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Your Great Island Escape: Insider's Guide to the Magical Gulf Islands

A B.C. native and mom shares top tips on the wonders of Salt Spring, Galiano and Pender

Fiona Cohen

Published on: May 22, 2015

When you drive off a B.C. ferry onto one of the Canadian Gulf Islands, you enter a new world, one that is very special.

While I am biased (I grew up in nearby Victoria and, since the age of 5, have never spent a summer without visiting Salt Spring Island), consider the evidence: The temperate summer climate is suitable for long days of outdoor exploration. There are many glorious parks, trails and lakes open to the public; and people are free to roam on all the beaches. And the island communities have enough of a tourist economy to nurture creative folks, but not enough to price them out — which adds up to an easygoing culture in which sedate retirees coexist with third-generation hippies, and both groups vote for the Green Party.

This year is a particularly good one to explore the islands, with lower gas prices and a strong American dollar making nearby Canadian getaways a relative bargain.

Here’s an insider’s guide to the three largest and most accessible islands — Salt Spring, Galiano and Pender — all well-endowed with cabins, campgrounds and abundant summer cottages for rent. (Tip: The busiest weekend is Aug. 1–2, as Aug. 3 is a public holiday in British Columbia.)

All three islands are accessible by BC ferry from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, a drive of two hours and 15 minutes from Seattle (assuming no traffic or border waits); be sure to reserve your spot on the ferry in the summer months. Sailing times range from 55 minutes for Galiano Island to as much as two hours and 10 minutes for Pender Island. You can expect to arrive at the closest island within five or six hours of leaving your Seattle home — pretty good for a weekend summer excursion.

Salt Spring Island | Photo credit: B.C. Parks

Creative haven: Salt Spring Island

With a year-round population of more than 10,000, Salt Spring Island is the largest and most populous of the Gulf Islands. The one settlement that could be called a town, Ganges, is still too small for a traffic light, but just large enough for locals to passionately debate whether there should be one. These locals are a cultured bunch, which means families have an opportunity to explore the arts in a lovely setting.

Where to play on Salt Spring

The wild shore: When visiting the 1,307-acre Ruckle Provincial Park, on the island’s southeast corner, most people stick to the sandstone shoreline. And there’s good reason for that: The trail rounds a headland with sweeping island views, and the tide pooling is superb. However, if you have time after your stroll along the coast, check out some of the park’s other magnificent trails. (Also, consider camping!)

View from the top: It’s a bumpy, dusty drive to the top of 1,930-foot Mount Maxwell, located in the central-west part of the island, but the view is worth it: The viewpoint is at the top of an immense cliff overlooking the Burgoyne Valley, with panoramic vistas of forests, Garry oak meadows and salmon-bearing creeks. If you’re feeling adventurous, foray along nearby trails for even more landscape drama. 

Salt Spring Island Cheese Company. Photo credit: gerry, flickr CC
Salt Spring Island Cheese Company, Photo credit: gerry, flickr CC

Go jump in a lake: Among Salt Spring’s hills and valleys are a scattering of warm, serene lakes that are perfect for a dip at the end of a hot day. One potential culture shock: The locals are rather casual about nudity in the context of a neighborhood swimming hole. (You’re most likely to encounter a dockload of people sunning their private parts at Blackburn Lake.) 

Food and arts: Visit goats and sheep, then watch cheese being made at Salt Spring Island Cheese Company through big glass windows, samples included. Stop by the farm stand at Farias Family Farm, in the Burgoyne Valley, which sells magnificent strawberries all summer. See Salt Spring’s multivaried artist community in action by going on a self-guided studio tour of painters, potters, woodworkers and more.

Where to eat on Salt Spring

In Ganges, Barb’s Bakery and Bistro, a local gathering place, serves wholesome lunch fare; and the Tree House Cafe offers live music every night during the summer. In Vesuvius, a small village at the north end of the island, Seaside Restaurant fries up fish and chips, oysters and other unpretentious local maritime treats.

For a Saturday nosh and fine browsing of artisan crafts and food, don’t miss the lively Salt Spring Saturday Market in Ganges.

Where to stay on Salt Spring

Ruckle Park offers world-class, first-come first-served walk-in sites (less than five minutes from the parking lot) in a meadow by the sea (CA$20 per party per night).

Cusheon Lake Resort has cabins by a lake (CA$248 for two-bedroom cabins during the summer).


Galiano Island | Photo credit: B.C. Parks

Orcas, trees and tides: Galiano

A wooded, rocky strip of an island that is only a 55-minute ferry ride from Tsawwassen, Galiano is 17 miles long, and, over most of that length, less than two miles wide. It walls off the sheltered channels of the Gulf Island archipelago from the open water of the Strait of Georgia, and the passages at each end of the island feature ferocious tides and varied wildlife. Active Pass, on the southern tip, is a common route for orca pods. For the 1,200 or so island residents and the many visitors, nature is a vivid presence.

Active Pass, Galiano Island. Photo credit: David Stanley, flickr CC
Active Pass, Galiano Island. Photo credit: David Stanley, flickr CC

Where to play on Galiano

Sandstone and white shells: Head to Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park, located on the sheltered southwestern side of Galiano, for a spectacular sunset over the surrounding islands. Other wonders of Montague include weathered and intricate sandstone formations on the shoreline and big beaches of white shells, the remnants of thousands of years of First Nation peoples camping and cooking in the area. 

Walk the ridge: Families with older kids will enjoy the climb at Bodega Ridge Provincial Park. Hike for 30 minutes or so and you’re on the top of Galiano, walking along a rocky ridge more than 1,000 feet above the sea. You can continue for more than two miles. Look for eagles and peregrine falcons! 

Between sea and sea: A short stroll from the ferry terminal in Sturdies Bay, Bellhouse Provincial Park is a thumb of land jutting out into the entrance of Active Pass. After strolling through some gnarled Garry oaks, picnic while watching the wildlife, ships and swirling tides. 

Where to eat on Galiano

Max and Moritz Spicy Island Food House, a food truck by the ferry dock, serves an eclectic mix of German and Indonesian food that would play well at any urban food-truck rodeo. Bring cash. Galiano Grand Central Emporium serves diner fare for breakfast lunch and dinner. The Hummingbird Pub serves basic pub food.

Where to stay on Galiano

You can reserve campsites at Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park (CA$23).

Driftwood Village Resort, near Active Pass, has a variety of cabins and suites (CA$175 for two-bedroom cabin).


Pender Island | Photo credit: Parks Canada/Christian J. Stewart 

A different pace: Pender Island

Much smaller than Galiano in land area, but with twice the population, Pender Island (or to some, the Pender Islands) has a distinct community. For example, at roadsides all over Pender, you’ll find official “car stops” — many furnished with hand-split cedar benches worthy of Middle Earth — where people can wait until a passing motorist decides to pick them up. It says something about the island’s community spirit that the voluntary program works well and is so popular that other areas, including Salt Spring, are copying it.

Where to play on Pender

Up or down? For less than an hour of steep hiking, Mount Norman, a South Pender outpost of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (a national park scattered around the whole archipelago), offers a big payoff: huge panoramic views, and plenty of bragging rights. For a more gradual, yet also adventurous walk, take a trail downhill to Beaumont Marine Park and explore its rocky headlands and sandy cove. 

Museum and swimming. At Roesland Park on North Pender, another outpost of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, explore the Pender Island Museum; then put on your swimming togs and walk the trail to beautiful Roe Lake for a dip.

Market mornings. The Pender Islands Farmers Market takes place Saturdays, 9:30 a.m.–1 p.m., from April until October at the Community Hall on North Pender Island.

Where to eat on Pender

The Café at Hope Bay, on the north side of North Pender, offers chef-prepared but inexpensive food in a stunning waterfront spot. Stop by Pender Island Bakery Café, in North Pender’s commercial hub, to caffeinate and grab a light meal.

Where to stay on Pender

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve’s Prior Centennial Campground, on North Pender, has drive-in sites (CA$13.70 per night). 

Find lovely walk-in sites at Shingle Bay, or hike-in sites at Beaumont Marine Park (CA$4.90 per person).

Outside Poets Cove Resort and Spa, it’s scenic island beauty; inside, it’s slick luxury of a kind more often seen in Whistler than on the Gulf Islands (twin rooms are CA$350 during summer).

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