Why Salt Spring Island is the perfect long-weekend getaway
Your guide to getting lost on Vancouver’s closest far-out escape
August 29, 2016
Salt Spring Island may be only a three-hour journey from downtown Vancouver, but be prepared for a dose of culture shock upon arrival. It happened when my fiancée and I realized we were driving too slowly down a scenic road and did what any self-respecting Vancouverite would do: we pulled over to allow the driver behind us to zoom on ahead. Instead, she slowed down, smiled, and asked if we needed directions. Island time isn’t just a cliché here; it’s a way of life. But while time ticks more slowly in the Strait of Georgia, don’t expect to be bored. With a walkable downtown peppered with galleries, along with the island’s multiple wineries, parks and picturesque stretches of farmland, Salt Spring is a miniature world unto itself.
Come meal time you’ll feel a strong urge to dine on the water—ride that wave to Auntie Pesto’s, a family-owned restaurant on the boardwalk in Ganges Village. It’s beloved for fresh pastas (some ingredients come from the chef’s home garden), friendly service (“Would you like directions with that?”), and an open-facing patio stocked with blankets for those cool island breezes. Start dinner off with saganaki cheese flambéed with ouzo and roasted vegetables, or try the truffled mushroom risotto. For drinks, order a bottle of Garry Oaks Estate pinot gris, a refreshing local wine (its sister, the Garry Oaks pinot noir, won Best Light Red in our 2016 Wine Awards), and savour each sip while taking in Ganges Harbour. For something more family-friendly, visit the quaint Tree House Cafe that’s built around an 80-ish-year-old plum tree. Live music and deluxe burgers keep adults happy, while kids get a specialized menu of petite drinks, sides (from rice bowls to chicken skewers) and mains.
While Salt Spring has dozens of budget cottages and B&Bs, the Hastings House Country House Hotel is your luxe oceanside retreat ($285 to $465 per night for a standard room). Ranked one of the best hotels in Canada by Condé Nast Traveler in 2014, Hastings House has a range of warmly decorated rooms set inside the handful of houses and cottages that dot its stately property—including the original 76-year-old Manor House. As for food, the hotel offers both white-tablecloth fine dining and casual fare at its newly opened bistro. Did we mention there’s a spa? Just don’t get too comfortable—you’re walking distance to downtown Ganges, after all.
You’ll want to drive slowly into Ruckle Provincial Park as the mood shifts dramatically from Pacific Northwest to English countryside. And at this speed you can avoid running over the sheep that occassionally cross the road within the sprawling private farm that shares the property. The public park, meanwhile, is lined with easy trails and quintessential Gulf Island views. On the way home, pop by neighbouring Kizmit Galeria and Cafe, an open-air gallery-shop-cafe that embodies the untouched, artistic spirit of the island’s south end (they sell local paintings, cappuccinos and pre-loved tops). Set back off the road and surrounded by trees, Kizmit’s garden-like patio feels a million miles from the big city. Your last stop: pick up some driftwood jewellery, homemade kombucha or warm apple fritters from the Salt Spring Saturday Market.
Local insight from Brian Brett, author and 25-year resident of Salt Spring Island
“There was a famous song one of the locals did one time that said her phone was 537 but gumboots were 653. You know, because the island was divided by the two different starts of the phone number. You knew if somebody had a number that was 653, they lived south of Ganges. Whereas if they had a phone number that was 537, it was north of Ganges.
“They’re blending now, but originally all the hippies sort of moved to the south end, and the farmers had the middle section and the farmland, and the wealthy retirees went to the north end. But everybody wants to be here in the summer, of course. The population just doubles.
“Life on the island in January and February can get quite deserted. Everybody runs for it, even though the climate is so mild. I mean, when you get snow on Salt Spring, it’s everybody saying, ‘Holy Christ, it’s snowing on Salt Spring.’ The whole island just shuts down, because it’s hilly with narrow winding roads. Nobody can get anywhere. So, any kind of report of snow and the whole island just stocks up at the liquor store and the grocery store and cocoons in.”