Washington State

A Northwest Passage in Washington State (The Baltimore Sun)

Looking at my teen-age daughter and soon-to-be teen-age daughter sitting slouched and sullen at the airport at 6 in the morning, having been rousted before daybreak for a flight to Seattle, I wondered how this vacation would go.

I was hoping for a week of family bonding and fun -- a cousin's wedding, a reunion with friends, an excursion to the San Juan Islands and a few days in the city -- but traveling with sometime members of the SDT (Sisterhood of Disaffected Teens) can be tricky business.

If you are the parent of grown children, you have likely put those turbulent teen years out of your mind. And if you have sweet toddlers or admiring grade-schoolers at home, it may be impossible to comprehend that your little rays of sunshine will one day be capable of gale-force emotional swings. Slumped in their seats, the girls' sleep-deprived body language spoke volumes: You call this fun?

My wife and I lugged our uncertainty on the airplane along with our bags, and off we went to the land of Starbucks.

According to the experts, family vacations work best when the children are involved in the planning process. In theory, this is a fine strategy, but with the reality of the kids' go-go lives -- camp, swim team, pet-sitting, part-time job and social calendars that rival those of heads of state -- in the weeks before the trip the moment never seemed to present itself to sit around the dinner table and break out the Pacific Northwest maps and guidebooks.

As the plane lifted off, I briefed Carolyn, 15, and Molly, whose 13th birthday was just around the corner, on the itinerary: After the wedding, we would head to the San Juans for three days, then back to Seattle for three days. We would get the best of the great outdoors on Orcas Island, including whale-watching, and then the best of the city.

The girls nodded tiredly, which in the language of SDT means: Whatever. Then they retreated to their headphones and CD players, thereby declaring themselves in an adult-free zone.

Lush, cool Northwest

The settlers who founded Seattle in 1851 were a hardy bunch. They came to the Northwest by way of the Oregon Trail, in what was a grueling 2,000-mile journey.

My family was feeling similarly scrappy as we loaded the rental car and headed out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. We had survived the flight across the country, the leaden airline pancakes and the couple behind us whose snack from home was a container of hard-boiled eggs.

Because we had crossed time zones and gained three hours, it was only 9:30 in the morning, but the girls were rested, and although their headphones were at the ready, they were excited to be seeing a new part of the country.

Even from the interstate, it was obvious we were a long way from the East Coast. We had left browned-out, heat-oppressed Maryland and arrived in a place that was green and lush -- and chilly. It was barely 60 degrees, a perfect spring day in the middle of summer.

"The air smells good here," one of the girls noted.

Later that afternoon in a lovely outdoor garden, we would help launch Jeff and Amber on the road to matrimony. And soon after, we would hit the road ourselves, meeting our friends and heading north for the coastal town of Anacortes, where a Washington state ferry would shuttle us to Orcas Island.

The great outdoors

The San Juans, a 457-island archipelago in the upper Puget Sound, are closer to the Canadian border than the U.S. mainland. Formed by volcanic eruptions, a couple of ice ages and the relentless effects of water and wind, the islands feel wild and untamed. Only a handful are inhabited, and Orcas, the largest, is said to be among the most rugged and most beautiful.

Orcas is also home to the highest spot in the archipelago. On a clear day from Mount Constitution's lookout tower you can see Vancouver, the snowcaps of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, and dozens of islands far enough in the distance to appear in soft shades of blue and gray.

With our friends, we explored Moran State Park, hiked fern-filled paths to waterfalls and later mucked about on the beach at the great waterfront house we had rented through the Internet.

Although the house had an entertainment center complete with satellite dish, the TV was not turned on during our stay. The kids were content to play on the beach, climbing on boulders, wading in the tide pools to examine starfish, discovering what they were certain was a pearl in an oyster, submerged just out of their reach in a rocky crevice.