An easy 25-minute ferry hop from Vancouver Island’s Nanaimo Harbour, Gabriola combines a laid-back ‘island time’ vibe with a surprisingly diverse array of activities. Bring your car (hardy bikers can also tackle the sometimes hilly roads) and start exploring soon after you dock at Descanso Bay. Need suggestions? Here’s our handy insider’s itinerary.
3:15 p.m. Wild Rocks
Arriving mid-afternoon, turn left from the dock towards Malaspina Galleries. Gabriola has a vibrant grassroots art scene but this ‘gallery’ is actually a dramatic shoreline rock feature formed by centuries of ocean erosion. Curled like a sandstone wave, walk right through and keep your eyes on the water for bobbling birdlife.
4:00 p.m. Twin Beaches
Deer flank Gabriola’s forest-fringed roads––watch for street-crossing wild turkeys, too––but if you’re keen to see more of the island’s natural edges, continue to tree-studded Gabriola Sands Provincial Park where a grassy isthmus separates two opposite-facing beaches.
5:00 p.m. Leg-stretch
A 12-minute drive away, hop out for an 800-metre woodland walk at tranquil Sandwell Provincial Park. The trail’s final stretch is steep but the payoff is a curving ribbon of sandy shore overlooking Lock Bay. At low tide, there’s also a prehistoric petroglyph to discover.
7:00 p.m. Sunset Dinner
Surf Lodge serves classic comfort dishes (fish and chips recommended) in its log-lined pub. But its patio is the place to be for gazing at languid sunsets over the rippling waters. Nearby Orlebar Point offers additional Instagram-ready views to the Entrance Island Lighthouse.
10 a.m. Arts & Crafts
Dive into artisanal Gabriola at the Agricultural Hall’s May to October Farmers’ Market, where everything is locally handmade or homegrown. Then nip across to Paprika Jewellery Studio & Gallery, where owner Nina Turczyn is often creating behind the counter. Around the island, look for yellow roadside flags, denoting art studios open to visitors.
11:30 a.m. Local Tales
Nearby, tiny Gabriola Museum relates some engaging island stories, from ancient Coast Salish beginnings to the hippy dippy 1970s––this was one of the places to drop out and explore free-spirited lifestyles back in the day.
12:00 p.m. Fuel-up
A five-minute walk away, The Kitchen answers hunger pangs with its hearty soups, bulging burgers and hot sandwiches (pork belly B.E.L.T recommended). The bustling GABE Shop thrift store is also close by, complete with its own summertime outdoor ice cream stand.
1:15 p.m. Creative Curds
Book ahead for a Make Cheese with Paula workshop and you’ll soon be chatting away with your friendly host in her comfy home kitchen. The taste, touch and feel-based classes are an accessible 101 introduction to making your own feta, brie and more.
3:30 p.m. Farm Stop
Hit family-friendly Paradise Island Alpaca Farm to hangout with their keen-eyed gaggle of inquisitive critters––save time for the horses and miniature goats, too. There’s also an onsite store lined with super-soft alpaca-wool clothing, including top-selling chunky socks.
5:30 p.m. Dinnertime
Join the locals for an early dinner at Woodfire Restaurant. With an upscale pub ambiance, there’s a tempting array of gourmet pizzas here but the seasonal Seafood Grill is the way to go, especially alongside a lip-smacking beer from Nanaimo’s Longwood Brewery.
10 a.m. Coffee Stop
Gabriolans gather at Mad Rona’s Coffee Bar––named after madronas, an alternate name for the island’s ubiquitous arbutus trees––to gossip over java and hot breakfast sandwiches. On balmy days, the café’s outdoor seating is highly sought-after.
11:30 a.m. Apple Magic
Centered on a gabled barn, Ravenskill Orchards & Gabbie’s Premium Cider is a perfect fruit-lovers pit stop. U-pick from late-August or hit the rustic little tasting room for tasty cider samples. Don’t miss crisp and citrusy Groovin’ Granny Smith––and buy some bottles for home.
1:30 p.m. Artsy Finale
Before your Nanaimo departure, return to Gabriola’s creative side for a local-made souvenir or two. Pier Gallery Artists Collective offers everything from textile creations to wooden carvings. From there, take the North Road towards the ferry and divert to Whalebone Studio (call ahead first) to discover Pam Tempelmayr’s richly dramatic nature-based watercolours.