The misty and mysterious Queen Charlotte Islands were the muse for 19th-century painter Emily Carr, who documented her impressions of the towering totem poles and longhouses at the abandoned village of Ninstints, on Anthony Island. The islands still lure artists, writers, and photographers wishing to experience their haunting beauty.

The Queen Charlottes -- also called by their Native name, Haida Gwaii -- are the homeland of the Haida people. Sometimes referred to as the Vikings of the Pacific, the Haida were mighty seafarers, and during raiding forays, ranged as far south along the Pacific Coast as Oregon. The Haida were also excellent artists, carvers of both totems and argillite, a slatelike rock that they transformed into tiny totemic sculptures and pendants. The Haida today make up about half of the islands' population of 6,000.

The Queen Charlottes have a reputation as the "Canadian Galapagos," as these islands -- ranging between 51 and 136km (32-85 miles) from the mainland -- have evolved their own endemic species and subspecies of flora and fauna. The Canadian government preserved the southern portion of Moresby Island as Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. UNESCO followed suit by naming the islands a World Heritage Site.

The islands are primordial and beautiful, but visiting them requires some planning. In fact, if you're reading this in Prince Rupert and thinking about a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Charlottes, you may want to reconsider. Lodging on the islands is limited, and reservations are necessary year-round. The most interesting areas -- the abandoned Haida villages -- are accessible only by boat, and the Gwaii Haanas National Park limits the number of people who can access the archaeological sites each day. There are only 125km (78 miles) of paved roads, and none of them even come close to the park or the islands' wild western coastline. In short, simply showing up on the Queen Charlottes is not a good idea. The best way to visit is by arranging, in advance, to join a guide or outfitter on a kayaking, flightseeing, sailing, or boating excursion.