The Best Islands You've Never Heard Of
Just north of the Canadian border, the Gulf Islands are a rich playground of food, art, and the good life.
We all come here by water.
Five thousand years ago, it was Coast Salish peoples. Three hundred years ago, explorers from faraway ports in Spain and England followed. One hundred and fifty years ago, African Americans escaping oppression, gold miners seeking riches, and Hawaiian islanders offering labor arrived. Some stayed, carving out small habitations between the rocky shores and dense stands of red-barked Douglas fir.
And on a glowing afternoon in the 21st century, I come, too.
While our vessels differ, our journeys are the same: navigating sheltered waters to seek ports in inlets, coves, and bays. For those who came before me, that exploration was born of necessity. For me, it is born of delight. Having learned of 14 little islands held tightly between the west coast of British Columbia and the rugged eastern shores of Vancouver Island, I venture into Canada's Gulf Islands to ferry around, literally, in search of riches.
And they provide. In five days of making dotted maritime lines among three islands—Salt Spring, Galiano, and Pender—I discover an English manor that's now a luxury inn, a compound of restored Airstream trailers, and a farmhouse in which a young chef is creating a culinary buzz that has Vancouverites aflutter. I find wines that stand with Washington's best, and organic produce that would send a Californian reeling in jealousy. I find art that a Carmel gallery would die for, kayaking to make coastal Maine blush, and a food truck that may be the best merging of great food and goodwill, ever.
Plus eagles, ospreys, and orcas.
My surprise at these discoveries comes as no surprise to Gulf Islanders. They know they inhabit Canada's sweet little secret, and conduct themselves with a gracious hospitality about it all—particularly on Salt Spring, the archipelago's largest island in both land mass and population (a little more than 10,000), which has oriented itself toward art and tourism alongside its historic legacy of small-scale farming.
The most emblematic example of this is the island's Saturday Market, a harborfront maze of high-end arts and crafts, gorgeous produce, sophisticated foodstuffs, and crinkly-eyed, grayponytailed hippies selling tie-dye like the "60s never passed us by. I wander in a happy, shopaholic daze for hours—eating, buying, and eating some more.
The wonder is relentless. I spend an afternoon kayaking waters with such placid heft it feels like paddling through mercury. Another day I bounce around Salt Spring's narrow, twisting roads with professional guide Jason Griffin, visiting artists, winemakers, and cheesemongers. We take a gentle walk among primeval ferns in a fir-shaded glen and stand together, equally gape-mouthed at the view from Mt. Maxwell Provincial Park, the highest spot on the island. "I come up here every day," Griffin says, "whether I have a tour or not." I can see why. From our clifftop perch, I gaze down the verdant spokes of ridges to violet Burgoyne Bay, and across to the peaks of Vancouver Island catching clouds like a Mississippi fencepost catches breeze-borne tufts of cotton.
How could any of the other islands compare to this, I wonder, grabbing the next ferry off Salt Spring to find out. On Galiano, a slender brushstroke that's practically nestled into the BC mainland, I hit a world-class bookstore and a luxury resort spa with an isolation tub where I bob on highly salted water for 60 transcendent minutes.
I also meet Shelley Okepnak, one of those near-mythic women who seem able to do everything. A career chef, she decided eight years ago to open a little food truck just up the main road from the docks. Now, after a series of creative carpentry projects, Okepnak's Flying Black Dog is an enchanted way station of open-air shelters dotted with community tables. There's even a little woodstove, which glows red and warm on rainy afternoons, that she installed because a gang of older island women mentioned they were getting chilly. We discuss this over a roasted-vegetable burger she's stayed open late to make me because I looked hungry.
I consider homesteading in a shingled shack on Galiano (the island practically whispers this idea right into my ear) and eating every meal with Okepnak, but one more port calls. After a meander among a maze of shorelines, I arrive on Pender Island. A smaller but no less picturesque version of Salt Spring, Pender holds a discovery I can barely believe: Among seven acres of woodland, Vancouverite Curtis Redel has carved out an upscale camp of pristinely renovated Airstream trailers and rustic cabins. I take a late-day dip in my cedar hot tub on the deck of my trailer, and saunter down to the bar, where Redel crafts me a killer cocktail from local spirits, plus small plates of cheeses, produce, and proteins.
The next morning, I awaken to the sun rising over the cobalt-blue Strait of Georgia, with snow-capped Mt. Baker on the horizon. Dear explorers of old, I say to myself, sipping my French-press coffee from an enameled tin cup, buried in the wealth of the Gulf Islands. I have you beat.
BC Ferries connects the Gulf Islands to each other and to the mainland; 888-223-3779 or bcferries.com.
Hastings House Country House Hotel on Salt Spring is English-manor perfect, with a beautiful restaurant. Rates start at $214; 800-661-9255 or hastingshouse.com. Galiano Oceanfront Inn and Spa is a short walk from the ferry and utterly tranquil. Rates start at $150; 877-530-3939 or galianoinn.com. WOODS on Pender is an urban camper's dream. Rates start at $70; 800-550-0172 or woodsonpender.com.
Salt Spring's Tree House Café has a "60s vibe and delicious fresh plates; 250-537-5379 or treehousecafe.ca. On Galiano, NOMA-trained chef Jesse McCleery is making culinary waves at pilgrimme, his new farm-to-table restaurant in a beautiful house in the woods; 250-539-5392.