Speckling the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, the Southern Gulf Islands are easy to access. While float planes are faster, the meandering BC Ferries services to Salt Spring, Pender, Galiano, Saturna and Mayne will leave you feeling as though time has stopped—and, when the summer sea breeze catches your hair like you’ve left your big-city hassles back at port.
The five islands share common characteristics—a laid-back vibe and creative locals—but each has a distinctive feel that sets them apart. Craving a restorative escape? Start packing and let us help you choose which island is the best for you.
Ferry service to the Southern Gulf Islands departs from Nanaimo and the Victoria and Vancouver areas.
For the Foodie: Salt Spring Island
On sun-dappled mornings in the village of Ganges, you’ll find the Saturday Market in full swing. Chatty locals and relaxed visitors meander through 140 open-air stalls, perusing everything from bite-sized, ruby-red strawberries to crusted loaves of olive bread. The aroma of fresh-made coffee scents the harbour air and the goat cheese samples from the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company stand disappear fast.
The goat farm, which features a winery-like tasting room for its cheeses, is located nearby, and the team rarely misses the popular weekly market. “On some days, no one wants to leave and the market stretches way past closing time,” says Daniel Wood, manager of the family-run cheesemaker.
Salt Spring is the archipelago’s most populous island—with 10,500 or so residents—and is studded with visitor-friendly businesses, from fruit and lavender farms to wine, beer and cider-makers. Picnicking, says 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.”
One more stop: Sacred Mountain Lavender Farm
It opened in 2001 and grows 60 different variations on its two acres. The organic lavender is used in handcrafted products, including tea, brownies and honey.
For the Art-Lover: Pender Island
Artist Diane MacDonald settled on Pender—two islands joined by a narrow bridge—13 years ago. Primarily a photographer, she is one of many artists who has made Pender her muse.
Initially drawn by the island’s forested hills and hidden coves, she now finds inspiration in the local ferns and lozenge-smooth beach glass. “Roesland is my favourite place,” says MacDonald, describing a sunset-hugging North Pender seaside park where low tides grant access to an islet of fawn lilies and copper-coloured arbutus trees. “I also love the breathtaking ocean panorama from South Pender’s Brooks Point,” she says.
Visitors, she suggests, should plot studio stops via the art maps on the ferries, or visit one of the exhibits at the Red Tree Artists’ Collective. Summer callers should also hit Sea Star Vineyards’ weekend art events—a wonderland of wandering sheep, vine-striped slopes and laid-back wine tasting. MacDonald says it has a “lovely art-festival feel.”
One more stop: Art Off The Fence
Now in its 22nd year, the annual art show takes place during the third weekend of July. Sea Star Vineyards hosts summer exhibits by local artists, including the Saturna Island Artists from August 17 to 19.
For the Explorer: Galiano Island
Gulf Island Kayaking introduces many to Galiano’s rugged coastline and untamed beachfront woods. But you don’t have to be steely-calved like the island’s namesake—18th-century Spanish explorer Dionisio Galiano—to enjoy all the outdoor activities on offer, suggests manager and guide Chessi Miltner.
“The Trincomali Channel between us and Salt Spring is ideal for paddling,” he says, describing calm seas fringing a lengthy sandstone shoreline. It’s an ideal setting for tours such as a nighttime bioluminescence paddle across waters speckled by light-emitting microorganisms.
But Galiano’s outdoor edge isn’t exclusively offshore. Maps from Galiano Island Books outline dozens of local hiking trails. Mount Galiano and Bodega Ridge are popular, Miltner says, but don’t miss Tapovan Sri Chinmoy Peace Park. “It’s steep but relatively easy with forested sea views. Locals feel it’s crowded if there are more than five people there,” he says.
One more stop: Montague Beach
This white-shell beach is tucked next to a towering forest inside Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park and features calm water and is the perfect place for a daycation.
For the Naturalist and Historian: Saturna and Mayne Islands
Nature has kept Pam and Harvey Janszen on tranquil Saturna for 30 years. The pair wrote the island’s bird checklist—eagles, turkey vultures, harlequin ducks and more—and Pam often ushers wildlife-lovers to East Point’s rocky bluffs to whale watch from the shore. Usually, they see 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, says Pam. Another great escape, she suggests, is hiking to Brown Ridge. Part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve covering much of Saturna, the ridge delivers isle-studded views as far as Mount Rainier, plus herds of deer and goats.
A 35-minute ferry hop away, Mayne was the hub of the Southern Gulf Islands more than a century ago, says historian Jennifer Iredale, whose family has long owned property on the island. Buildings in and around Miners Bay village attest to this bustling past—the gabled Agricultural Hall, shingle-sided St. Mary Magdalene Church and the old wooden gaol. The latter now housing the tiny Mayne Museum, where evocative pioneer-era photographs are displayed for visitors.
Mayne has a rich history. Indigenous roots stretch back thousands of years, says Iredale and, prior to the Second World War, the island was also home to a thriving community of Japanese-Canadian farmers. “You still see the plum blossoms on their trees,” she says.
Heritage-minded Mayne visitors will want to time their trip to coincide with the Fall Fair, taking place August 18, 2018. Held annually since 1925, it’s a time-travelling reminder of Mayne’s golden age with a parade and crowd-pleasing log-splitting contests.
Did you know
Mayne is the traditional territory of Tsartlip and WSÁNEC peoples, and home to the Tsartlip Reserve on Active Pass. The Cowichan and Coast Salish peoples set up seasonal fishing villages on the island. Archeological finds of habitation date back 5,000 years.
[This story appears in the August 2018 edition of WestJet Magazine.]