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Sunday, December 3, 2023
Dec. 3, 2023

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Doe Bay celebrates 20 years of rustic chic

Orcas Island resort remains beloved getaway for those craving doses of nature, wellness, music, food

6 Photos
Evening sun illuminates Cypress Island across Rosario Strait from Doe Bay Resort and Retreat on Orcas Island, which commands one of the best views in the San Juans.
Evening sun illuminates Cypress Island across Rosario Strait from Doe Bay Resort and Retreat on Orcas Island, which commands one of the best views in the San Juans. (Photos by Gregory Scruggs/The Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

OLGA, Orcas Island — Sporting his signature “Joe” baseball cap, Joe Brotherton was ambling along a trail at Doe Bay Resort and Retreat when a pair of guests with wet hair and towels slung over their shoulders approached from the opposite direction. He greeted them: “How’re ya doing?” Despite his casual demeanor, Portland naturopath Ami Opal recognized him as the resort’s owner. “Thanks for having this amazing place,” she said, her cheeks as rosy as the ripe salmonberries nearby. “We went in the sauna and we’re rebirthed.”

“I’m glad — that’s our idea, to make people happy,” Brotherton responded with an affable smile.

Brotherton, 69, has regular encounters like these as he roams the 49-acre property he and his wife, Maureen, frequented decades ago in their younger, wilder days. In June, the couple marked 20 years since they rescued the rustic Orcas Island resort and its iconic clothing-optional soaking tubs from the brink. Today, the collection of cabins, yurts and campsites framing one of the most postcard-perfect views in the San Juan Islands remains a beloved getaway for neo-hippie Northwesterners craving doses of nature, wellness, music, saltwater and foodie bliss.

From hippie to yuppie

West Seattle-raised Joe Brotherton first found his way to Doe Bay around 1970 with his then-girlfriend, now wife. At the time, the modest island resort, formerly a mosquito fleet terminal and later a laundromat, was a stop along the Northwest version of the hippie trail. With cannabis, music and clothing-optional soaking tubs, Doe Bay fit the era like a patchouli-scented glove. Young Joe played bass in various rock bands, enrolled in the experimental Fairhaven College (now part of Western Washington University) and dropped out to travel the actual hippie trail across India and Central Asia.

Like many of that vintage, the hippie eventually turned yuppie. Brotherton’s career arc took him from accounting firm PriceWaterhouse to his own Seattle-based professional services company and a side hustle in real estate. He and Maureen married in 1975 and had five kids.

The growing family chartered a boat most summers to British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, but spent little time in the San Juans. Through a mutual friend, Brotherton became acquainted with former Doe Bay owner Errol Cowan, who sought Brotherton’s counsel on how to keep Doe Bay intact.

“It was just one of those perfect days,” he recalled. “I was a driven city person at that time and I wanted to take my pulse because all of a sudden I was calming right down being on the property.”

A year later, when the former owner sold a waterfront parcel off the property to become a private home, Brotherton realized he was serious about offloading Doe Bay. If no one acted, the resort would quickly have been carved up into private residential lots. Brotherton and Jon Rubini paid $3 million in 2003, with Brotherton buying out his business partner a few years later.

While purchasing Doe Bay was hardly a lifelong aspiration, the successful accountant-cum-lawyer felt like he was honoring his younger self.

“If you had said to me when I was 19, you’re going to have way more luck than you ever expected and plenty of resources to where you can buy almost anything you want,” Brotherton envisioned. “I can imagine the 19-year-old version of me would have said, ‘Dude, you mean I can buy Doe Bay?’ “

Rustic resort

Arriving via Washington State Ferries is the most common method. Doe Bay sits 19 miles from the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal ($62.75 standard vehicle and driver, reservations recommended). There is no reliable public transit option, so you’ll need a car. Doe Bay also makes for an ideal bike touring destination, just prepare for the challenge of cycling the island’s hilly roads. If you’re content to stay put at Doe Bay for the duration of your stay, Island Express Charters will take foot passengers directly from Anacortes ($50 one way). Kenmore Air provides wheeled aircraft service from Boeing Field and Paine Field to Eastsound Airport (from $159 one way), and seaplane service from Kenmore and Lake Union to Rosario (from $129 one way). From both locations, you’ll need a taxi for the final leg to Doe Bay ($40 from Eastsound, $30 from Rosario via Orcas Island Taxi, 360-376-8294, reservations recommended).

Don’t let the word “resort” be off-putting. Doe Bay is not Roche Harbor Resort, with its uniformed staff and nightly flag-lowering colors ceremony, replete with cannon boom, over on San Juan Island. Nor is it nearby Rosario Resort and Spa, with lavish suites and imposing grand hotel elegance. Doe Bay is a place to relax, but it’s not a place to be waited on hand and foot.

There are 22 one- to three-bedroom cabins with kitchenettes and bathrooms ($317-$442 per night) and three large-group cabins that can sleep eight to 20 people ($470-$1,336 per night), plus a bespoke treehouse. Many guests opt to sacrifice some creature comforts but still keep a roof over their head in one of seven waterless cabins ($116-219), four on-grid yurts outfitted with power outlets and electric heaters ($150 per night) or six off-grid yurts ($138 per night). There are also 20 named campsites ($84-$100 per night), a mix of drive-up and walk-in sites, and two mooring buoys ($40 per night).

(All prices are summer rates valid through Sept. 15. Discounts apply for stays five nights or longer and Doe Bay currently requires a three-night minimum stay. There are a variety of promotions for Doe Bay’s 20th anniversary. See doebay.com/accommodations/specials/20th-anniverisary-special.)

Indoor and outdoor kitchens, as well as portable toilets and indoor showers, are stationed at regular intervals for the benefit of guests who are roughing it. While Doe Bay is expansive, you’ll find yourself running into the same people repeatedly, especially at communal facilities. There is a summer camp level of friendliness, and a certain familiarity with your fellow guests ensues from, say, taking turns at the dishwashing tub, even if you never exchange names.

On my most recent visit, I rented the Sweet Spot Yurt with my wife and toddler. With power and electric heat, the yurt was a compromise between the roughing-it charm of an off-grid overnight and the plush comforts — by Doe Bay standards — of indoor plumbing. While the skylight made for rude awakenings during early sunrises, the sound of waves crashing against the rocks below was a soothing tonic after a long day of island life.

For the active set, Doe Bay is a short drive from the San Juans’ best hiking in Moran State Park (Discover Pass required, $10 per day or $30 per year) or guided trips with Shearwater Kayaks to view the marine life cornucopia on the nearby Peapod Rocks ($96 for three hours). Doe Bay’s prime waterfront access beckons you to bring your own paddle craft, provided you are comfortable on open saltwater. Calm mornings can quickly give way to wind-swept afternoons.

While Orcas Island offers arguably the best outdoor adventure options in the San Juans, the vibe at Doe Bay Resort is less adrenaline-fueled and more blissed-out. The resort’s centerpiece is its spa: a sauna and three outdoor soaking tubs tucked into the forest overlooking the tidal swings of Otter Cove below. Massages are also available from outside providers ($115 for 60 minutes). There is a well-equipped yoga studio open to guests when not otherwise in use for a class or event.

Footpaths serve a practical function — wagons are available for guests to cart belongings to their temporary abode — but also make for delightful strolls of their own accord along fern-swaddled trails sprinkled with psychedelic murals and sculptures. Walking out to The Point, a promontory jutting out into the water, is a worthy endeavor any time of day — and a chance to ogle your favorite million-dollar-view campsite.

Speaking of views, you can’t miss the panorama as soon as you descend the entry drive. Natural harbors are always picturesque, but Doe Bay is framed with paintinglike symmetry: rocky outcroppings in the foreground, Cypress and Blakely Islands in the middle ground and a view of Rosario Strait stretching as far as Fidalgo Island to complete the scene. The vista is mesmerizing and will draw you back again and again over the course of your stay. Under the watchful eye of Doe Bay’s carved wooden lion mascot, perch on the bluff with this commanding view while seated in an Adirondack chair with a book, a journal or nothing at all.

A quieter Doe Bay

While his family’s first reaction was skeptical — “Dad, you bought a nudist colony on Orcas Island?” one kid chirped — the close-knit Brotherton clan embraced the new family compound. When the Brotherton siblings visit, as invariably each does at least once per year, they are expected to pitch in. “I have always said, ‘Everybody works, everybody eats,’” Brotherton said. “I am hopeful that our children will continue as stewards of Doe Bay when Maureen and I are done.”

Brotherton’s musical predilections rubbed off on his children, who quickly realized the site’s potential for live music. They built a stage during a weekend work party and put on the first Doe Bay Fest in 2008, ambitiously billed as “annual,” which it was for 12 years.

The boutique quickly became a can’t-miss event on the alternative indie and folk circuit, with smatterings of left-field hip-hop, soul and R&B. At its peak, Seattle-based Artist Home curated the lineup alongside the Brothertons. It was like KEXP goes to the San Juans. The 1,000-odd tickets were among the hardest to get for any live music event on the West Coast, but the intimate event ran without the impersonal sheen of corporate festivals. By design, you were likely to rub elbows at the campfire with your favorite musician.

The pandemic provided a natural sunset to the festival, which strained the resort’s carrying capacity every August. The more Burning Man-esque Imagine Music and Arts Festival is returning this year from Sept. 8-10.

Not that the Doe Bay Fest alchemy is completely absent. Since 2020, Doe Bay has hosted a summertime artist-in-residency (this year through Sept. 3). Artists are not required to perform, but most do. And sometimes there are unannounced surprises: On my visit, Motopony frontman Daniel Blue played a moving solo set inside the yoga studio.

The Brothertons’ other major investment was Doe Bay Café, which arguably kick-started the culinary revolution on Orcas Island. While today the hype centers around spots like Matia Kitchen, the cozy cafe’s farm-to-table meals, which are prepared with produce from its generous garden whenever possible — put a decadent touch on the dirtbag life Doe Bay embraces. You can roll out of your tent and into a windowside booth before tucking into craft cocktails ($15), a thoughtful wine list ($13-$16 per glass), a seafood-and-vegetable centric dinner menu (appetizers $12-$26, entrees $28-$48) and delectable brunch dishes ($12-$16). Overnight guests receive a 20 percent discount on food and drink.

While Doe Bay is quieter than its pre-pandemic heyday of an annual festival and seven-days-a-week cafe service, it is also a refuge needed more than ever. As current economic trends have vanquished the once middle-class dream of a vacation cabin, the Brothertons want the resort to serve that function for future generations.

“Doe Bay is your summer place in the San Juans,” Brotherton said as parents and children kayaked, beachcombed, hiked, played lawn games and sat around campfires over Father’s Day weekend. “Families come every year and stay in the same cabin. That’s how I picture what good stewardship is.”

  • Doe Bay Resort and Retreat; 107 Doe Bay Road, Olga; 360-376-2291; doebay.com

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