On board the wooden tugboat Swell, moored in a secluded cove near the Belle Chain Islets, Sanna Denicola eased into the ship’s on-deck hot tub and admired the fiery sunset between evergreen islands as sea lions bobbed nearby. “I’ve never seen anything like this except on a National Geographic television program,” she says.
This was one of many million-dollar moments the Prince George, B.C., resident enjoyed on a guided expedition through the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve between the Georgia Strait and the southeast coast of Vancouver Island with Victoria’s Maple Leaf Adventures.
Led by naturalist guides, trips are offered in spring (four nights, five days) and fall (five nights, six days) aboard the schooner Maple Leaf, which operates under sail and engine power. The same excursions are offered on the more luxurious Swell, with its private cabins with ensuite washrooms. Both offer itineraries that vary with guests’ interests and the weather.
The eco-tourism company is owned by Maureen Gordon and her husband Kevin Smith, a former B.C. park ranger.
“An island filled with blooming wildflowers, another with 50 sea lions, 10,000 gulls feeding on small fish; we hope guests will experience the absolute joy you feel in a natural area with so much abundance,” says Gordon.
With time for beachcombing and tide pool exploration, typical stops include uninhabited Russell Island to visit an abandoned settlement built in the late 1800s by Hawaiians, many of whom worked in the fur trade. “It’s a bucolic, peaceful island,” says Gordon. In autumn, visitors can pick apples here, which the ships’ chefs bake into pies.
Penelakut First Nation elder Florence James accompanies guests on island visits, weaving area history with fables and ancient, coastal knowledge such as how to remove planks from live cedar trees without killing them.
It’s the authenticity of this Gulf Islands journey that appeals to travellers like Denicola. “I wasn’t interested in trendy boutiques or tromping over trails with 50 other people. Sitting on a remote beach watching the sunset with a small group of people was amazing.”
Getting there: WestJet flies to Vancouver 69 times a day from 16 Canadian, eight U.S. and four international cities, to Victoria 15 times a day from Vancouver, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto and to Nanaimo two times a day from Calgary.
Where to go camping in the Gulf Islands:
McDonald Campground, North Saanich
One of only two drive-in campgrounds in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, McDonald campground is easily accessible from Victoria, Sidney or the Swartz Bay ferry terminal.
Shingle Bay Campground, North Pender Island
It’s a two-hour-plus ferry ride from Vancouver or Victoria to Otter Bay on North Pender. From the campground parking lot, walk to these reserve-ahead sites.
Isle-de-Lis (Rum Island)
Seclusion in beautiful, evergreen forest awaits those who kayak from Sidney to Rum Island, site of the smallest of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve campgrounds, with just three backcountry campsites.