Choose Your Own Adventure
Speckling the ocean off the southwestern shoreline of mainland B.C. like a gathering of starfish in a giant rock pool, a visit to the Southern Gulf Islands always feels far removed from city life. The ferries make access from multiple points relatively easy (and often breathtakingly scenic) but life here has a distinctive, almost tangibly different texture to anywhere else in the province.
Not that these islands are the same. Each has it’s own well developed micro-identity that’s discernible almost as soon as you step from the dock. Keen to sail in for a unique exploration? Read on for our theme-based take on each of the five main islands––then choose your ideal destination and head on over.
Artsy Salt Spring
With many of the conveniences of mainland living, the archipelago’s most populous island––complete with friendly bistros, independent boutiques and farmstead producers with enticing tasting rooms––is the arbutus-studded hot spot many newbies visit first. And they often spend plenty of time in bustling Ganges village, mingling with chatty Salt Springers in gable-roofed coffeeshops before heading out to explore the island’s celebrated arts and crafts scene.
Starting with the artisan stalls that dot Ganges’ April to October outdoor market like a busy Jackson Pollock canvas, there’s also the eye-opening installations tucked among the trees at nearby Duthie Gallery’s Sculpture Park. But on an island where creativity seems like second nature, there’s a rich collage of unique studios and art spaces to track down as well, showcasing everything from wildlife paintings to fibre art figurines and from beach glass jewellery to intricate driftwood carvings.
Tips To Go:
Perfect for a weekend of leisurely exploring, download the free map and dive into some of the stops on this self-guided weave around 30 or so studios and workshops––including ‘edible artisans’ such as Salt Spring Island Cheese (don’t miss their Ruckles mini-logs).
Salt Spring’s signature attraction is much more than a great place for produce and bakery treats; it’s also jam-packed with the unique work of many island artists. Arrive early to avoid the crush around the 140+ stalls and take your time chatting to the friendly vendors.
A one-stop shop for creative browsing, dozens of local artists and artisans are represented at this highly inviting collective where you might spot rustic pottery, hand blown glass, lip-smacking tea blends or—more likely––all three (and more).
With its paint-peeled shabby chic exterior, this delightful island favourite serves fresh-made breakfasts and lunches (go for the frittata) alongside an ever-changing array of works by Salt Spring artists on its interior walls.
Hastings House Country House Hotel
A handsome 1939-built wood-and-stone manor overlooking the water, there’s an array of cozy quarters here plus some excellent onsite dining options. Dramatic art installations dot the grassy grounds as well as many of the hotel’s interior walls.
A slender streak of bays and beaches dotted with tangles of wild, wind-sculpted trees, Galiano—named after an 18th century Spanish explorer––fuses a hub-like southern end where the ferry rolls in with inviting pockets of sigh-triggering tranquility. But while everything from the deer-studded trails of Bluffs Park to the Garry oak-fringed panoramas of Mount Galiano make this an idyllic, retreat-like escape, immersive nature is only one of the means for spoiling yourself here.
From spa treatments and ocean-view hot tubbing to picnicking with a page-turning tome or two from a venerated bookstore, there’s a surfeit of ways to get away from it all on this island. But whatever you have in mind, save time for an indulgent dinner at Pilgrimme, one of B.C.’s most celebrated farm-to-table restaurants. A culinary beacon tucked among towering cedars, this cabin-like charmer serves a cornucopia of seasonal dishes: the perfect way to pamper your palate before heading home.
Tips To Go:
Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park
Slide into the crystal clear waters here, but plan for an extended, richly restorative full day as well: a picnic on the sand, a wander on a white shell beach and some bird spotting hikes between the lichen-draped trees.
Galiano Island Books
Leave your digital device at home and instead browse the shelves at this page-turning local legend. One of the best ways to occupy some leisurely island time, the friendly staffers here always have plenty of intriguing B.C. author suggestions.
Cedar Grove Gallery
Treating yourself to gifts is never wrong, but just browsing the richly glazed pottery by Sandra Dolph at her three-room outdoor gallery is a pleasure in itself. From vases to teapots, many of her works are suffused with nature themes.
Gulf Island Kayaking
If swimming in the ocean isn’t enough, take a guided paddle with these local experts. They’ll tell you all about Galiano’s natural side––but if you really want to treat yourself, book ahead for their magical Bioluminescence Night Tour as well.
Galiano Inn Oceanfront Inn & Spa
One of the island’s most popular sleepovers also has its own onsite spa. A perfectly tranquil spot for restoring sagging spirits, you’ll find everything from massages to seaside hot tubs on the menu––Blueberry Bliss experience recommended.
Actually two islands––North Pender and South Pender––connected by a slender bridge, the rolling meadows, tree-framed lakes and multiple small beaches striped with ocean-facing logs make this one of the archipelago’s most scenic destinations. Home to a wide array of artists, its gently bucolic terrain is an ever-changing muse for creative locals––and a romantic backdrop for the kind of starry-eyed visitors craving an idyllic couples’ getaway.
It’s not hard to find perfect picnic spots on Mount Norman, Pender’s highest point, with its breathtaking island-studded ocean panoramas. But if you’re looking for an ideal location to pop the big question, North Pender’s Roseland is one of B.C.’s dreamiest destinations. Accessed from South Otter Bay Road, follow the trail into the woods and you’ll soon reach (at low tide) Roe Islet, a grassy, sunset-hugging spot where fawn lilies and arbutus trees encircle a waiting promontory.
Tips To Go:
Sunset SUP Tour
Pender Island Kayak Adventures offers several tours but one of the most magical is their evening stand up paddleboard option where you’ll slide over the glassy briny and take your time ogling pyrotechnic sunsets from the water.
If you are a first-time visitor and you’d like a guide to help you discover the island’s scenic nooks and crannies, book an accompanied wander with the friendly folks at Dog Mermaid. And perhaps scope out a few proposal spots en route.
Sea Star Vineyards
This ocean-sloping, vine-striped charmer is a Pender must-see. Check ahead to ensure that its art-lined tasting room is open and, once you arrive, be sure to sip a glass or two of sweet Poetry dessert wine.
Join the locals for breakfast at this chatty hotspot––smoked salmon eggs benny recommended. Alternatively, if your passion extends to great burgers, there’s a host of mouthwatering winners here, many prepared with Jo’s special sauce.
Wood on Pender
The Gulf Islands’ coolest sleepover, there’s a gaggle of shiny Airstream trailers––complete with outdoor private hot tubs––to check into here. And there’s also an onsite restaurant where you can toast your visit with craft cocktails.
A pit stop for northbound nugget-hunters during the gritty Gold Rush era, Mayne was the busiest Gulf Island during the late 1800s. And while it’s long, multi-chaptered story also includes centuries of deep Indigenous culture and a rich agricultural history part-fueled by hardworking Japanese families, it’s this roiling, saloon-swaggering boom time that today’s heritage-minded visitors love exploring in what’s now one of the quieter archipelago destinations.
Radiating from Miners Bay village, yesteryear buildings create a walk-through living-history ambiance. There’s shingle-sided 19th-century church St. Mary Magdalene, with its graveyard of old stone crosses; 1892-built Springwater Lodge hotel––one of B.C.’s oldest––where latter-day locals gather for fish and chips; and the tiny, 120-year-old wooden gaol that now houses a community museum. Its displays sometimes spill over into the gabled Agricultural Hall, recalling the days when islanders gave up chasing gold and a thriving farming sector took root.
Tips To Go:
Active Pass Lighthouse
Located at Georgina Point––where Captain George Vancouver once camped––this red-capped landmark is the third lighthouse to be built here (the first was in 1885). Now heritage-protected, there’s also a 1940s lightkeeper’s residence to peruse in this grassy shoreline park.
Mayne was home to many Japanese farming families until Canada’s Second World War internment policy. And this manicured, blossom-studded garden in Dinner Bay Park was planted to commemorate these former locals. Check out the site’s historical plaque for the full story.
Held around the Agricultural Hall on Saturdays from May long weekend to Thanksgiving, it often seems like everyone on the island is here exploring the stalls, chatting to vendors and tapping their toes to the live music. This is also the site of mid-August’s legendary Fall Fair, fast approaching its centenary year.
Mayne Island Brewing Company
With its distinctive map-insignia labels, this gable-roofed nano brewery is a must for visiting beer nuts. History-huggers should sip some Little Hell strong ale, echoing the nickname Gold Rush pit-stoppers had for the boomtown later known as Miners Bay.
Mayne Island Resort
With a colourful history stretching back more than a century––past names include Hollandia Lodge and Arbutus Lodge––this chic Bennett Bay sleepover has its own shoreline spa and a bistro with excellent seafood dishes.
Nature-based tranquility is the norm on Saturna. Almost half its craggy landmass is within the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, creating a triple haven for unfettered wildlife, 350 serenity-loving locals and the kind of visitors that crave immersive get-away-from-it-all escapes from the city. And there’s plenty for these outdoorsy off-islanders to do, from shoreline kayaking to wilderness hiking to calf-busting biking––complete with occasional wild turkeys crossing the roads as if they own the place.
The Mount Warburton Pike summit––the Gulf Islands’ highest––sees many of these hardy explorers. It’s a hike worth taking for its life-affirming Plumper Sound panoramas, framed by the spectral visage of distant Mount Baker. Goats and rabbits crisscross the trails here, while visiting East Point’s rocky bluffs can also mean spotting a few orcas sliding silkily past offshore. Bird nut? Keep your eyes peeled on Saturna for everything from imperious golden eagles to tiny Western screech owls.
Tips To Go:
Bring your own wheels on the ferry or snag a rental from Saturna Cycle near the Lyall Harbour dock and you’ll soon be hitting the roads. Just make sure you include the East Point area, and keep one eye on the water for shorebirds and ocean critters.
Also next to the dock, hop in a kayak here for a guided paddle around some of Saturna’s most scenic spots. En route, look out for nesting raptors, rare wildflowers and curious harbour seals. Prefer to stay on dry land? They also offer guided hikes.
Brown Ridge Trail
If you prefer hiking alone but you want to dive deeply into Saturna’s natural edge, check out this dramatic, view-hugging trail. You’ll spot abundant birdlife (listen for woodpeckers) as well as some of the hardy wild goats that call this area home.
Wild Thyme Coffee House
Saturna’s most photogenic eatery, this green double-decker bus serves great coffee, pies and sandwich items for breakfast and lunch. Can’t snag a seat on the upper deck? Dine alfresco under the tent canopy. A great spot for picking-up a picnic for your outdoorsy day out.
A fully updated 1920s boutique property overlooking beautiful Boot Cove, save time to explore the lovely gardens here, with everything from bamboo groves to rose and raspberry plants. Butterflies abound in summer and the friendly hosts have plenty of local hiking suggestions.