOL!
    As for your allergies…I completely understand. The older I’ve gotten, the more food allergies I’ve developed….which SUCKS!
    Now that you and Mike have settled for a week, with your home cooking, I’m sure the ups and downs of this trip will be considers not only an adventure, but a learning experience.
    Just keep in mind that your home is MAUI!!!! That’s paradise right there.
    If we could, we’d move there in a heartbeat.
    Have a wonderful visit with your young-ins, and rest, breathe, and just “BE”.

    • Toby

      Yes, it is paradise and we are blessed…and we’ll never leave Hawaii…but it is wonderful to explore this other paradise too. I’ve enjoyed David’s Tea, I should have stocked up on bags for the trip!

      • Tina Paley

        Glad you were able to enjoy the teas.
        Perhaps you can order some from their website after your return to PARADISE.
        Or, you can tell me what you want….I’ll gladly bring them to you….as long as you and Mike “are willing to give me an allowance” to assist with the trip. LOL! have a lovely evening..

  3. Janet Oakley

    Love your travel posts. LOL. I kept reading Orcas. You’re on Lopez. My cousin lives there. Been to the Bay Cafe. There’s a great place for oysters and other shell fish not far from the ferry. Many tea drinkers in the NW love going to BC for Murchie’s . Here’s the website. http://www.murchies.com/store/

  4. Jamie DeBree

    Oh Toby…I sympathize on the tea thing. I have never liked coffee, can’t stand the smell even, and when I finally decided to make the healthy choice and quit my daily Coca-cola habit, I turned to tea. In my “discovery phase”, I kept a tea blog, and while I don’t update it any longer, it’s still online. Let me know if you’d like the address and you can read about the myriad of teas I’ve tried over the years. Much like wine, there are so many flavor profiles and nuances to explore with tea. Perhaps if you discovered that aspect, it wouldn’t be such a “second-class” choice in your mind any longer?

    There are also some very highly caffeinated tisanes out there as well, like Yerba Mate, which coffee-drinkers say compares favorably to coffee in both taste and caffeine. And if you get into the history and traditional brewing style, you would drink that from a hollowed out gourd. 🙂 Matcha is green, but it gives that nice little kick in the morning as well, and it’s super-healthy too. Prepared traditionally, of course, rather than in some latte or smoothie or whatever’s trendy now.

    It is impossible to find good tea in restaurants here in the US, or even in most local stores. I buy online exclusively, and when traveling? I bring my own.

    In any case, let me know if you want help or suggestions exploring tea. It’s one of my favorite subjects (and my favorite beverage). 🙂

  5. Janet

    I feel for you. I love coffee. I love the way it smells, the way it tastes, the way it looks….making the switch to tea is really hard. Especially I think, because the US are coffee drinkers not tea drinkers. Nowhere to buy really good tea, no one serves really good tea. Hard adjustment! Your spot and cottage sound lovely! Yay for kids that want to spend time with their parents. Telling on you all I think and how you reared them. Lovely kids.

    • Toby Neal

      I didn’t mean to go on a rant but…it got to be even more of an issue than my egg allergy. Breakfast went from my favorite meal of the day to my least favorite, with the egg and coffee thing!

      • Janet

        Oh no! Eggs too! Ugh. You didn’t go on a rant, I didn’t think anyway. 🙂 My kids and I can’t have dairy. That stinks. We can have eggs tho. Very difficult this breakfast thing! We have a hard time when traveling as well. Breakfast is tough when you think of it as coffee and eggs and you are trying to avoid carbs as well.