If you’ve even heard of British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands—situated between Vancouver and Vancouver Island—you are probably already well aware of the archipelago’s long-held reputation: quaint towns situated along pristine coastlines populated by hippies (of all ages) and American draft dodgers, with an overall laidback bohemian vibe. The one and only place in Canada where residents overwhelmingly vote for the Green Party.
But the islands’ true charms are in the details. The people are genuinely friendly and trusting in very real ways. Hitchhiking, for example, is not only condoned, it’s encouraged—and it is a largely reliable way to get around. Those looking for a ride need to simply find a sign that reads, “Car Stop” and wait for a kind driver to come along. Farmers often employ the honor system, leaving their produce stands unattended, asking customers to leave enough cash for whatever they take. Moonstruck Organic Cheese on Salt Spring Island has a small unattended shop, complete with samples of all their cheeses waiting in the fridge.
In addition to Salt Spring, the archipelago, visited since the 1800s, also includes Galiano, Saturna, Mayne, Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, and Pender Island all nestled in together just north of the U.S. border, with Gabriola Island to be found further north. The islands are accessible by BC Ferries, with departures from Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal (about 30 minutes south of Vancouver) and from Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island.
The Gulf Islands have seen a steady increase in attention in recent years as a destination for
fine food, and a weakened Canadian Dollar means Southern Gulf Islanders are expecting a larger number of travelers from both the U.S. and Canada, as more Canadians opt not to cross the border for holidays.
The summer is an ideal time to visit, as it very rarely rains in the Southern Gulf Islands during those months, which means you’re almost certain to wake up to a peaceful, beautiful morning.
With two days and a car (the ferries are car friendly), you can explore the major highlights of Salt Spring (the most populous island with 10,000 residents) and Galiano. If you are making it a long weekend, add a half day on Pender Island to the itinerary.
Start your day in Ganges, the largest town on Salt Spring, by getting your caffeine fix at Salt Spring Coffee near the intersection of Lower Ganges and Fulford-Ganges roads, effectively the town’s geographical center. Alternatively, if you are arriving to Salt Spring from Vancouver Island, there’s Rock Salt Restaurant and Café in Fulford. Try the Gumboot Rancheros (farm fresh sunny side up eggs, with monterey jack and cheddar cheese, jalapeno peppers, scallions, diced tomatoes, fresh cilantro and sour cream). It’s a great idea to plan your trip to Salt Spring around the Saturday market, which takes place between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. every Saturday from Easter until the end of October. The market sees approximately 140 vendors set up at an oceanfront space near the same intersection. Like everything else on Salt Spring, the market’s philosophy is fiercely local. Everything sold at the market must be made or grown on the island.
While it started as a farmers market years ago, today it is also a great place to buy art and handicrafts, including jewelry and pottery, made by local artisans. Most of the island’s best artisanal food purveyors can be found here each Saturday as well. Check out Saltspring Soapworks, Salt Spring Island Bread Company and the Salt Spring Island Kombucha Company. Keeping with the tradition of naming businesses after the island, Salt Spring Island Cheese Company makes a selection of very tasty goat cheeses—their specialty is the Herb and Garlic Ruckles, however their chili goat cheese and chili goat feta are also memorable. Their farm and tasting room on the south end of the island is also worth a visit. You can tour the production facility, gaze at the goats, sample all the cheeses and jellies and have a picnic in the garden.
After a morning at the market, you may not need lunch. But if you do, try the Tree House Cafe, adjacent the market. No other eatery on Salt Spring represents the island’s bohemian identity more so than this place. The restaurant, a local favorite that is busy at all times of year, was built around a large tree. The Thai curry and breakfast burritos are recommended. The Tree House has live music most nights of the week and attracts a mix of locals and tourists who come to drink, chill out and maybe dance a little.
The Gulf Islands have not yet gained great notoriety for their local wines, but that may be steadily changing. Salt Spring’s mild rainy winters and hot (but not too hot) dry summers make the island well suited for cool climate grapes, which are grown here by Garry Oaks Winery, Mistaken Identity Vineyards and Salt Spring Vineyards. All three are open daily in the summer for tastings. Garry Oaks, located 5.5 miles south on the Fulford-Ganges Road in the Burgoyne Valley, is the oldest and most acclaimed of the three. If you are partial to whites, you will probably enjoy their Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer, while the Zweigelt, a relatively rare type of red wine, has a surprising spicy black cherry flavor. Salt Spring Vineyards is about 500 feet further down and worth another stop. But if you are craving beer, then continue in the same direction and turn right on Furness Road to get to Salt Spring Ales, the island’s only microbrewery. The tasting room has eight to 10 beers made using spring water and organic hops. Try the Heather Ale, which is made with a recipe that uses heather flowers and just a pinch of hops.
We probably should have mentioned earlier that you are going to need a designated driver today.
Finish your tasting tour at Salt Spring Wild which makes organic hard apple cider with wild apples and pears, most of which are grown on the island. Grab a bottle of Hopped Apricot, get a table outside and enjoy the country setting and stone carvings created by the purveyor’s co-owner.
Head back to Ganges and check out the Oystercatcher Bar and Restaurant (next to the Tree House), which has the best patio in town along the marina. This is a great place to slurp down some pre-dinner oysters while watching the sunset on the bay. Salt Spring Ales are on tap here, too. For dinner, try House Piccolo, one of Salt Spring’s finest restaurants. Order the Baltic Herring with some ice cold Akvavit and beer to start and then the Queen Charlotte Island Sablefish Meuniere, which is pan fried with brown butter, parsley and lemon. If you’re still not ready to call it quits, head back to the Tree House for some live music, or stop in for a night cap at the Salt Spring Inn.
Hop aboard the ferry from Long Harbour to Sturdies Bay, on Galiano Island. If you’re traveling Sunday, the morning boat leaves at 7:15 a.m. After making stops on Pender and Mayne, the ferry pulls into Galiano at 9:15 a.m. Your breakfast is waiting for you at Grand Central Emporium, which is just steps from the ferry terminal. It’s a classic diner set in an old store built in 1905. Try the Breakfast Bagel with bacon, cheddar cheese, egg, fresh vegetables and pan fried potatoes, served with organic coffee.
After breakfast, check out Bodega Gallery Art and Ceramics, which is about a three-minute drive away. Galiano takes pride in its roster of artists and two of the most notable are Bodega proprietors Rolando and Kasumi Lampitoc. Rolando is a painter specializing in scenes from nature, while Kasumi creates functional pottery and ceramics.
Head back toward the ferry terminal and check into the spa at the Galiano Inn. The spa offers a variety of healing massages, therapeutic mud body masques and floatation therapy, which involves floating in an epsom salt bath in a room that’s designed to be a nearly sensory-deprived kind of experience. When your treatment is done, the Inn’s Atrevida Restaurant makes pizzas in a wood oven, with toppings that can include anything from pulled pork to Duck confit with hoisin sauce and cilantro. Be sure to grab a table on the oceanfront patio, which offers great views of busy Sturdies Bay.
Next up is a hike at Bodega Ridge Provincial Park. Take Sturdies Bay Road, which eventually turns into Porlier Pass Road. Along the way, stop off at Marcia Devicque Glassworks Devicque’s open workshop in a forest setting and her decorative glassworks are inspired by natural forms. Bodega Ridge has a 2.5 mile path that takes hikers to a dramatic viewpoint at the edge of a cliff that looks west toward Salt Spring.
Summer nights in the Gulf Islands tend to be very calm with little to no wind. This makes a sunset paddle with Gulf Island Kayaking a nice option for the end of the day.
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, it’s time for what’s likely to be the highlight of (and perhaps the whole reason for) your trip. Backtrack along Porlier Pass Road before turning on to Clanton Road, then Montague Bay Road, which will bring you to Pilgrimme. Opened in October 2014, the restaurant is co-owned by chef Jesse McCleery and Leanne Lalonde. McCleery has become known for his farm-to-table philosophy and his use of foraged ingredients, a style he learned while working at the King Pacific Lodge in the Great Bear Rainforest, and honed during a six-month internship at Noma with Nordic Cuisine master Rene Redzepi.
The menu is seasonal, but regardless of when you visit, it is sure to be a fascinating fine dining experience. If it’s on the menu, be sure to try the octopus with chorizo, chickpeas and purple potato chips; the Swiss chard with duck skin crumble; or hay baked and smoked rutabaga with parsley faro, pork skin and jalapeno ranch. The closest thing McCleery has to a signature dish is his Galiano potatoes cooked in whey buttermilk and smoked, and pickled bull kelp, which McCleery forages himself.
For a night cap, the Hummingbird Pub on Sturdies Bay Road is a great choice. There is often live music on weekends.
Fly to Victoria International Airport, which is closer to Salt Spring Island. If you arrive via Vancouver International Airport, you can take BC Ferries to the islands.
Where to Stay
On Salt Spring Island, Hedgerow House bed-and-breakfast can be found on the quiet Park Road, about a 10-minute walk from the Saturday market. Jayne and Peter Lloyd-Jones offer three cozy, elegantly decorated guest rooms and prepare excellent breakfasts using local ingredients, including vegetables from their own garden. Jayne also leads yoga classes three times a week.
On Galiano Island, the Galiano Inn has luxurious oceanfront rooms, with villa suites that include private outdoor terraces with wood burning fireplaces and hot tubs overlooking the water.
Also on Galiano, Bodega Ridge offers seven three-bedroom log cabins in a wooded setting. The cabins are nicely furnished with handmade wooden furniture, full kitchens and designer light fixtures. The lodge has a small bar and coffee lounge.
While two days may not leave enough time for a trip to Pender Island, staying an extra day is worth it for Woods on Pender (pictured above), alone. The resort offers a luxury camping experience, with six well-equipped Airstream trailers of varying sizes and three rustic cabins. Features include wood patios, outdoor hot tubs and gas fire pits. But the real highlight of Woods on Pender may be the restaurant and bar, where chef-owner Curtis Redel prepares a dining experience that is similar to what you’d find in Vancouver’s upscale Gastown neighborhood.
Matt Flemming travels far and wide on assignment for some of the world’s best publications. Based in Vancouver, but his heart belongs to South Korea.