British Columbia’s beautiful Gulf Islands are one of Canada and the world’s biggest tourist destinations. With excellent sports and recreation including boating, hiking, cycling and diving, this year round paradise offers the outdoor adventurer numerous options. Good restaurants and a vast array of arts and crafts add to the mix. Year round festivals and farmer’s markets are found throughout the region.
Made up of over a dozen large islands, the Southern Gulf Islands are interspersed with a multitude of islets too numerous to count. Every island has its’ own unique flavour with Salt Spring Island, the most heavily populated having a rural landscape with a bustling arts and local food community while others like Saturna Island and Thetis Island being less densely populated retreats away from the bustle of civilization. This special west coast Gulf Islands paradise of Canada is a small taste of the Mediterranean, blended with a uniquely Canadian flavour.
The BC Gulf Islands enjoy less than 30 inches of rain per year, highlighted by long dry summers and mild winters. Lying southwest of the Strait of Georgia and north of the US San Juan Islands and along the coast of Vancouver Island between Campbell River to the north and Victoria to the south, this necklace of islands is surrounded by sheltered waters, strong tides, and dramatic coastlines.
The Gulf Islands Guide brings alive the diversity and culture of British Columbia’s beautiful Gulf Island paradise.
Salt Spring Island
Salt Spring Island is the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands and the one with the most varied facilities. At Salt Spring’s hub is the bustling village of Ganges with supermarkets, stores, galleries, banks, and a wide selection of restaurants and pubs with evening entertainment. If you want night life, this is the closest the Gulf Islands get. Ganges is also famous for its gigantic Saturday farmers’ market – a cornucopia of food, fabric, arts and music spilling across the downtown park.
The second largest of the Southern Gulf Islands at 57 sq km and the closest to the Lower Mainland, Galiano has long been a favourite of its residents. It has excellent facilities, mainly clustered at the south end near the Sturdies Bay ferry terminal. Those who seek more peace and quiet can head up the long narrow northern section, where parks and trails are less busy.
A short drive (or a stiff bicycle trip) takes one from Sturdies Bay to sheltered Montague Harbour, the island’s popular marine park. Side roads lead to the golf course, Bellhouse Park, and Bluffs Park with its spectacular overlook of Active Pass and busy ferry and marine traffic.
A trip to sleepy Saturna can be rewarding for those wanting to escape all traces of city living. It is sparsely populated with around 300 people and is relatively secluded. Therein lies it’s unspoiled charm.
Traveling to Saturna requires some forward planning, for the ferries, while daily, are infrequent. Accommodation is limited, and there are no public campgrounds so booking ahead is essential.
Gabriola Island is only a short hop by ferry from Nanaimo, but it is worlds away from the bustle of the mid-island city. For boaters, there are government docks at Degnen Bay and False Narrows along with a marina. Known for its accessible shoreline and sandstone formations, Gabriola has been visited for thousands of years by the Snuneymuxw First Nation people, whose ancestors carved petroglyphs into the rocks.
Three thousand full time residents enjoy a quiet rural island life without foregoing any of the basic services. Gabriola has a rich cultural life with folk art, crafts, and a literary community that “island time” seems to promote.
Pender Island consists, in fact, of two islands, North Pender and South Pender, but that was not always so. In 1902 a canal was dredged to allow easy access between Bedwell Harbour and Port Browning creating the islands as we now know them. It wasn’t until a one lane bridge was constructed in 1955 that one could get from one to the other easily.
With a population of more than 2,500, Pender is large enough to provide many services, among them a bank, a liquor store, and grocery stores. Most are located on North Pender Island.
Mayne is an island where history is immediately apparent. Village Bay, where the ferry docks, acknowledges a First Nations settlement of great antiquity. During the 1858 Fraser River gold rush, the miners camped in what is still called Miners’ Bay, and the historic Springwater Lodge has been in use since 1895.
Connected by a frequent small ferry from Chemainus on Vancouver Island, Thetis Island¹s 340 year around inhabitants live in verdant isolation on its largely undeveloped, Douglas fir covered shores. This tiny island, about 10 square kilometers, enjoys a relatively pristine existence due to the fact that much of its land is owned by three Christian camps, one of which is the international Capernwray. You’ll notice it upon arriving at the island’s ferry terminal. The huge mock Tudor building rising over its spectacular beach and park-like grounds is hard to miss.