Pristine Friday Harbour on San Juan Island gives a glimpse of what’s available for the short-hop traveller from Greater Victoria. NorthStar Air Tours offers what is billed as the “shortest scheduled international flight in North America.” Photo by Brendan Hunter

TESS VAN STRAATEN: Short international flight a scenic gem

Monday’s intrepid adventure columnist takes us on a quick trip to the San Juan Islands

By Tess van Straaten

Monday Magazine columnist

Climbing aboard a small, nine-passenger Pilatus Britten Islander at the Victoria International Airport, it’s hard to believe I’ll be in a foreign country in just a few minutes. But with a flying time of only 12 minutes from Victoria to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, this flight will be quicker than most trips through airport security.

“It’s the shortest, scheduled international flight in North America,” explains Sherri Brown of NorthStar Air Tours, which officially launched the service in May. “It’s been four years in the making and we really saw a demand for it. It’s such a great destination but getting there by ferry can take several hours so why not just hop on a plane?”

I’m on the inaugural flight for this Friday Harbor hop, sitting up front beside pilot Doug Chichak, who’s been flying for more than 30 years. After checking to make sure we all have our passports, Chichak taxis down the runway and tells us to enjoy the view.

“That’s what I love about these planes,” Chichak says through his headset microphone. “They’re fun to fly and you have a great view of everything.”

As the plane banks over Saanich Inlet to turn eastward, I see why ‘flightseeing’ is a big part of the appeal on island-hopping flights. Flying low below the clouds, we’re getting an amazing view of the city and coastline. As we cross Haro Strait, I spot D’Arcy Island below us and San Juan Island – the most westerly of the San Juan Islands – in the distance.

Before I know it, we’re landing at the small Friday Harbor Airport. The plane comes to a stop just outside the new U.S. customs office, which was only opened a few months ago to make these flights possible.

The quaint and character-filled waterfront town centre is a 10- to 15-minute walk or quick taxi ride away. There are no stop signs in Friday Harbor, which has a population of around 2,100 and a National Trust historic preservation designation as a ‘destination of distinction.’

“It’s a picturesque small town with a stunning view of snow-capped Mount Baker in the distance and many activities,” says San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau communications and stewardship manager Barbara Marrett. “It’s family-friendly and very walkable at 1.2 square miles, with incredibly fresh seafood, farm-to-table restaurants and great shopping.”

There’s also the Whale Museum, the first museum in the world dedicated to the stewardship of these massive mammals; art and historical museums, and whale-watching and wildlife tours. To see more of the island, visitors can rent bicycles, electric-assist bikes and mopeds, or hop aboard the bike and dog-friendly San Juan Transit shuttle, which runs to Roche Harbor on the north end of the island, Lime Kiln Point State Park, San Juan Vineyard and other attractions.

“My favorite thing is the beautiful sweeping sky and sea vistas and the hiking trails throughout our parks,” Marrett says.

The short flight home is filled with even more sweeping sky, sea and island vistas – making me secretly wish it was a bit longer.

More info, check out visitsanjuans.com or friday-harbor.net

Tess van Straaten

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Tess van Straaten sits inside the NorthStar Air Tours plane during her flight to Friday Harbour in the San Juan Islands. Photo courtesy Tess van Straaten

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