The Strait of Georgia, also known as the Salish Sea, is scattered with hundreds of rocks, islets, and idyllic islands that have been grouped together under the name the Gulf Islands. (That’s on the Canadian side of the border; on the U.S. side, they’re the San Juans.) Historically, the Gulf Islands only included those up to Gabriola, halfway up Vancouver Island just off the coast of Nanaimo, but today, all the islands as far north as Quadra are included in the group, but split into the Northern and Southern Gulf Islands. They are peopled with artists, writers, artisans, farmers, winemakers, and cheese makers. The Gulf Islands are also a paradise for sailors and anyone who enjoys boating, kayaking, and generally communing with nature, or, indeed, anyone who just wants to get away from it all. If you’re visiting Victoria and have an extra day or two, it’s well worth hopping over to one or more of the Southern Gulf Islands.
Exploring the Gulf Islands
The best part of a getaway to the Gulf Islands is simply getting away from it all. The islands are an idyllic place for wandering about and connecting with nature, so don’t arrive with a big itinerary. The main islands, nearest Victoria, are Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne, and Saturna. These are not big islands, but a car is still helpful for exploring—although they are perfect for cycling, so that may be an even better way to get around, and you’ll find bike rental shops throughout the islands. The Gulf Islands are also hugely popular destinations for boaters, and on a sunny day you’ll find the peaceful green waters that surround them littered with sailboats. There are numerous private marinas and kayak rentals, so you can get out on the water, too.
Salt Spring is the biggest and most populated of the islands. Its main community, Ganges, holds a famous farmer’s market on Saturday mornings (www.saltspringmarket.com), where you can meet the locals and pick up fresh veggies, mouthwatering baked goods, and crafts by island artisans, of whom there are many. Historically, the island was a farming community, and it has thoroughly embraced the eat-local movement, with 23 restaurants, local cheese makers including the celebrated Salt Spring Island Cheese (www.saltspringcheese.com), the Gulf Island Brewery (www.gulfislandsbrewery.com), a winery (www.saltspringvineyards.com), and many small farms. The Apple Festival (www.appleluscious.com) each September is a sweet way to celebrate the harvest.
If time is short and you want a handy guide to the island, the Western Splendour Tour Company (tel. 778/354-1058; www.toursaltspring.com) offers several tours, including a history and culture walking tour (C$15 adults, C$10 children 12 and under), a bus tour to the best of the island (C$75 adults, C$12 children), and an artisan tour that visits farms, cheese makers, brewers, and craftspeople (C$75 adults, C$50 children 12 and under).
Saturna (www.saturnatourism.com) is a mountainous island known for its excellent wildlife-watching opportunities. More than half of it is in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/gulfislands), and you’ll often catch glimpses of orcas and porpoises frolicking off its rocky shores. Discovery Seatours (tel. 250/539-3211; www.discoveryseatours.ca) is just one outfitter that offers whale-watching and other opportunities. The island is home to a number of popular pubs and casual eateries, as well as the Saturna Island Family Estate Winery (tel. 250/539-3521; www.saturnavineyards.com), which is known for its light, crisp white and sparkling wines.
Pender Island (www.penderislandchamber.com) is actually two islands separated by a narrow canal. It’s covered in forest and farmland, with a couple of small communities. Life is slow and relaxed here, with plenty of parks, beaches, and trails to explore, as well as canoeing, kayaking, and sailing around its coves and beaches. This is where you’ll find the Poet’s Cove luxury resort, as well as a number of pubs and restaurants.
Mayne Island (www.mayneislandchamber.ca) is a rustic retreat, home to numerous artists and artisans, with a handful of pubs and restaurants and a number of small farms. Mayne Island is a perfect little bucolic getaway.