Great Gulf Islands
Speckling the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, the Southern Gulf Islands are easy to reach via floatplane or ferry boat. But while the planes are faster, meandering BC Ferries services to and between Salt Spring, Pender, Galiano, Saturna and Mayne make you feel as if time is slowing, nature is in charge and big city hassles are drifting away on balmy summer breezes.
The five islands share characteristics – a laid-back vibe and creative locals – but each has a distinctive feel that sets them apart for visitors. Craving a restorative escape? Choose your islands, start packing and glide on over.
It’s a sun-dappled Ganges village morning and the Saturday Market is in full swing. Chatty locals and tangibly relaxed visitors are languidly exploring 140 alfresco stalls, perusing everything from ruby-red little strawberries to leather-crusted olive loaves. Fresh-made coffee aromas are scenting the harbourfront air.
The goat cheese samples are also fast-disappearing at the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company stand. With a winery-like farm nearby, they rarely miss this cornucopian Saturday ritual. “This is B.C.’s best food and produce market,” says Daniel Wood, manager of the family-run cheesemaker. “On some days no one wants to leave and it stretches way past closing time.”
With 10,500 locals – the archipelago’s most populous island – Salt Spring is studded with visitor-friendly producers, from fruit and lavender farms to wine, beer and cider-makers. Picnicking, adds Wood, couldn’t be easier. “Buy some wine, bread and cheese, then head to Ruckle Provincial Park for views of Pender and the other islands shimmering in the water.”
Artist Diane MacDonald settled on Pender – two islands joined by a narrow bridge – 13 years ago. Primarily a photographer, she was initially inspired by the forested hills and hidden coves, graduating to a love of local ferns and lozenge-smooth beach glass. She’s one of dozens of resident artists viewing Pender as their muse.
“Roesland is my favourite place,” she says, describing a sunset-hugging North Pender seaside park where low tides grant access to an islet of fawn lilies and copper-coloured arbutus trees. “But I also love the breathtaking ocean panorama from South Pender’s Brooks Point.”
Visitors, she suggests, should plot studio stops via the art maps on the ferries or find shows on the Red Tree Artists’ Collective website (redtreeartists.ca). Summer callers should also hit Sea Star Vineyards’ weekend art events. An arcadia of wandering sheep, vine-striped slopes and laid-back winetasting, it has a “lovely art festival feel.”
Gulf Island Kayaking introduces many to Galiano’s rugged coastline and untamed beachfront woods. But manager and guide Chessi Miltner suggests you don’t have to be a steely-calved explorer – the island is named after 18th-century Spanish adventurer Dionisio Galiano – to be an outdoor activity enthusiast here.
“The Trincomali Channel between us and Salt Spring is ideal for paddling,” he says, describing calm seas fringing a lengthy sandstone shoreline. It’s the ideal setting for tours that include a nighttime bioluminescence paddle across waters speckled by light-emitting microorganisms.
But Galiano’s outdoor edge isn’t exclusively offshore. Stores and cafés hug the southern ferry dock but the near-silent north delivers tangled forests studded with hidden coves ideal for bike-based exploring. “Give yourself plenty of time to find a beach to spend the afternoon at,” suggests Miltner.
Alternatively, try hiking – maps from Galiano Island Books outline dozens of local trails. Mount Galiano and Bodega Ridge are popular, Miltner says, but don’t miss Tapovan Peace Park. “It’s steep but relatively easy with forested sea views. Locals feel it’s crowded if there are five people there!”
Saturna & Mayne
Nature has kept Pam Janszen and husband Harvey on tranquil Saturna for 30 years. The island’s Bird Checklist compilers – eagles, turkey vultures, harlequin ducks and more – Pam often ushers wildlife-lovers to East Point’s rocky bluffs where you can whale-watch from the shore. “It’s usually orcas but there are also seals and sea lions,” she says.
Although Saturna has a general store, its “lack of everything else” is the main lure for nature nuts, adds Pam, who also suggests hiking to Brown Ridge. Part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve that covers much of Saturna, it delivers isle-studded views as far as Mount Rainier – plus an attendant chorus of deer and goats.
A 35-minute ferry hop away, Mayne was the Southern Gulf hub over a century ago, says historian Jennifer Iredale, whose family has long owned property on the meadow-studded island. Buildings in and around Miners Bay village recall this bustling past – the gabled Agricultural Hall; shingle-sided St. Mary Magdalene Church; and the old wooden gaol, now housing a tiny museum.
Evocative pioneer-era photographs are displayed at the museum, but Iredale says Mayne’s story is more than just colonial. The island’s Indigenous past stretches back thousands of years, while – during World War II – Japanese-Canadian farmers were forced from their land. “You still see the plum blossoms on their trees,” she says.
Heritage-minded Mayne visitors time their trip for the “always fun” Fall Fair (August 18). Held annually since 1925, it’s a time-travelling reminder of Mayne’s golden age with its float parade, produce displays and crowd-pleasing log-splitting contests.