Gulf Islands

July 1, 2007

For many Vancouverites, the Southern Gulf Islands are little more than landmarks on the ride from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, viewed from the deck of the Spirit of Vancouver as she churns through Active Pass. The casual viewer wouldn’t know that they make up one of the most ecologically distinctive and fragile areas in southern Canada. In 1974 the province, realizing that the region would come under intense development pressure, established the Islands Trust, giving it land-use authority over the 450 islands and islets in Georgia Strait and Howe Sound, along with responsibility to “preserve and protect” the area.

The southern islands—officially, Salt Spring, North and South Pender, Mayne, Saturna, Galiano and Thetis—are home to about 15,000 residents.Thetis has 14 kilometres of roads and no public parks. It has only 375 permanent residents, including a gentleman said to make his living selling slugs to laboratories. Salt Spring is the most developed with almost 10,000 residents, including such luminaries as Randy Bachman, Robert Bateman and Arthur Black.

To many islanders, the personal is political. If you can afford one, you buy a SmartCar or a hybrid. More people than you’d guess live off the grid, collect rainwater, hang their laundry on a line and use compact fluorescent bulbs. People know their neighbours and thrive on volunteerism and camaraderie.

The islands draw more and more visitors every year, and no wonder. They’re beautiful, serene places within relatively easy reach of the more than five million residents of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, to say nothing of nearby Americans. Yet that serenity is at risk; as a result, islanders have an ambivalent relationship with their guests. Tourists bring needed dollars, but in large numbers they disturb the tranquility and burden the infrastructure and resources, especially the limited drinking water.

Weekend visits often wind up including a trip to the real estate office; prices have risen as sharply on the islands as they have elsewhere. Fortunately, many residents develop such an attachment to the land that they give it away. Conservancies are the immediate beneficiaries, but it’s nature that wins in the long run. Along, of course, with the people—residents and visitors alike—who get to enjoy it.

Now, on to the tour…

Galiano

By Jesse Spencer

The SKINNIEST, driest and least agricultural of the islands, Galiano (named for the Spanish explorer who visited the area in 1792) is also the easiest to reach from Vancouver. Nonetheless, it retains a largely unspoiled character. It’s home to several ecological reserves—Mount Galiano, Mount Sutil and the stunning Bodega Ridge—as well as Montague Harbour Provincial Marine Park, and Dionisio Point Provincial Park at the north end of the island.

From the heights of Bluffs Park, at the south end, you’re rewarded with a spectacular view of Active Pass, which separates Galiano from Mayne Island. Take a picnic and binoculars and you can spend hours spotting bald eagles, loons, cormorants and gulls. When the herring are running, California sea lions come to gorge, and a pod of killer whales makes its home in Active Pass.

The hiking, beachcombing, sea kayaking and mountain biking on the island are first rate; more sedate activity can be found, nine holes at a time, at the Galiano Golf & Country Club. But perhaps the most seductive spot on the island is a mere five-minute walk from the ferry dock.

At the Galiano Inn, on the site of an old fishing lodge, proprietors Conny Nordin and Mel Gibb have created an idyllic resort with fastidiously appointed rooms, a better restaurant than you’d expect (complete with a wine list that includes inspired selections from off-the-radar Vancouver Island wineries), and a spa in which to recover from the day’s exertions. It’s only half an hour from Tsawwassen, yet it’s as if you’ve stepped into a world moving in slow motion—all the better to savour it.

STAY: GALIANO INN

All rooms are oceanfront; king rooms from $299 a night; queens from $249. Rates include a full breakfast in the always-excellent Atrevida restaurant. 134 Madrona Dr., 877-530-3939/250-539-3388. Galianoinn.com

EAT: HARBOUR GRILL

This lively, low-key spot in the Montague Marine Harbour serves hearty sandwiches with salad or house-made soup prepared fresh daily (the clam chowder is a house favourite). Also recommended: the grilled lamb burger ($10.95). Beer sold by the bottle. Montague Marine Harbour, 250-539-5733.

GETTING THERE:

At least two sailings daily and most are direct, though expect a stop on Mayne on late afternoon, weekend departures. Travel time: about 50 minutes. Seair offers two direct flights daily. Travel time: South Terminal to Montague Harbour: 20 minutes.

Mayne

By Jesse Spencer

HARD TO IMAGINE, drinking beer on the patio of the Springwater Café this lazy summer afternoon, waiting for the float plane to deliver us back to the South Terminal, that 150 years ago the island was a buzzing hub of activity. Miners Bay on Active Pass, where the Seair plane docks, was named for the gold-rush prospectors headed from Victoria to the Fraser River, dreaming of fortune. The exquisite Japanese garden at Dinner Bay honours the Japanese community that once made up a large part of the population. All is still, shimmering in the heat.

A leisurely hike up Mount Peake yielded splendid views and, this day, not a single personal encounter. Back on the narrow road, a pack of daredevil cyclists raced the car for a kilometre or so before a steep hill dragged them from the rear-view mirror. One resident, whose lovely oceanfront home and acreage have been for sale since 2004, seems in no hurry to sell. At Bennett Bay, on the east side of the island, a stalled high-end condo project, for two years scarcely more than a hole in the ground, encapsulates the glacial pace of change here. Developers have long sought to sell time-share pieces of heaven to well-heeled mainlanders at this secluded spot; islanders, with a paradise of their own, figure heaven can wait.

STAY: BLUE VISTA RESORT

It’s just a minute from Bennett Bay and offers eight rustic studio rooms and one- and two-bedroom cottages (studios start from $95 a night; one-bedroom cottages from $120; two bedrooms from $140)—pets, kids and wood paneling abound. Kayak rentals, instruction and guided tours available on-site. 563 Arbutus Dr., 877-535-2424/250-539-2463. Bluevistaresort.com

EAT: WILD FENNEL RESTAURANT

Picture a small, warm room, a well-edited, all-B.C. wine card (bottles from $29), and fresh, often organic, coastal cuisine that changes weekly—go for the Crab Three Ways (crab served in bisque, salad and lollipop form) if it’s an option. Entrées typically priced at or below $20. 574 Fernhill Rd., 250-539-5987. Reservations not accepted.

GETTING THERE:

At least two sailings from Tsawwassen daily; most make a stop on Galiano. Travel time: about two hours. Seair offers two direct flights daily. Travel time: South Terminal to Miner’s Bay: 20 minutes.

Salt Spring

By Rosemary Poole

COMMUNITY IS THE OPERATIVE word here. Ruddy-complexioned, Wellie-wearing locals have united over organic farming practices and artisanal goods and, in the process, created a lively arts and crafts scene. The Salt Spring studio tour now features some 32 artists, cheesemakers, bakers, potters and farmers, all passionate, if earnest, about their craft (see Saltspringstudiotour.com). When life is so idyllic, talk of gentrification is unavoidable. On this cloudless Saturday morning at the Salt Spring Roasting Company coffee house, we overhear grumblings about the addition of a solar-powered traffic light in town and—no surprise—the price of real estate. The going rate for a slice of waterfront here is now $1.3 million (up from $495,000 in 1999) making it the most exclusive island in the strait. Salt Spring may become a victim of its own success—it’s already the most developed and populous of all the Gulf Islands, by far—but it’s evident that it’s managed to stay surprisingly close to its natural roots.

After two strong Blue Heron blend coffees, we window shop at Salt Spring Woodworks, where simple wood furnishings seem to be inspired by the surrounds and other classic modern pieces. Terrence Gerbrandt’s Purity Bench looks like a regional version of George Nelson’s iconic bench, and is made with maple and walnut woods. Brent Comber’s acclaimed alder pieces are here, too. Then it’s over to Moonstruck Organic Cheese for ash-ripened camembert and their popular blackberry port-soaked blue stilton ($10 each; three for $27), followed by a stop at Heather Campbell’s Salt Spring Island Bread Company to pick up a crusty wood-fired loaf, and one of her lovely fruit breads to enjoy back on the mainland. A leisurely drive on potholed roads (don’t get locals started on those, either) takes us to Garry Oaks winery (see page 118 for the full story), then up to the top of Mount Maxwell for a low-key picnic overlooking the strait.

Rustic accommodation (read: unheated sheds) can be had on Salt Spring for $60 a night, or so we hear, but we’ll take Hastings House Country House Hotel, a 1930s farmhouse-turned-luxury inn, with views of Ganges harbour. The grounds feature pear and apple trees, and sun-ripened produce and herbs from the garden make their way to the inn’s well-appointed restaurant kitchen. We may just need to stay another night.

STAY: HASTINGS HOUSE

Elegant country rooms start from $360; suites from $495; cottages from $625. 160 Upper Ganges Rd., 800-661-9255. Hastingshouse.com

EAT: LOCALLY MADE BREADS AND CHEESES

Our picks: Moonstruck Organic Cheese, 1306 Beddis Rd., 250-537-4987 (note: not open on Saturdays; you’ll find them at the farmers’ market); Salt Spring Island Bread Co., 251 Forest Ridge Rd., 250-653-4809.

GETTING THERE:

At least two sailings daily (usually three). Weekday morning sailings make three stops, so your best bet is the non-stop sailing on Monday and Thursday afternoons. Travel time on these sailings: about 1.5 hours. Seair offers three direct flights daily. Travel time: South Terminal to Ganges Harbour: 20 minutes. Harbour Air offers two flights daily, Travel time: South Terminal or Downtown Vancouver to Ganges Harbour: 30 minutes.

Saturna

By Charles Campbell

MY UNCLE JIM, who with Aunt Lorraine has been farming on Saturna Island since 1945—before there were BC Ferries, before the Missing Link connected the roads on the two halves of the island, and way before a four-wheeled vehicle could pass through the draw to their place—puts it this way: “The quality of your insularity is in inverse proportion to the quality of your transportation system.”

That explains why Saturna has remained determinedly insular. It’s the furthest south of the Southern Gulf Islands. If you have a Fido cell phone, it welcomes you to the United States when you arrive. If you take the once-a-day ferry out of Tsawwassen, you have to disembark at Mayne or sometimes Galiano, and wait, and often wait some more, and then take the wedding-cake-like M.V. Mayne Queen, possibly to Pender and then back again, and by the time the captain announces the near presence of Saturna’s Lyall Harbour you could have driven to Kamloops or flown most of the way to Toronto.

Saturna has only about 360 permanent residents. They all get along, at least when there’s a fireman’s pig roast, or the big Dominion Day lamb barbecue, which is done Argentine style, with the lambs flayed open on iron crosses and John Guy whipping them with a rope of vinegar-drenched mint. The event draws boaters from all over the Pacific Northwest and sells 1,400 meal tickets. There’s still ladies’ nail-driving but, sadly, no more newlywed pig-diapering.

Saturna’s too hilly for casual biking, there’s no camping, and the six-room hotel keeps changing hands. BC Ferries has no more regard for the locals than for tourists. But that’s okay. There’s still more of the new Gulf Islands National Park Reserve than on any other island. On the spectacular bluff walk east of Mount Warburton Pike you’re likely to see feral goats. Killer whales run close along the rocky shore where the tide rips past East Point, along with the salmon. And everyone waves when you drive by, even if you’re a Hatfield and they’re a McCoy, and even if you’ve never been here before. It’s heaven, mainly because most people have never been here before.

STAY: BREEZY BAY BED AND BREAKFAST

The century-old Payne farmhouse, on the cooperatively owned site of a former free school, is Saturna’s most characteristic accommodation. The beds are less luxurious than old, but rustic charm abounds: there’s a wonderfully idiosyncratic library, a private beach and rooms start from a reasonable $75 a night. 131 Payne Rd., 250-539-5957. Saturnacan.net/breezy

Also recommended: Sandy Bay Bed and Breakfast, a beachfront home on the road to East Point; great breakfast, great hospitality. Rooms start from $100 a night; full breakfast included. 449 East Point Rd., 250-539-2641. Sandybaysaturna.com

EAT: SATURNA CAFE

Fabulous food from Hubertus Surm at this café adjoining the Saturna General Store. Open for lunch and dinner; reservations recommended for the latter. 101 Naravez Bay Rd., 250-539-2936.

GETTING THERE:

Two ferries from Tsawwassen every day except Sunday and holiday Mondays; expect to transfer at Swartz Bay, Galiano or Mayne. Travel time: three to four hours. Seair offers three direct flights daily. Travel time: South Terminal to Lyall Harbour: 20 minutes.

North and South Pender

By Moneca Gabriel

ALTHOUGH PEOPLE REFER to Pender Island in the singular, there are actually two islands connected by a single-lane bridge. North Pender is the more populous, and home to most of the islands’ 2,300 permanent residents, the school, the town centre and the Otter Bay ferry terminal. South Pender is mostly rolling farmland, but visitors may know it as the home of Poets Cove—a three-year-old arts-and-crafts-style resort on Bedwell Harbour, complete with spa, restaurant and marina. The resort is often credited with transforming the Penders into one of the Gulf’s go-to destinations, but make no mistake: the islands’ laidback, decidedly un-touristy character remains intact.

When you get off the ferry or seaplane (the better way of getting there, unless you enjoy multiple ferry stops), the first thing you’ll notice is unspoiled countryside where farm stands dot the roads—locals wave when you drive past. On Saturday morning, stop at the farmers’ market in the community hall. A satellite farmers’ market operates at the Driftwood Centre, the island’s ever-expanding retail hub (the Pistou Grill and Pender Island Bakery Café are highlights).

Time is better spent outdoors, chilling on the sandy beach at Mortimer Spit (Hamilton beach is another local fave) or exploring hidden coves that were once the haunts of smugglers who ran rum to the San Juan Islands during prohibition. The newly acquired Medicine Beach Nature Sanctuary is named for the coastal Salish peoples who used the plants for medicine. Today it’s a scenic hiking route, home to several wetland habitats, soaring coastal bluffs and upland forest—the deer are almost as friendly as the locals.

STAY: POETS COVE RESORT & SPA

Forty-six units in all, including 22 rooms in the main lodge, nine villas and 15 cottages. The outdoor pool, overlooking the Bedwell Harbour, is a highlight. Starting rate during the summer season: $299. Early booking recommended for weekend stays. 9801 Spalding Rd., 888-512-7638/250-629-2100. Poetscove.com

EAT: LOCAL PRODUCE

We recommend the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market. Pender Island Community Hall, 4418 Bedwell Harbour Rd., 250-629-3669. Southridge Farms Country Store also stocks island produce along with European-style sausages from the Sidney-based Starke’s Deli and Sausage Factory. 3327 Port Washington Rd., 250-629-2051.

VISIT: RED TREE GALLERY (PENDER ISLANDS ARTISAN CO-OP)

The inventory is a bit of a hodgepodge—and quality varies—but the simple ceramics by Susan Tait are charming. 3-4301 Bedwell Harbour Rd., 250-629-6800. Pendercreatives.com/artco-op

GETTING THERE:

At least two sailings daily. Ferries stop at Galiano and Mayne, and some weekend sailings require disembarking at Mayne.Travel time (on a good day): about three hours. Seair offers three direct flights daily. Travel time: South Terminal to Port Washington: 20 minutes.

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