At midnight, I stepped out onto the moon-bathed porch of the inn where I was staying to see the fjord that lay beyond and the starry dome above.

But it was movement from below that caught my eye. Several small creatures nosed and scuttled their way across the lawn. They weren't rabbits. They weren't squirrels. They weren't rats. The dark shapes silently advanced toward me. I backed up, closed the door and hurried back to bed.

On alert in the dark, listening for strange sounds, I wondered what wild thing they might be, and where they could be going. Perhaps they were headed to Enchanted Forest Road, a narrow, hilly road that runs behind the inn -- but it was lovely, not scary. Then just before I sank back into slumber, I remembered Old Pottery Road, which, on the other hand was scary because it takes one "into the dark forest."

"They're mink," said the petite lady at the front desk the next morning, which had dawned bright and cheerful. Somebody wanted to start a mink farm and when it failed, the animals were let loose, she explained. "We have mink here."

"But they don't look like mink," I said. "They're rather small and stubby."

"Oh, you know how it is," she said with a smile. "It's an island. Everything is smaller here."

My husband and I exchanged glances. We had noticed that everyone here seemed so friendly, nice -- and tiny. Indeed, we peeked behind the bar at one restaurant to see if the floor was sunken, the staff looked so little behind it.

It wasn't.

Now it could be that what's true about mink is true about people. More likely, however, people here are no different than anywhere else, and our imaginations were being carried away as we fell under the spell of the islands.

The San Juan islands.

The name brings to mind some palm-studded tropical place. It is not. The San Juan Islands are pine- and fir-covered islands with rocky shores, dramatic vistas and a good dose of fairy-tale-like magic.

The archipelago of 400 islands named by Spanish explorers lies just 10 to 30 miles off the Washington mainland, but it feels like it's a world away. The largest island, Orcas -- named for a Spanish viceroy who just happened to have the same name as the killer whales, or orcas, that ply the cool Pacific waters -- is a horseshoe-shaped island with mountains, pristine lakes, dark green forests and a quaint village of clapboard cottages hugging the shoreline.

Off-season visit is a charm

A state ferry shuttles island residents and visitors from the mainland at Anacortes, 90 miles north of Seattle. As our ship sailed among green-cloaked craggy islands shrouded in mist and fog, we felt the first tugs of magic.

The ferry arrived at Orcas after an hour-and-a-half trip. Cars and bicycles lined up in the ship's belly rolled off, as those on foot descended the gangplank. We got in our rental car and took the only way available, Orcas Road, and followed it through forests, meadows with grazing sheep and hillocks with a scattering of homes and picket fences.

After passing signs for Fowlers Way and Crow Valley Road, the winding road abruptly came upon Eastsound, a small maritime village. There, between Prune Alley and Lovers Lane, is the 120-year-old white clapboard Outlook Inn, our home for the stay.

Although awash in whimsical names and with natural beauty to perfection, the island is no theme park. This is where people live, make their homes and work -- at the grocery store, gas station, library or souvenir shop -- and entertain millions of vacationers every year. Summer is short, sweet -- and loaded with mainlanders. We chose September to visit, to take advantage of off-season rates, and, we hoped, the quiet.

That was a good idea, according to the diminutive young waitress who served us plates of fresh seafood on a warm, sunny deck overhanging the water.

"It's peaceful; all the tourists have gone home," she said with a smile. "September is Washington state's best kept secret," she added. "It's warm and sunny, right before nine months of clouds, rain and cold."

To make the most of it, we considered renting a boat and rowing to Skull Island on Massacre Bay, named after bloody Indian tribal wars of long ago. Maybe we'd go sea kayaking or sailing. We thought of shopping -- the place is known for its pottery -- and then pampering at a historic hotel's spa.

But it was the magnificent woods that called us first. We were quickly back on the road headed out of town, skirting the driftwood-littered shoreline before we turned inland and into the forest.

Suddenly, we came upon a giant white arch spanning the roadway. On first impression, it seemed elfin-made, but then I recognized the style. The concrete arch is from the 1930s, made by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, a make-work project of the Depression era. Words at the top announced it as the entrance to Moran State Park. No gate, no fee. Just the entrance to a green, screensaver-like wonderland: Pine-scented air. Towering firs. Fern-covered grottoes. We followed a footpath along a stream that fell down a rocky ledge to spatter into a forest pool, again, then again and again. Cascade Falls.

Deer (miniature, of course ) nibbled beside the road, unconcerned by visitors. Clear, spring-fed Cascade Lake was a joy to swim in, the 2.5-mile loop around it a refreshing hike.

At peak, islands dot the view

As we drove deeper into the woods the road started to climb, dramatically, up 2,400 feet to the island's highest point, Mount Constitution. In a succession of switchbacks, we passed bicyclists wet with sweat, huffing and puffing, calf and thigh muscles straining, yet they were barely moving. Breaks in the trees revealed an ever higher view of the shimmering water and a winding ribbon of shore below. Near the top there was a parking lot, a short path to the very top and, to our delight, an imposing medieval-style stone tower.

Laughing, I climbed the inside steps to the top. I knew it had been built not by a witch, but the CCC, but I couldn't temper my imagination. I emerged at the tower's top and my laughter stopped short. The view was absolutely breathtaking.

We beheld a sweeping expanse of cerulean blue ocean with islands of all shape, size and placement as far as the eye can see. To the east was the continent and the rugged ridge of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains, dominated by Mount Baker's soaring jagged peak. In the far distance lay the hulking, sleeping, snow-clad volcano, Mount Rainier. Turn around and there was Canada, the city of Vancouver faintly visible. Far below, like a small swimming insect leaving a tiny wake, moved a ferry, the ferry that brought us to this magical place.

On the way back, we seemed to fly down the mountain. Alongside us zoomed brave bicyclists, legs now motionless, just their wind-whipped cheeks waddling.

Back at the inn, right off Main Street, we spied two trees loaded with pears, windfalls covering the ground. A murder of crows were hard at work, holding down the fallen fruit with one foot and pulling away white chunks with their beaks. We shooed them away and picked two specimens, perfect right down to their delicate pink blush. As I held one under my nose, a rush of pear aroma filled my head. I took a bite of the heavy fruit, still warm from the sun, and incredibly sweet pear flavor spilled into my mouth, juice streamed out of my smile and down my chin.

It occurred to us that it might be wrong somehow, maybe Biblically wrong, to partake of this wondrous fruit. We looked about, at the street and sidewalks busy with islanders going about their day, and our concern evaporated. Nobody cared. It was just landscaping to them.

Later, after dinner, we stepped out on the porch as the sun sank toward the mountains ringing the bay. It was as if the whole world was letting out a great big soul-cleansing sigh. Beyond lay islands, lots of islands. We were told that each has its own personality and charm. Tomorrow, we thought, we could take a day trip to Lopez, a sane biker's paradise with rolling rural hills. Or we could head to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to hike and visit a whale museum.

A sudden furious churning of the water interrupted our reverie and drew our gaze out to the bay. It was a violent struggle. Something was spinning, dark-and-light, dark-and-light, repeatedly, in what quickly became red-stained waters.

A kill. Either a killer whale got a seal, or a seal got a salmon. We looked hard, but couldn't tell for sure.

It didn't matter. The drama was over quickly, the water quiet again. Sea gulls swooped down and up again, red entrails dangling from their beaks. It was a rather grisly scene for a fairy-tale ending. But, then, this isn't really a land of fairy tales. It's an island flush with magic -- magic supplied by nature.

Karen Youso • 612-673-4407