I didn’t need a three-part blockbuster film to make me a Tolkien fan. My fascination with all things Middle Earth goes back to childhood, when I first read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” in one breathless gulp — and immediately wished I lived somewhere in England, where I could pretend I was part of this delightful world. Years later, the films came out — but I didn’t live in New Zealand, either. When Washington State Ferries recently decided to streamline their San Juan ferries with a reservation system (hallelujah!) I tried it out with a visit to Orcas Island — and discovered that you can find Middle Earth right here in Washington, complete with hobbit houses, local beer, forests, caves and even trolls.
Here’s my guide to how to make like a hobbit on Orcas Island. And if you don’t like Tolkien? You’ll still have a great time.
HOBBIT HOLES AND GNOME HOUSES
The first thing you’ll need for a hobbit holiday is a hobbit hole — and luckily there are two astonishing vacation rental homes on Orcas that look like they stepped out of a Peter Jackson film set. The Gnome House (vrbo.com/352538) is an adorable chalet hand-built by Robert Connor on his property on the hill just past sleepy Deer Harbor, on the island’s west side. With Bavarian trim on the outside, round doorways and tree-branch bannisters on the inside, it’s everyone’s idea of where gnomes (or hobbits) should live. The master bedroom is tucked under an eave at the top of the spiral staircase, with a window opening onto a fir tree. The second bedroom is built into a hole in the wall (kids love it) and there’s a futon-sofa in the downstairs living room, along with wood stove and kitchen. Outside, a hot tub beckons near a gazebo made from twisty tree roots — just what Bilbo ordered. The view from the top garden out over an island-filled Sound is unbeatable, and the Connors (and their dogs) are very welcoming to people and pets.
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A mile down the road, Deer Harbor marina sits on stilts like Laketown over the tideflats, and the marina store is stocked with local foodstuffs like raspberry wine (tartly sweet) and pear preserves.
Over on the east side, around 15 minutes past the main village of Eastsound, is the Hobbit House (templedreams.org, flipkey.com/208779). Designed by quirkily famous architect Sunray Kelley and recently extended by the current owners, this is a fantasy home that elves would delight in: perched in the trees, with pointy tips to every door and cupboard, circular wooden rooms and decks, a tiny crows-nest bedroom with 180-degree water views and a luxurious sunken bathtub. The entrance via bumpy gravel road is worth it for the hushed privacy.
FORESTS, LAKES, MOUNTAINS, CAVES (AND TROLLS, TOO)
For an island in the middle of Puget Sound, Orcas is surprisingly like England, where J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his fantasy epics. Small country roads with names like Thistledown Coombs Way, Elderberry Lane and Enchanted Forest Road, gently rising hills and green fields, and farms where you can stop as Bilbo would have to buy eggs (try the Coffelt Farm Stand, 1-5 p.m. Tue-Sat at 1071 Crow Valley Road). But there’s also a lot of grander terrain, the kind that might house dragons, orcs or goblins. Hiking through the forest is the easiest way to step into Middle Earth here: try Turtleback Mountain, Obstruction Pass or Moran State Park.
In Moran State Park, hiking Cold Springs Trail from the uppermost trailhead on the Mt. Constitution road takes you through the greenest, most magical forest imaginable. Mossy trees, fallen logs just perfect for walking on, bright alluring bogs and intensely still ponds — there’s even a circular, shingled hobbit shelter a short way in, ideal for a picnic. Watch out for the troll: a thick stump hunched by the path, given pine cone eyes and teeth by some imaginative hiker.
Keep left as the trail branches, and you’ll start heading downhill toward the lake; then around 100 yards down look left and scramble back up off-trail to some caves. They’re not exactly the Mines of Moria, but they’re dark and deep enough for excited kids, and they’re surprisingly free of debris and unpleasant objects. (Take a flashlight.)
At the end of the road it’s a short hike to Mt. Constitution, where the Middle Earth dream comes true. A tall, stone tower for Gandalf, ringed by pine trees for the eagles, and beneath it a living map of forest, water and islands, with misty mountains (the Cascades) in the distance.
Back down at the lake, you can rent rowboats or kayaks and explore the far shores for lagoons and bridges. It’s not exactly riding the rapids in a barrel, but it comes close, especially when you brave the chilly water for a swim back on shore. Bring a picnic or buy lunch from the concession shop.
Or you can hop on a pony and ride like Bilbo through the forest. Once in a Blue Moon Farm offers horse rides along with feeding chickens and petting animals; Orcas Island Trail Rides also does forest rides from Bilbo- to Gandalf-levels of difficulty.
And if you’d like some deeper caves, try a boat ride to the Sucia Islands, where you can explore the notorious China Caves used a century ago to smuggle liquor and humans alike. Orcas Island Sailing (orcassailing.com) and Outer Island Expeditions (orcasislandx.com) can take you there. You can also rent kayaks and boats at the Deer Harbor Marina for a more local paddle, or take a whale-watching boat (deerharborcharters.com). You won’t see orcs, but you may well see orcas, which love to hunt around the San Juans.
Oh, and treasure? Much easier than fighting a dragon is ambling along to the Saturday farmers market to browse the hand-made jewelry.
CIDER AND APPLES: EATING LIKE A HOBBIT
As we all know, hobbits like to eat — and drink — and Orcas Island won’t let you down if you do too. Eastsound is the main place for restaurants — a lovely little town with the picket fences, rosebushes and cottage gardens of Tolkien’s Oxfordshire home. There’s even an English pub: The White Horse, serving bangers and mash, shepherd’s pies and all the beer Bilbo could want. But if you really want to eat hobbit-style, try the Hogstone, a café-restaurant with a wood-fired oven, a backyard eating garden with shady trees and a firepit, and the kind of local cuisine you could imagine hobbits and dwarves cooking up. From the onion-and-mustard appetizer, with roots, leaves, jus and flowers all mixed in a heady potion, to the just-picked lettuce with fir-tips as a pungent garnish; from the smoked cheese and egg-yolk pizza to the local hoppy ale and intense-then-light rose lemonade, all of Hogstone’s menu is locally sourced and varies daily.
For lunch or breakfast (or second breakfast), try the Brown Bear bakery in the middle of town: enormous pastries like the wicked black chocolate muffin and satisfyingly smooth coffee, plus quiches and fresh-baked bread.
The other options for local food are the farmers market filled every Saturday with fresh fruit, veggies and the island-brewed chai, or the newly-opened co-op, which makes its own pizza and deli dishes as well as selling organic island foodstuffs.
HAVING NON-HOBBIT FUN
Not a hobbit? Don’t care for Tolkien? There are plenty of other ways to enjoy Orcas without questing for trolls or sipping ale. Have a soak in the legendary hot spring tubs at Doe Bay Resort (day-visit or overnight), then stay for live music (Friday-Saturday) and gourmet meals in their restaurant (doebay.com). If you’re there at an extremely low tide, walk out over the sand path to Indian Island, around 50 feet offshore at Eastsound, to explore starfish-encrusted rocks. Just don’t delay your return, or you might be swimming back. Many beaches on Orcas are public, including the driftwood-strewn one just east of Eastsound. For art, try The Gallery cooperative and Orcas Island Pottery in Eastsound, or Orcas Island Artworks in Olga.
Finally, if you have a skater in your life, the skatepark on Orcas Island is nationally known for its size and donut-shaped design, which allows a smooth terrain flow around the outside, a couple of mini-bowls for beginners and a deep donut-shaped bowl in the middle. Inspiring wall art helps the friendly community atmosphere.
Middle Earth? It’s right here in the Pacific Northwest.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
Now that Washington State Ferries has begun a reservation system for the Anacortes-Friday Harbor route, getting to the San Juan islands is no longer the daylong, endless-wait headache it used to be.
Reserve: Make sure to get online at wsdot.com/ferries well before you travel, as the system opens up 30 percent of spaces now, 30 percent at 7 a.m. two weeks before each sailing date and the last 30 percent at 7 a.m. two days beforehand. You need a credit card. You’ll pay the full amount when you arrive at Anacortes, or a $10 no-show fee if you don’t.
Arrive: At least 30 minutes early. The Anacortes and Orcas docks both have restrooms and cafes, but there’s no food onboard except for vending machines.
Fares: $48.60 vehicle and driver, $12.95 extra adult/$6.45 senior or youth. $4 bicycle.
Getting off: The boat stops first at Shaw Island, then Orcas. The ferry is around 20 minutes by car from Eastsound village or Deer Harbor. Cell and wifi coverage are limited, so make sure you have printed directions to where you’re going.
Gnome House: Channel Road, Deer Harbor; vrbo.com/352538; $150-$225/night
Glamping: Moran State Park, Olga; 360-298-1684, wanderlustcamps.com; $119-$219/night
Once in a Blue Moon Farm: Eastsound; 360-376-7035, onceinabluemoonfarm.com; $119-$249/night
Moran State Park: 3572 Olga Road, Olga; open dawn-dusk; parks.wa.gov
Obstruction Pass State Park: Obstruction Pass Road, Olga; open dawn-dusk; parks.wa.gov
Turtleback Mountain: accessed from Deer Harbor Road or Crow Valley Road; 360-378-4402, sjclandbank.org
Doe Bay Resort: 107 Doe Bay Road, Olga; doebay.com
Orcas Island Trail Rides: 360-376-2134, orcasislandtrailrides.com
Outer Island Expeditions: 360-376-3711, outerislandx.com
Skatepark: 138 North Beach Road, open dawn-dusk daily; orcasparkandrec.org/parks/skate-park
Farmers Market: North Beach Road; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays; orcasislandfarmersmarket.org
Orcas Food Co-op: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Sat, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun; 138 North Beach Road; 360-376-2009, orcasfood.coop
Cider and Mead Festival: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. June 27; Village Green, Eastsound; orcasislandciderfest.org
White Horse English pub: 246 Main St., Eastsound; 11:30 a.m.-midnight; 360-376-PUBS, islandwhitehorse.com
Hogstone restaurant: 460 Main St., Eastsound; 5:30 p.m.-close Thur-Sun; 360-376-4647, hogstone.com
The Chamber of Commerce has maps and information: 65 North Beach Road, Eastsound