Canada’s Gulf Islands are a remarkably accessible antidote to urban stress. Sandwiched between Vancouver Island and the west coast of mainland British Columbia, they’re part of an extensive cluster of islands that are bisected by the U.S.-Canada border. The Gulf Islands, north of the border, belong to Canada, while the San Juan Islands, south of the border, belong to the United States.
Ferries from Victoria or Vancouver, British Columbia, provide convenient – and pleasant – access to most of the islands. In a hurry to get away from it all? Good news. Seaplanes offer quick – and scenic – connections to some of the most popular islands. Salt Spring Island, one of the largest, is home to approximately 10,000 residents. Ganges, its biggest town, is full of shops, restaurants and artists’ studios. Salt Spring also boasts a superb resort and dining getaway, Hastings House, a member of the prestigious Relais and Châteaux collection.
Salt Spring, like its neighbor islands, is temperate year-round. Crowds are most dense in July and August, while spring and early fall draw fewer visitors and therefore offer greater serenity. Sailing, fishing, rock climbing, horseback riding and golf are particularly popular, as is touring the island’s many art galleries and crafts shops. Salt Spring Vineyards and Garry Oaks Winery encourage visits and tastings. Other Salt Spring favorites include driving up Mount Maxwell to take in spectacular views; hiking the 7-mile trail along the Ruckle Provincial Park coastline; and nibbling your way through the Saturday market (March through October) cornucopia of local produce and baked goods.
Nearby Pender Island (actually two land masses connected by a one-lane wooden bridge spanning a canal) is home to 2,000 people. Hikers will enjoy the island’s wide range of trails – from easy strolls to intense climbs. Other popular activities include golf, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, swimming, tennis and cycling. The newly created Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, comprising portions of Pender and other islands, offers wide-ranging opportunities to enjoy and observe nature, such as spotting bald eagles, orca whales and hummingbirds. Pender also boasts its own luxury digs: Poets Cove Resort & Spa, which, along with fine dining, offers several cycling excursions and a sail to and hike up Mount Norman for truly amazing vistas.
Galiano Island’s Montague Harbour Provincial Marine Park and its unspoiled beaches and forests, crisscrossed by intriguing pathways, and an active tidal lagoon are prime draws. Boaters and kayakers flock to Dionisio Point Park, while adventurers scale Mount Galiano or hike the length of Bodega Ridge. Hikers often hit the trails with the additional goal of seeing the island’s more than 10 dozen species of birds.
Peace also reigns on Saturna Island. There are few better places to take scenic walks, and chill out on gorgeous, virtually empty beaches. Deer, river otters, eels, sea lions, orcas and some 180 bird species call Saturna home. It’s no wonder more than two-thirds of Saturna has been incorporated into the new National Park Reserve. Picnicking, hiking and driving to the top of Mount Warburton Pike are popular pastimes. Saturna Vineyards and Wineries welcomes visitors.
On Mayne Island, historic buildings dot the landscape, dating to its days as a 19th century stopping point for miners en route to the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1858. Other highlights include Georgina Point Lighthouse (spectacular views of Active Pass) and the 890-foot summit of Mount Parke. Visitors also partake in kayaking, cycling, diving, strolling amid myriad wildflowers, art-gallery browsing and farm tours. But perhaps the greatest draw is to unwind on walks through forests filled with Douglas and grand firs and Western red cedars, and to enjoy the extensive bird-watching opportunities there. There’s also plenty of life to observe in the water, including sea lions, salmon and orcas.
Yet another Gulf Island choice, Gabriola Island, is just 20 minutes by ferry from Nanaimo, north of Victoria. It’s so convenient that relaxation-minded travelers can scan for life in tidal pools or watch a spectacular sunrise near Orlebar Point within commuting distance of a major city. Home to 5,000 residents, Gabriola Island boasts a strong arts, music and theater scene. Its lively Saturday morning market (May through September) is a taste-tempting delight. Popular activities include boating, sailing, fishing, kayaking, hiking, walking and cycling. Swimming, diving and golf are also part of the island’s offerings.
In addition to its pristine Gulf Islands, the westernmost coast of mainland Canada boasts two other great “kicking back” destinations: the fabulous cross-cultural city of Vancouver and the world-renowned four-season resort town of Whistler.
Vancouver’s urban attractions include its Museum of Anthropology, at the University of British Columbia, which boasts one of the great collections of Native American totem poles, masks and other artifacts. Another don’t-miss is the Vancouver Art Gallery, where you’ll discover an impressive collection of Rodin statues, plus the work of Canadian artist Emily Carr.
Ethnic neighborhoods abound. Visit Chinatown, with its authentic restaurants and serene Sun Yat Sen garden. In rollicking Gastown, you’ll find the neighborhood’s signature steam clock marking hours spent at bars, eateries and high-end galleries selling top-quality “First Nations“ art. Head for the top of Harbour Centre to take in a (free) 360-degree view of the city. Other attractions include the Vancouver Aquarium and trendy Yaletown, site of hot clubs, restaurants, hotels and shops. Then there’s Granville Island, a seaside enclave of restaurants, shops and boutiques reminiscent of New York’s South Street Seaport.
Outdoor activities in Vancouver focus on Stanley Park. One of the world’s great urban oases, it features miles of walking and jogging paths, extraordinary water vistas and a collection of totem poles. Another favorite, which lies a short drive beyond Stanley Park and over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, is the Capilano Suspension Bridge (http://www.capbridge.com), where brave souls pass step by step across 450 feet of swaying planks suspended 230 feet above the floor of Capilano Canyon. After navigating the vertigo-inducing span, visitors find themselves amid stands of ancient Douglas fir trees criss-crossed by meandering walking trails. And there’s a new attraction, Treetops, a series of boardwalks high above the ground that lets you explore the forest canopy.
Back in the city, you’ll find that shopping is an art form in Vancouver —particularly on trendy Robson Street. And there are plenty of cultural attractions, too, including the Vancouver Symphony and Opera. In summer, the seaside Bard on the Beach is considered one of North America’s best summer theater festivals.
Ninety minutes from Vancouver, you’ll discover Whistler. The longtime world-class ski destination is currently preparing to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. When the snow flies, skiers and snowboarders alike revel in reaching the peak of Whistler or Blackcomb and zipping back down along networks of challenging trails. But the action doesn’t stop when the snow melts. Come spring, the slopes draw the attention of mountain bikers intent on the thrill of the run. Other ways to experience the region? All-terrain vehicles, river rafting, kayaking, canoeing, golfing and guided or independent hiking and fishing expeditions. You’ll also discover a plethora of walking and hiking opportunities, including sojourns to the rain forest or waterfalls. There’s even a “bear awareness” tour designed to teach participants everything they could possibly want to know about bears, especially the black bears native to the region.
Looking to up the ante? Adventure junkies will find their thrill in zip trekking or tree trekking. Zip trekking consists of flinging yourself via cable harness from station to station over open canyons or valleys. Tree trekking, a more sedate option, involves hiking through rain-forest canopy on trails suspended from the trees.
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, is located at the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, the largest island off continental North America’s Pacific Coast. Victoria’s attractions are serene and laid-back, and generally revolve around its inner harbor. From the steps of Parliament you can watch ferries prepare for trips to Port Angeles, Wash., or the passenger-only hydrofoil to Seattle.
Parliament itself is a magnificent, century-old beaux-arts construction adorned with extraordinary stained-glass windows designed by Francis Rattenbury. A 45-minute walking tour takes in all the highlights, including legislative areas. Minutes from Parliament, the elegant Fairmont Empress Hotel, also designed by Rattenbury, presides over the waterfront. Nearby, the Royal British Columbia Museum features an impressive collection of First Nation totem poles and artifacts.
In Victoria, visitors and residents alike enjoy the good life — shopping (remember the U.S. dollar is still strong against its Canadian counterpart), dining and taking in the culture of the community. Victoria also boasts Canada’s most temperate climate. And while it’s an important urban center, it’s just 20 minutes by car from proud stands of pine trees towering over an unspoiled natural landscape. (“Beware of elk” signs spring up along the highway almost as soon as you start heading north from Victoria.)
Your first major stop, 13 miles from Victoria, should be Butchart Gardens (http://www.butchartgardens.com). The century-old 55-acre former estate (and onetime cement factory) features an array of gardens including Japanese, rose, Italian and sunken. Open year-round, it’s particularly stunning during spring and summer.
Continuing north you’ll pass through a number of quaint towns — Duncan, Ladysmith and Chemainus — where you’ll find plenty of antiques stores in a laid-back environment reminiscent of days gone by. Chemainus is also home to an excellent year-round theater. Along the way, plan to visit some of the island’s eight wineries or its cider works. Most are concentrated between Victoria and Cowichen Bay.
Despite the relaxed setting, there’s still plenty of action. Tofino, on the west coast, is a great place for biking or hiking along rain forest trails. Fly-fishing is a favorite pastime. Don a wetsuit and hit the surf. And when all is said and done, sit back and contemplate one of the world’s best sunsets.
Arguably the Gulf Islands’ finest facility, this Relais & Châteaux property features 18 suites on a 25-acre country estate. Located just a 10-minute walk from Ganges Harbor on Salt Spring Island, its attractions include plenty of gardens and meadows, in addition to a gourmet restaurant featuring five-course meals prepared in a kitchen directed by Swiss-born executive chef Marcel Kauer. Specialties include mussels steamed in chardonnay and locally raised lamb. Rates include full English breakfast, picnic-basket meals and transportation to and from ferries or float planes. $$$$
160 Upper Ganges Road
Salt Spring Island
tel 250 537 2362 or 800 661 9255
fax 250 6537 5333
POETS COVE RESORT & SPA
A luxury destination on Pender Island, this property features 15 luxurious cottages, nine villas and 22 lodge rooms, all with impressive ocean views. Also on site is the Susurrus Spa, with its six treatment rooms.The spa features an adjoining eucalyptus steam cave beneath a hard-driving waterfall.The Aurora restaurant and Syrens Lodge offer fine British Columbian specialties and wines. $$$$
POETS COVE RESORT & SPA
9801 Spaulding Road
South Pender Island
tel 250 629 2100 or 888 512 7638
fax 250 629 2105
OCEANWOOD COUNTRY INN
Open spring and fall weekends and throughout the summer, Oceanwood presents a dozen comfortable accommodations, many with fireplaces and/or soaking tubs with either garden or ocean views. Fine local seafood or lamb, washed down with appropriate B.C. wines, sets the stage for a relaxing time-out. $$$
OCEANWOOD COUNTRY INN
630 Dinner Bay Road
tel 250 539 5074, fax 250 539 3002
PAN PACIFIC VANCOUVER
Overlooking Vancouver’s cruise port and located a short walk from Gastown, the sizable property offers surprisingly intimate service. Its great location and fine dining make it an ideal platform from which to savor the city’s pleasures. $$-$$$$
PAN PACIFIC HOTEL
300-999 Canada Place
tel 604 662 8111 or 800 937 1515
fax 604 685 8690
O’DOUL’S RESTAURANT & BAR
Located in the Listel Vancouver, O’Doul’s Restaurant & Bar has captured numerous kudos for being one of Canada’s top eateries. Superb lamb and fish complemented by selections from one of the city’s deepest wine cellars and the sounds of outstanding jazz make for a most palatable evening. $$-$$$
O’DOUL’S RESTAURANT & BAR
1300 Robson St.
tel 604 690 1852
THE BOSS BAKERY & RESTAURANT
Emblematic of the city’s superb Chinese cuisine, this local favorite is a two-in-one dining venue: a bakery that also serves reasonably priced Cantonese noodle and vegetable dishes. Nothing fancy here, just solid local offerings served efficiently yet warmly. $
THE BOSS BAKERY & RESTAURANT
532-534 Main St.
tel 604 683 3860
Gourmet dining in the midst of a family/ski resort might seem unusual, but the elegant seafood and beef served here are so cleverly prepared, and the 20,000-bottle wine cellar so tempting, Barefoot Bistro is considered by many to be one of Canada’s premier dining venues. The adjacent Champagne Restaurant and Bar offers quicker and more-casual dining. $$$-$$$$
4121 Village Green
tel 604 932 3433, fax 604 932 8383
INFO TO GO
The conventional route for reaching almost all of Canada’s Gulf Islands is via British Columbia Ferries (tel 888 223 3779 or 250 386 3431, http://www.bcferries.com). Points of departure for the passenger and car ferries are Twassessen, Horseshoe Bay and Swartz Bay. Drivers must arrive well before departure, often much longer than the ride itself, to secure a place.
A better option for anyone on a tight schedule is a charter float plane or seaplane. Kenmore Air (tel 800 543 9595, http://www.kenmoreair.com) offers daily runs between Seattle and the Gulf Islands. SEAir (tel 800 44SEAIR or 604 273 8900) operates between Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and Ganges Harbor on Salt Spring Island. Harbour Air Seaplane (tel 800 665 0212 or 604 274 1277, http://www.harbour-air.com) operates year-round between Vancouver and the Gulf Islands. Salt Spring Air (tel 877 537 9880 or 250 537 9880, http://www.saltspringair.com) carries passengers to Salt Spring Island from downtown Vancouver and Vancouver International Airport.
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