The Pacific Northwest is one of the world’s top scenic destinations, with the Gulf scenic between Vancouver and Victoria representing the best of the west.
By Craig Ritchie.
You’ve got big water. You’ve got big fish. You’ve got quiet, secluded anchorages, and you’ve got plenty of places to stop. Add in the abundant wildlife, perfect climate, abundant fresh seafood and a year-round tourism season and it’s easy to understand why the Gulf Islands rank among the world’s top destinations.
Starting near Victoria on the southern end of Vancouver Island, and continuing north along its eastern shore past Nanaimo, the Gulf Islands really do offer just about every type of experience imaginable to visitors. About a dozen of the larger islands have year-round residents, many more have summer cottages and several hundred others remain as wild and natural as ever. Many of the islands, and the waterways around them, carry the names of the English and Spanish explorers who arrived in the area in the 18th century – hence neighbouring Mayne and Galiano Islands, for example. These intriguing names all cry out to be explored, and that brings us to the single greatest challenge that comes with any trip to this beautiful region – where the heck do you start?
What’s clear is that there’s just no way to take in all that the Gulf Islands have to offer in one trip. So right from the start, accept that you’ll have to break it into chunks. But what better way to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary than by trying to see 150 different islands? It’s absolutely possible, and positively rewarding.
The Big Islands
The larger islands – Salt Spring, Gabriola, the Penders, Mayne, Saturna and Galiano – draw the largest number of visitors on the strength of all the different activities and opportunities they provide. If it’s your first trip to the area, you’ll want to start here.
With an area of about 180 square kilometers, Salt Spring Island is the largest land mass in the Gulf Islands archipelago. With around 10,000 full-time residents, this delightful destination offers a wealth of activities for visiting campers, as well as unique shopping and dining opportunities.
Salt Spring is the busiest of the Gulf Islands in part due to the large number of festivals and events that it hosts year-round. Most of the activity centers around Ganges Harbour, which makes it the ideal jumping-off spot for winery tours, yoga and wellness retreats, art studio tours, browsing local markets, shopping, dining and more. If you brought bikes on your RV, you’ll have more mobility and be better able to explore more distant parts of the island. Two wineries, a craft brewery and a cider house each offer tours and, of course, product tastings. There’s golf and great kayaking too. Two wineries, a craft brewery and a cider house each offer tours and, of course, product tastings.
Nearby Gabriola Island is known for its diving, with the opportunity to observe several wrecks and enjoy a variety of sea life. A variety of restaurants, shops, wellness retreats, farmer’s markets, artisan crafts, golf and attractions make Gabriola Island a must-see on any Gulf Islands trip. At about 30 square kilometers, Gabriola is easily navigated by bicycle, and circumnavigating the island makes for an enjoyable day.
The Penders – North Pender Island and South Pender Island – are another popular destination. Although the two “islands” are actually connected by a short spit of land near Port Browning, they’re a popular destination with their winery and spa facilities.
The Penders are also a popular destination for whale watching boats, so always keep an eye out for passing pods of both resident and migratory Orcas, as well as occasional grey whales. You can’t approach the whales, but they will often approach you, so be prepared. The islands themselves are sparsely populated by around 2,000 locals, the Penders are known for their blueberries, so if you visit in season, be prepared to enjoy tasty treats everywhere you go.
For the more adventurous there is kayaking, swimming, sailing, disc golf, golf, fishing, biking or hiking. Try a walk up 244-metre (800-foot) Mount Norman or a wander on the ridge near Greenburn Lake for stunning views. Pender has 37 beach accesses and at least 57 trails to explore.
Mayne Island doesn’t really have any camping facilities, but that doesn’t stop all kinds of tourists to enjoy its many charms. It’s still a fair sized island at about 21 square kilometers, and it has a surprisingly efficient road network. With barely 1,000 residents, the excellent yet lightly-traveled roads are a cyclist’s delight. Art studios, galleries, restaurants, spas and more await.
Saturna Island, along with its nearby neighbours Samuel Island, Cabbage Island and Tumbo Island, is another major whale watching destination, with a resident Orca population frequently seen around East Point. Sea lions are also extremely common in the area. Marine facilities are limited to the Lyall Harbour, but there’s plenty to do once you do come ashore, including a fully packed event calendar.
At nearly 60 square kilometers in size, Galiano Island seems a lot like Salt Spring Island minus the crowds. That’s surprising, really, given that it’s the first stop on the Tsawwassen-Gulf Islands ferry, and a popular day trip for visitors from the mainland. Try climbing 355 metre (1,160 foot) Mount Galiano for jaw-dropping views, or enjoy a hike along Bodega Ridge on the island’s southern half. Drop in to Montague Harbour Provincial Marine Park (http://k2parks.ca/montague-harbour-prov-marine-park/ ), one of the most popular anchorages in the Southern Gulf Islands and one of the best places to watch sunsets.
The Little Gems
While the big islands have plenty of attractions and amenities with which to charm visitors boaters, the smaller, uninhabited islands that dot the sea through this region are worth taking the time to explore. Countless little coves and bays provide enticing anchorages for overnight stays, where your only companions will be eagles, whales and the quiet tranquility of the sea.
Much of this area is protected as part of Parks Canada’s Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (parkscanada.gc.ca/gulfislands). This includes protected marine areas around most of the island shorelines, parcels of land on the islands themselves, and a few spots where access is generally off limits to the general public. Download a copy of the official visitor’s guide on the Gulf Islands National Park website to make sure you know what’s what. The companion Hiking, Camping and Boating Guide includes a complete list of facilities within park boundaries, including maps showing protected zones.
With Canada celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation this year, Parks Canada is offering free day admission for all visitors to national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas, as their way of encouraging everyone to get out and discover our wonderful country. Camping fees will still apply, of course, which is fair enough since there are costs against providing these services. But take advantage of the opportunity to discover the wildest parts of the Gulf Islands, in particular, by exploring the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.
The Freshest Seafood Anywhere
One of the great joys of exploring the Gulf Islands is the opportunity to enjoy the freshest seafood on the planet. Outstanding restaurants abound, with most offering some sort of daily special based around what the boats came in with that morning. There’s no better place to get your fill of king crab, Dungeness crab, blue mussels, Pacific oysters, scallops, shrimp, prawns and fresh-caught squid.
If you’re more into catching your own seafood, then you’ll be delighted to know that the Gulf Islands offer some of the best saltwater fishing in all of BC. No less than five species of Pacific salmon – coho, spring (chinook), chum, sockeye and pink – are abundant throughout the area, along with delicious bottom-dwellers like halibut, rockfish and ling cod. If you’re unsure of what to do or simply don’t have any tackle aboard, help is freely available at any tackle shop or marina. Most are connected to local guides who can supply all tackle, and even clean your catch at the end of the day.
Good food always benefits from the company of good wine, including locally-produced vintages made from grapes grown right in the Gulf Islands. The combination of plenty of sunshine, a temperate climate, perfect soils and a long growing season makes the Islands perfect habitat for growing a number of cool climate grape varieties. The wineries that have begun to dot the different islands now produce award-winning wines, including excellent Pinot Gris, Chardonnays, Gewürztraminers and Pinot Noirs that, coincidentally, all happen to go perfectly with seafood. Imagine that.
It’s easy to picture yourself sipping a glass of BC wine, with a belly full of seafood, while anchored in a quiet cove and watching the sun set over the calm seas of the Gulf Islands. But rather than just imagine it, why not make Canada’s 150th extra special with a journey this year? Bring your own boat, or charter one nearby – either way, it only takes one visit to understand why visitors call this place the best of the west.