Discover the Southern Gulf Islands

July 16th, 2016  |  Published in Headline, Hot off the press, On the Water  |  2 Comments

Vancouver Sun, July 15 2016

We live within a life ring’s toss of one of the 52 places the New York Times recommended you should visit this year. Board a B.C. Ferry and within an hour you can be at the first of five Southern Gulf Island gems. We tried to visit them all in one week – but we didn’t plan enough time.

 North and South Pender on Saturday

So we’re playing hide and seek with 27 disc posts in the front nine of a seven hectare disc golf course on North Pender. Climbing the hilly escarpment and staying vertical while straining to find those glints of metal baskets is enough of a challenge, but there’s good reason the provincial disc golf tournament is held here annually. With twisting arbutus and firs with battle scarred trunks writhing between posts, and shards of sunlight cutting through the verdant canopy, this park’s beauty is unsettling.

Brooks Point on South Pender.

Brooks Point on South Pender.

Whoever would have thought a smallish Gulf Island could offer a ‘world class’ course like this? I’m wiping off sweat when my cell phone rings; it’s the whale hot line. J Pod has been sighted off Brooks Point on South Pender, which means the whales will eventually pass by Thieves Bay.

We’re off! There is no better place to see these aquatic acrobats than in the Gulf Islands, where almost daily killer whale ‘shows’ can be viewed close up. It only takes five minutes to drive there but already we can hear a cheer and a gargantuan splash. The show is on!

And still the day is young. We have over 25 beach accesses to explore and our choice of 33 trails, including the highest viewpoint at Mt. Norman. Another shorter trail on South Pender leads to Greenburn Lake and views overlooking Boundary Pass. Then at the southeastern tip there’s Brooks Point’s shingle beach and headland, where in the spring the chocolate lilies thrive under Mt. Baker’s watchful eye, and the views are considered among the best on the islands. Or maybe it’s North Pender’s wild Roe Lake and its myriad trails and viewpoints.

But that’s only the tip of the island. “North Pender is the more populated island with something to meet everyone’s need be it a grocery store or a spa, an art gallery, golf course, winery or farm stand,” says Chamber of Commerce president, Mamie Hutt-Temoana. “And how many small islands can boast five restaurants within eight kilometres?”

We soon discover that even if we weren’t into views, ocean, and nature, there are diversions aplenty: The Hope Bay complex with its Red Tree Gallery, shops and café, the Driftwood Centre with every amenity, art studios popping up everywhere, luxurious Poets Cove resort, an active community centre, a museum, and even a top end winery.

Today being Saturday, we stop at the bustling Farmers’ Market and hurry to catch the late ferry to Salt Spring.

Salt Spring on Saturday and Sunday.

Wow – sensory overload! The Saturday Farmers’ Market is still jiving. The stalls spill over into Centennial Park, offering only produce and products that have been made on Salt Spring. It’s the granddaddy of all Farmers’ Markets. We pick up some locally made miso, red bursts of strawberries, spinach and new potatoes and then my nose leads me over to the wood-fired organic bread.

You speak of Salt Spring in superlatives. It’s the largest of the Gulf Islands and the most populated, with three ferry crossings. It has more festivals and events, like the fall Apple and the Taste of Salt Spring festivals. Its Fall Fair is a two day event. It has the largest provincial campground at Ruckle Point, where happy campers overlook Swanson Channel in the most halcyon park imaginable.

It also has the most accommodation choices and many marinas and public docks in Ganges Harbour. Ganges is an exciting waterfront village and already we can feel the energy.

The next day we choose from one of the over 30 public beaches and swim in the warm water at Vesuvius, where the ferry heads over to Crofton on Vancouver Island, then we go in search of one of the four fresh water lakes.

We need more time here – there are mountains waiting to be climbed, and artists’ studios to be discovered.

“Salt Spring is famed as an artists’ community,” says Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Salt Spring president, Li Read.

“It’s also renowned for a temperate micro-climate that supports vineyards, olive groves, orchards, cheese makers and small scale sustainable farming enterprises. It inspires.” We second that as we drive to Long Harbour to catch our next ferry to Galiano very early on Monday. No time to try the golf course.

Galiano on Monday

Galiano is considered the gateway to the Gulf Islands as it’s only an hour from Tsawwassen and the first stop on the B.C. Ferries’ Gulf Island route.

When I ask Conny Nordin, president to the Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Galiano Oceanfront Inn and Spa, what visitors come for, her eyes widen in disbelief:

“You kidding me? Whale watching for starters? Federal marine specialists have set up Orca listening devices in Active Pass right in front of my inn. And what about our restaurants? For our small population we have a disproportionate number of great places.” We can soon vouch for this as we make reservations for dinner at The Pilgrimme. (Rates as one of Canada’s best new restaurants in 2015 by EnRoute Canada.)

“And we have more than our share of skilled artisans, artists and galleries. Have you been to Bodega Gallery yet?

“We love to celebrate, from our literary festival in February to the Active Pass Festival in the spring, the International Wine and Beer festival in the summer and the Blackberry Festival in the fall. We even have a Nettle Fest in early spring.” OK, we get it. Lots to do here too.

Next on the list is nearby Bellhouse Park where visitors and residents are often so close to the Orcas they get sprayed. The beautiful rocky headland slopes down to the pass, while overhead a nesting eagle calls from an aerie.

Now, totally mellow, we’re ready to check out Bodega Gallery, home to an incredibly gifted couple. Kasumi is a renowned potter and Rolando a painter. Together they make magic in their combined studio, two of the more than 20 artists on the island.

Then it’s off to famed Montague Harbour, the most beautiful provincial park and campsite of them all.

We walk barefoot in fine sand amazed at how jade the sea looks and how the sunlight catches the arbutus bark perfectly, etched against the sky. The sunset over this beach is worth the trip alone.

Mayne on Tuesday

Another early morning, another missed golf course, and a quick ferry trip through Active Pass to Village Bay to another Salish Sea gem.

The Georgina Point Lighthouse on Mayne Island.
The Georgina Point Lighthouse on Mayne Island.

We head to Springwater Lodge in Miners Bay, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the province. Nearby a heritage home houses the hottest new restaurant, The Groove.

During the gold rush days Miners Bay was the hub of the Gulf Islands and first gaol built here is now a miniscule museum.

And then there’s picturesque St. Mary’s Church, overlooking Active Pass, with its graves full of Gulf Island pioneers whose names grace so many of the islands’ areas.

At the end of Georgina Point Rd. stands an imposing lighthouse, the sentinel at the Strait of Georgia’s Active Pass entrance, but now without its keepers.

Miners Bay was always the commercial pulse of the island and with its shops, library, agricultural hall, library, public docks, restaurants and hotel, it still is.

“Have you been to the Japanese Gardens yet?” asks the proprietor of a great little boutique Nomad Essentials, in Miners Bay. We hadn’t, so it was time to leave behind this lively historic area.

The Japanese Gardens, part of Dinner Bay Park, were first conceived of in 1987 by the Mayne Island Parks and Recreation Committee as a means of commemorating the Japanese who had lived and thrived on Mayne before their eviction in 1942.

The garden is about 14 years old, lovingly cared for by volunteers who tend the cherry trees, developed paths, created an island in the pond, constructed a meditation hut, and secret garden.

We ring the huge gong and listen to its reverberations while a nearby tree frog objects softly.

It’s a serene spot so we take a moment to thank the volunteers for this beautiful creation before exploring the rest of the park and beach.

“Don’t leave without checking out the Bennett Bay area,” a young mother at the park tells us. “It’s a lovely part of the island with a beautiful swimming beach and a walk out to a headland overlooking the Strait.”

So we’re off and in the twilight we watch how the sun is once again transforming the bark of the arbutus tree – now to burnished copper. The robins are coursing as we tread softly on this Parks Canada trail, keeping a reluctant eye on the time.

Wish we could overnight at the swishy Mayne Island Resort, or at that neat, family oriented Blue Vista Hotel. But we can’t. We allowed a day for a visit that should have been a week.

We ponder what Michael Dunn told us earlier: “When I tell them I live on Mayne Island a lot of people ask: ‘What do you do there?’ My answer is usually it is not the doing but the being that’s important,” Dunn is the coordinator of the Active Pass Nature and Arts Festival.

Saturna on Tuesday and Wednesday

Saturna Lodge proprietor Laura Swan says, “Saturna is the perfect place to unplug from the day-to-day grind and reconnect with nature. Whether it’s hiking, biking or kayaking you can see, smell, and hear nature at its best.”

“I can’t believe that over half the island is a park!” I beam upon arrival. “I love how wild it is in spite of being so close to the mainland.”

The Fog Alarm building on Saturna.
The Fog Alarm building on Saturna.

The next day we explore winding cliff walks with non-stop ocean, island and mountain views; rustic roads; pocket beaches and windswept headlands.

We drive to Winter Cove where we walk along a short woodland trail to the Strait of Georgia’s edge, watching the strait jostling through the narrow opening at Boat Pass, and then we take a sylvan circular trail back.

We roll along lonely East Point Road, a perfect route on the fringe of the strait, right to the very tip of East Point where the most photographed object on Saturna hunkers on the headland. The fog alarm building, built in 1939 to warn off approaching boaters, was acquired by the heritage committee in 2008 and transformed into a tiny heritage centre.

This wind combed, grassy promontory is another excellent whale watching location so we’re content to sit on the wave sculptured rocks and watch. No whales, but the restless scurrying waters lapping and licking around the cliffs with Mt. Baker patiently overseeing it all makes for a heady half hour.

When we tire of hiking and exploring the sylvan campsite at Narvaez Bay’s old homestead we know there are still galleries to check out, like Anne Popperwell’s vibrant works and M.D. Hennessey’s unique figures. There’s a pub hanging over Plumper Sound and two well-stocked general and book stores to browse.

We’re out of time and there’s still so much to see.


Where to stay

Galiano: Galiano Inn (

Mayne: Mayne Island Resort ( offers luxury for couples or  Blue Vista Resort ( good value for families and couples

Pender: Choose to ‘camp’ in a deluxe airstream or vintage trailer or a recently remodelled room at the inn.( Or choose from 15 B & Bs. An excellent one is the Salmonberry Inn. (

Salt Spring: Higher-end: Hastings House Country House Hotel ( or Mariner’s Loft Luxury Suites ( More budget options – Seabreeze Inne ( or Salt Spring Inn (

Saturna: The historic and cozy Saturna Lodge. or Four Winds B & B (

How to get there

  • BC Ferries
  • Packages are available for Galiano, Pender and Salt Spring.


  1. Anita Lornie says:

    July 22nd, 2016at 12:06 pm(#)

    Cherie, you have brilliantly described the islands and brought them to life for us in a way that makes us yearn to follow in your footsteps of discovery. Thanks, also, for the jolt we needed to remember that such unique destinations are right on our doorstep.

  2. Cherie says:

    August 7th, 2016at 5:27 pm(#)

    Thanks Anita,
    It was fun to write and generally I find that when I really enjoy writing an experience then it is going to work for others too. Wasn’t Karoline’s photo amazing? So glad to have access to that. The Vancouver Sun editor was pleased too and I already have an assignment now to write about the Discovery Islands. (Quadra and Cortes.) Great news as I love those islands too, especially Hollyhock on Cortes. Have you ever been?

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