Seattle is the beating heart of the Puget Sound area. An explosive regional economy backed by some of the world’s largest tech companies has brought an array of big-city benefits to the once sleepy city. World-class culture, cuisine and sporting events are at the fingertips of those in the city. However, like many large cities, there comes the impacts to traffic and congestion, increased cost of living, and long gone is that once sleepy little fishing town.
While many locals and transplants thrive on the new Seattle, whether for retirement, remote work, family life, or to simply get out of the metropolitan areas, more and more people are looking to move out of the urban core. Unique to the Puget Sound area, many of the so-called suburbs of Seattle are in fact surrounded by water, physical and metaphorical islands, each offering a unique set of characteristics that aligns with those seeking change from city life.
Here we will explore the variety of island communities in and around the Seattle area, hearing firsthand from local island experts who weigh-in on each island’s character, community, and vibe.
Three islands stand out as offering something distinct and compelling. For some, the attraction will be an island that affords them the chance to stay connected to a more urban area – a true island suburb. Others will gravitate towards a more rural island, away from the commuter corridors, and still, others may seek a blend.
First, we start just a 15-minute drive off of Interstate-5, an hour north of Seattle with a serene, outdoorsy, family-friendly island that is Camano Island.
Camano Island: Real-life island experience – without the hype.
Simply put, Camano Island blends all the benefits of island living with easy access to the urban cores of Puget Sound. Get away…way away — but remain close. While it sounds contradictory, Camano offers a real-life island experience — without the hype or big tourist traps. There are a few restaurants, a handful of country-style grocery stores, bed and breakfast facilities, and to serve the elite few who have discovered Camano Island. Boasting stunning sandy beaches, abundant wildlife, and relaxed small-town charm, Camano Island is a haven for crabbers, water-skiers, and beach-lovers.
Rich in history and culture, Camano Island is home to a vibrant arts community as well as an array of surprisingly charming restaurants, country-style grocery stores, intriguing fine art galleries, and annual festivals. The enduring appeal of Camano Island is that it offers an idyllic, island experience that feels away from it all — without actually being away from it all.
Without the need for a ferry thanks to an always-open bridge from neighboring Stanwood, you can find yourself ensconced in a diverse community of families, retirees, artists, and locals who value culture and the finer things in life – which now includes easy access to travel. The recent opening of commercial flights at nearby Paine Field means locals and visitors can hop on a quick flight to or from the island, opening the world to Camano.
Real estate and housing options are as diverse as the flora and fauna who call Camano home. Desirable family neighborhoods walkable to the beach, small cabins in the woods, or majestic beachfront homes dot the island. If building that dream home from the ground up is in the cards, Camano holds a large amount of undeveloped land, again at a full range of options to meet your desired lifestyle.
Come to Camano for a weekend to explore and you may just end up staying!
Mercer Island: A breath of fresh air in an urban center
Connected via the I-90 bridge on both sides, Mercer Island is situated right in between Seattle and Bellevue – less than 20 minutes from either city. The island itself is only 13 square miles, but it has everything you need to feel at home: a close-knit community with beautiful waterfront, easy commuting, excellent schools, unique local businesses, and hundreds of acres of parks and trails.
The petite island has more than 20,000 residents – all of whom share a strong sense of community. Residents are active and connected, giving Mercer Island a small-town feel at the core of a major urban settlement. Education is highly regarded, with an emphasis on innovative learning, technology, and attainable challenges. The island’s schools are consistently ranked among the best in the state.
Despite being in such a central location, the island has a suburban feel with lots of neighborhoods. Each Mercer Island neighborhood has a distinct personality – from the amazing views of First Hill and the serenity of El Dorado on the north end, to the highly social community of The Lakes on the south end. Options for housing range from apartments and charming craftsman homes to luxurious waterfront estates. You may even find a rare opportunity for new construction if you’re interested in building something custom to suit your wishlist.
With 475 acres of parks and trails, you’ll have plenty to do on Mercer Island. Take advantage of the children’s play area and sporting fields at Lid Park, or enjoy Pioneer Park’s 113 acres of trails – there’s even a designated area for horseback riding. If you’re looking for more, Luther Burbank Park features 4,000 feet of shoreline, a boat dock and fishing pier, the island’s largest playground, a dog park, an amphitheater, tennis courts, three miles of trails, and plenty of green space to relax and enjoy the view on Lake Washington. And of course, Mercer Island also has a rich culture with local theaters, unique restaurants and bars, charming local boutiques to shop, and plenty of community celebrations throughout the year.
Make yourself at home on Mercer Island. It’s a place where neighbors feel genuinely connected and there’s always something wonderful to do.
Orcas Island: Explore your passion and find your community
About an hour from Anacortes by ferry, Orcas Island is a popular second home market but there is more than enough to keep you engaged. Orcas Island is known for its high quality of life, numerous farm-to-fork restaurants, expansive arts community, variety of clubs and nonprofits, beautiful wildlife and scenery, and local businesses that offer everything you need to live comfortably on the island.
The 57-square-mile island’s diverse population swells from 5,000 year-round residents to about 14,000 residents in the summer who come to soak up the island’s enchanting scenery and charm. Kayak along the shores of the horseshoe-shaped island, hop on a whale watching tour, hike along one of the island’s trails, or just relax on the beach. It’s a spectacular place to just take it all in, and you may be lucky enough to see bald eagles and hundreds of other bird species, rabbits, or the island’s namesake orca whales.
With a relatively small year-round population, Orcas Island is known for a strong sense of community thanks to a large number of nonprofits and clubs geared toward niche interests. If you’re more interested in the arts than the outdoors, consider one of the island’s acting or dance clubs, visit a gallery, shop with local artisans, or explore during one of the summer’s art walks. There are numerous events on the island throughout the year geared toward the unique interests of visitors and residents, like Hops on the Rock beer festival, the Orcas Island Film Festival, or the Shakespeare Festival.
In addition to being termed the Gem of the San Juan Islands, Orcas Island is also known as the “foodie” of the island chain. It’s home to a large population of local organic farms and livestock, which have inspired the menus at several amazing farm-to-fork restaurants on the island. If you’re looking for something to sip on, Orcas Island also has a number of boutique distilleries and a few wineries.
There is room to grow on Orcas Island. Consider building a custom home on the island, or choose a home in an established hamlet. The island’s strong public and private schools and home school community have made it increasingly popular with families in recent years, but anyone who appreciates the relaxed island lifestyle is sure to love living on Orcas Island.
Choose the quality of life you can only find on Orcas Island.
- Marla Hagle lives on Camano Island and is a Broker/Owner of Windermere Real Estate Camano Island.
- Julie Barrows lives on Mercer Island and is a Broker/Owner of Windermere Real Estate Mercer Island.
- Mariah Dunning lives on Orcas Island and is a Broker/Owner of Windermere Real Estate Orcas Island.