British Columbia's Island Playground

Spring 2010 CSANews Issue 74  |  Posted date : May 27, 2010.Back to list

It was hard to believe that Vancouver was only an hour away. We were standing on Galiano Island's Bluffs, 180 metres above Active Pass, the busiest waterway in British Columbia's Gulf Islands.

Coast Salish First Nations people admired the same scenery hundreds of years ago. The magnificent panorama encompassed Active Pass, Helen Point on Mayne Island and, farther away, Prevost, North Pender and Salt Spring Islands, stitched together with waterways. An eagle soared overhead. Below us, the haunting echo of a BC Ferries horn announced the ship's appearance around a bend.

It was a sound that we heard often as we explored the Gulf Islands. Located in Georgia Strait, between southern Vancouver Island and mainland B.C., the picturesque archipelago of 200 islands offers unspoiled scenery, quiet roads, a Mediterranean climate, comfortable inns and a mellow state of mind dubbed island time. Only eight islands have permanent inhabitants.

The Gulf Islands are accessible from the mainland and Vancouver Island by ferries, private boats, float planes and water taxis. BC Ferries is the most economical way to travel to the larger islands. Most ferries transport vehicles, however they do require careful scheduling. To avoid long waits during peak summer periods and holiday weekends, reservations are essential on popular routes.


The transition from mainland hubbub to rural tranquillity was easy on Galiano, the first island on our four-island tour. A cool canopy of cedars and Douglas firs shielded us from the sun as we climbed through Pacific Northwest rainforest to the Bluff Park viewpoint. Deer watched us silently from the shadows. A startled family of mottled grouse scurried for cover in the underbrush.

Twenty-seven kilometres long, Galiano is four times as long as it is wide. Named after Spanish Navy Commander Dionisio Galiano, who explored the area in 1792, it's the second-largest of the southern Gulf Islands, after Salt Spring. With half of the rainfall of the mainland, Galiano is the sunniest Gulf Island.

Near the ferry dock, a flower-bedecked bus shelter/self-serve tourist information booth displayed a relief map of Galiano; we picked up a free copy of the Galiano Visitor's Guide, which included a good map.

It's impossible to get lost here. We simply followed Porlier Pass Road from the ferry dock at the south end of the island. Wild lavender, magenta and mauve foxglove blossoms lined the paved road like spectators at a parade. Birds twittered in trees, framing tantalizing glimpses of Trincomali Channel. Mailboxes, the colour of hyacinths and sunflowers, marked homes hidden behind masses of day lilies, petunias and pansies. The road was relatively traffic-free, except for a few cyclists.

Near the north end of Galiano, we stopped at Lover's Leap. From the edge of the 20-storey-high lookout, we viewed Wallace Island, a marine park, across the sparkling channel.

Purple sweet peas and mustard-yellow buttercups punctuated roadside, neon-green ferns as we traced our route back. Stoneworld (a Galiano artist's version of Stonehenge) and several art studios, including Marcia DeVicque's GlassWorks and Cedar Grove Pottery, offered pleasant diversions before lunch.

Hanging baskets of impatiens and a larger-than-life mural of poppies, daisies and buttercups adorned Daystar Market. After enjoying wholesome sandwiches from the deli, we succumbed to a new addiction: Denman Island organic chocolate bars. (Denman Island is a 10-minute ferry ride from Buckley Bay, which is one hour north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.)

Although there are only 1,300 permanent residents of Galiano, they keep busy. "Many are artists and craftsmen with their own shops," explained the friendly store clerk. "Dionisio Point Provincial Park and Montague Harbour Provincial Park have great hiking, bird-watching and clam shell beaches. We even have a nine-hole golf course."

Evenings are the time for soccer matches, Scottish country dancing and gatherings at the Hummingbird Pub and Grand Central Grill, according to the clerk. "From mid-May to late September, a shuttle bus transports passengers between Montague Park, Marina Junction and Hummingbird Pub, where there's live entertainment on weekends."

After lunch, we visited more of Galiano's arts and crafts shops. At Schoenfeld Custom Knives, we admired beautiful kitchen utensils with multicoloured handles, crafted from layers of birchwood. In Galiano Island Books, we bought a copy of Hiking the Gulf Islands by Charles Kahn.

We resolved to return for a longer stay. Galiano has several bed and breakfasts, cottages, cabins and inns, including the Galiano Inn which features a spa, fine dining and wood-fired pizza lunches on the waterfront in summer.

On this trip, we overnighted on Mayne Island, 25 minutes south of
Galiano. While waiting for the ferry, we enjoyed ice-cream cones from Scoops Burger Bar in the village of Sturdies Bay.


The ferry to Mayne has free copies of the Mayne Island Map and Visitors Guide, a helpful resource, whether you explore by car, bicycle or on foot. Only 21 square kilometres in size, Mayne has a population of 1,100.

Our base was Oceanwood Country Inn, which overlooks a private bay and a garden filled with foxgloves, poppies and other blossoms. Several of the dozen rooms have fireplaces, private decks and soaking tubs.

Long-time owner of Oceanwood Country Inn, Jonathan Chilvers, is leasing the property to new managers this year. Chilvers advises visitors to explore the beautiful Japanese Gardens, directly opposite the inn. "It's maintained by volunteers and small donations," he says. "The people of Mayne Island created the gardens as a tribute to Japanese residents who contributed to Mayne's development before their relocation to World War II internment camps."

For scenic walks, Chilvers recommends Mount Parke Park, a 10-minute drive from the inn. His favourite trail is through the woods and up the hill. "If the weather is good, bring a picnic and enjoy the spectacular view over the ocean and surrounding islands," he says. "It's a relatively easy half-hour walk each way."


Another ferry brought us from Mayne to Saturna Island. If you love nature, you'll love Saturna Island. The 96-square-kilometre island is home to deer, otters, seals, sea lions, orcas and more than 180 species of birds.

Saturna was named after the Spanish navy schooner, Saturnina, commanded by José Maria Narvaez, who explored the area in 1791. First Nations people occupied the island until settlers arrived in the 1870s.

Our favourite drive was the 25-kilometre East Point Road, which begins at the Lyall Harbour ferry terminal and skirts Georgia Strait to the opposite end of the island. The scent of salty air enveloped us. Waves crashed on the sandy shore to our left, while a doe and her fawn grazed in the lush vegetation on our right. Cedars and Douglas firs arched over the road. It was like driving through a cathedral.

Halfway along the route, we stopped the car to explore the beach. Tidal pools sheltered pretty butter clam shells, limpets and acorn barnacles. Around the blue mussel-covered rocks, we found several shells, including a large weathervane scallop. Tiny hermit crabs scuttled over strands of sea lettuce.

We examined long tubes of bull kelp that had washed up on the beach. "It can grow the length of my forearm in a single day," explained a local beachcomber. "We preserve the stalks with dill and vinegar, and eat them like pickles."

A short drive later, we arrived at East Point Lighthouse, a well-known whale-watching spot. With its 270-degree view, the public park is a spectacular setting for a picnic.

Earlier that day, we had stopped at Saturna General Store, just past the ferry dock, to buy some local treats for our picnic. We indulged in locally smoked salmon and freshly baked whole-grain bread from Saturna's Haggis Farm Bakery. To complete our meal, we added fruit and wonderful basil and pepper chèvre cheeses made by David Wood, who raises goats on neighbouring Salt Spring Island. (Wood used to own a gourmet food shop in Toronto.)

The view from our picnic table encompassed Mount Baker in the distance, and Tumbo and Cabbage Islands, across water patrolled by orcas. We saw no whales, but observed dozens of harbour seals on the rocks below. Both islands are part of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, which was established in 2003. The land and marine reserve encompasses 15 islands, several islets and reefs and nearly 50% of Saturna Island. Its wetlands are a haven for waterfowl.

After lunch, we explored the East Point section of the park, with a walk below the lighthouse. On the sandstone cliffs, we discovered sea urchins and purple sea stars hiding in rock crevasses, a fish petroglyph and honeycomb weathering. "Sea water penetrates the porous sandstone, then dries and leaves salt crystals in the pores," explained a local hiker. "The crystals grow and pry out sand grains, creating the holes." One hole was so large that it resembled a whale's open mouth. We couldn't resist poking our heads inside.

Eager to explore more of Gulf Islands National Park, we drove to Mount Warburton Pike, which has the second-highest summit in the Gulf Islands (397 metres). Feral goats grazed on the grassy ridge, as we looked south over the U.S. San Juan Islands.

At Saturna Island Family Estate Winery, also in southwest Saturna, wild roses surround 60 acres of vineyards. After touring the winery and vineyards, we enjoyed complimentary wine-tasting in the shop. Saturna Winery produces several wines, including Pinot gris, Gewürztraminer and award-winning Pinot noir and Chardonnay. The Bistro is open for lunch from May to September.

Saturna has a limited number of accommodations (bed and breakfasts, cabins, cottages, chalets and lodges), so you should make reservations in advance. This is especially important on July 1, when the island's population of 340 swells to more than 1,500 for the annual Saturna Island Lamb BBQ.

The Canada Day celebration, held in Winter Cove Park, merges a country fair with a massive outdoor picnic. After enjoying lamb (barbecued on spits around a fire pit) and served with homemade mint sauce, coleslaw, Spanish rice, coffee, tea and cookies, attendees enjoy live music, a beverages tent, games and craft stands. Event proceeds fund community projects.

Salt Spring

We missed the barbecue by two weeks, but consoled ourselves with the prospect of dining on succulent Salt Spring Island lamb the following day on Salt Spring, the largest Gulf Island (180 square kilometres).

The majority of Salt Spring's 10,500 residents live in or near Ganges, the main town, which nestles around Ganges Harbour. Restaurants run the gamut from take-out (wholesome sandwiches and organic coffee at Barb's Buns) to elegant (gourmet regional cuisine at Hastings House).

An artists' haven, Salt Spring boasts galleries and craft shops that sell everything from ceramics and jewellery to woodwork and wearable art. Famed artist, Robert Bateman lives on the island. An easy way to visit artists' studios is on a self-guided tour, using a free Salt Spring Island Studio Tour map, available on ferries and at the Ganges Visitor Information Centre.

Salt Spring's Saturday market (April to late October) in Centennial Park is a great place to shop for arts and crafts, as well as farmstead cheeses, organic fruits and homemade baked goods. Don't miss ArtCraft, at Mahon Hall, where more than 200 artists sell their creations daily, from mid-June to mid-September.

Fitness is a way of life here, with numerous opportunities to hike,
kayak, swim and cycle. We decided to explore some of Salt Spring's many hiking trails. In the south coast Tsawout Native Reserve, facing Fulford Harbour, we walked along the spongy mulch and pine cone-covered forest floor. Western red cedars, the height of four telephone poles, towered over us. In a clearing, we viewed dwelling pits surrounded by middens of shellfish, discarded by Coastal Salish native people hundreds of years ago.

Salty air replaced the woodsy fragrance as we reached the coast. We climbed down to a gently curved beach where First Nations people once landed their boats. Resting on driftwood logs, we listened to lapping waves, calls of black oystercatchers and the haunting echo of a BC Ferries horn.

The following day, we felt like Hansel and Gretel in a primordial forest, as we hiked in Ruckle Provincial Park in southeast Salt Spring. Green moss-like epiphytes draped branches and fallen logs. Douglas firs and western red cedars dwarfed us, while lacy sword and bracken ferns carpeted the ground in a dozen shades of green.

Ruckle Park incorporates one of the oldest farmsteads in British Columbia. Henry Ruckle's original 1877 farmhouse still stands here, as well as the apple orchard, barn and potato house (now park headquarters).

Just past a bucolic pasture filled with grazing sheep, we spotted an honesty stand, one of several on Salt Spring Island. Flower bouquets, fresh fruit and jars of homemade preserves, each with a price sign, covered the roofed wooden table. Shoppers make their selection and drop the money through the wooden honesty box slot. The charming custom dates back to the days when farmers trusted neighbours and visitors to pay for surplus garden produce left by the roadside. It says a lot about life here.

B.C.'s Gulf Islands are havens of rural tranquillity and old-fashioned values. Priorities such as preserving the environment, growing your own food or buying it directly from producers at markets and farm stands prevail. Tides and island ferry schedules dictate the slow pace of life.

Hornby & Bowen

Visitors seldom agree on their favourite island. What is unanimous is their desire to return to see new Gulf Islands or spend more time experiencing the ones they love. Steve and Kala Solway of Toronto, for example, visited Hornby Island 20 years ago. "Hornby is a 15-minute ferry trip from Denman Island. It's very pretty, with beautiful views, great walking trails and little coves, with sandy beaches and crystal clear water," recalls Steve. "We especially liked Helliwell Provincial Park." Steve and Kala travelled by RV to the island, after evaluating the advantages of being "completely portable" versus higher ferry costs for oversize vehicles.

Like most Gulf Island vacationers, the Solways found themselves drawn back. Recently, they took a 20-minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, to Bowen Island. "It's a popular day trip for Vancouver residents, so go on a weekday to avoid the crowds," says Steve. "There's a marina and a lovely park near the ferry terminal. You can have lunch in the restaurant or picnic in the park, and browse through the shops. We hiked up to the island's highest point (719-metre-high Mount Gardner), walked around Killarney Lake and discovered a shop that sells handmade chocolates (Cocoa West Chocolatier)."

Steve and Kala plan to return to the Gulf Islands. That's exactly what we intend to do. We never met a Gulf Island that we didn't like.

Photo #1: View of a BC ferry crusing along Active Pass, framed by trees on the Bluffs.

Photo #2: Two wooden chairs in front of Hastings House.

Photo #3: Aerial view of islands in Ganges Harbour.

Photo Credits: Barb & Ron Kroll



Tourism BC  800-435-5622
Tourism Vancouver Island  250-754-3500
BC Ferries  888-223-3799 (888-BC Ferry)
Galiano Island  250-539-2233
Mayne Island and
Saturna Island
Salt Spring Island  866-216-2936
Hornby Island
Bowen Island  604-947-9024
Gulf Islands National Park Reserve  866-944-1744
BC Parks

Barb & Ron Kroll's trip-planning website is at

Related links
Tourism Vancouver Island
Tourism BC