Despite travelling across Canada several times, I’d neglected the Gulf Islands since my 1990’s high school camping trips. It was time for new grown-up memories in the green, bucolic islands located between Victoria and Vancouver. (Beyond singing Extreme’s “More Than Words” by the campfire and being told to pipe down by Mrs. McLennan, that is.)
As I discovered on Pender Island (pop. 2,200) and Salt Spring Island (pop. 10,500), there’s plenty to enjoy year-round nowadays. These beautiful, ecologically rich destinations are crown jewels in the Salish Sea archipelago of more than 200 islands. Regular ferry service connects the Gulf Islands with Vancouver Island and the mainland. It’s easy to get around by car or bike, with sparse traffic.
A British Columbia area once known mainly for its relaxed atmosphere and population of hippies and sheep has grown into a hub of top-notch wine, cider, food, and art galleries.
Pender Island Wine and Cider
Sea Star Vineyards officially opened in 2014, and the 27-acre Pender Island property extends down to the shore, where you can spot orcas and starfish. Grapes, sour cherries, and California poppies adorn the landscape. Owner David Goudge heralds winemaker Ian Baker’s vintages in the elegant tasting room: “When the product is good, you don’t need to advertise.”
Savoring the raspberry and rhubarb notes in the 2016 Blanc de Noir, a Provence-style rose, I muse about how much more sophisticated my tastes have become since the time I ate a 12-pack of hot dogs to impress the Grade 11 girls. (Note: it didn’t work.)
Two kilometres away at Twin Island Cider, I swig the farm-crafted apple ciders of co-owners Katie Selbee and Matthew Vasilev, including the earthy Old Growth Dry and the boozy Baldwin + Russet. Katie notes how they use heirloom apples, not only from Pender, but also nearby Saturna and Mayne Islands. “We tend to stay on the dry side, because there are so many sweet ciders,” she says.
Where to Stay on Pender Island
To stay dry at night, I check into The Woods. The 2015-founded resort combines big-city amenities with a camping vibe. I find myself in a gleaming, renovated 1978 Airstream trailer with Wi-Fi, hot showers, a gas stove, and a comfortable double bed.
I relax, watching hockey on TV before dining at Coffee Kitchen, the on-site restaurant. Owner-chef Curtis Redel creates fabulous cocktails, from spiked lemonade to Moscow Mules, and serves delicacies like smoked salmon pizza and tuna poke with bok choi. Instead of staying awake for 29 hours, as I did as a 16-year-old, I sleep soundly afterwards like a civilized gentleman.
Pender Island also has bed and breakfasts, inns, and campsites for all budgets. Poets Cove is another celebrated resort with a scenic marina, three restaurants, and a spa with a eucalyptus steam cave.
Salt Spring Island Food and Drink
After a 45-minute ferry ride to Salt Spring Island, I continue my culinary odyssey. The cozy Salt Spring Inn’s signature breakfast scramble – two free-range eggs with tomatoes, goat cheese, and a toasted bagel – primes me for more calorie consumption on the largest Gulf Island.
At the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company, I zip through the overview of the three-day cheese-making process to get to the samples. Herb & Garlic Ruckles, Chili Feta, and Blue Juliette are among the standout flavours. The store also sells local strawberry fig vinegar and apple rhubarb chutney.
Lunching at Rock Salt, a Fulford Harbour institution with cheery yellow walls, is a revelation. It specializes in international dishes with local ingredients. I wash down my substantial green curry rice bowl with a local Pipers Pale Ale (by Vancouver Island Brewing). Liquid refreshment – could this be what’s attracted celebrities from children’s musician Raffi Cavoukian to rocker Randy Bachman to Salt Spring Island? I test my theory.
At Alchemy Farm, a five-minute drive away, owner Ingrid Koivukangas cleanses my pipes with blueberry-lemon tea. In season, her show garden burgeons with dahlias and roses. You can learn to make flower art in a converted barn.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds flutter outside the nearby Garry Oaks Winery tasting room. This boutique winery produces about 2,000 cases of wine a year. I relish Karma, the award-winning, champagne-like signature blend of Pinot Noir (35 percent) and Chardonnay (65 percent).
Wait – there’s more? From the approachable Apple Pie Moonshine at the Salt Spring Shine craft distillery to the scrumptious Pear Scrumpy at Salt Spring Island Wild Cider, which also taps into the 450-odd apple varieties grown here, I’m definitely not in high school anymore.
Art Galleries on Salt Spring Island
What better way to tackle difficult adolescent memories of getting a C+ in Grade 8 Art than visiting diverse art galleries clustered in the town of Ganges?
Jill Louise Campbell paints Van Gogh-esque European landscapes. “When we came to Salt Spring, it suited us perfectly and I started selling my work at the Saturday market,” she explains. “I paint from feelings.” Kathy Venter’s surreal human figures in polychrome ceramic are also eye-grabbing.
At Steffich Fine Art, I marvel at traditional masks carved by Indigenous artists like Jay Brabant. At Gallery 8, I have a teenage moment when Carl Sean McMahon’s “Osprey 8” sculpture in steel, cedar and brass evokes Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance album cover.
All this, from exploring just two of the five major southern Gulf Islands. Eager to return for more post-adolescent relaxation, I’ll soon be back for the other three: Galiano, Mayne, and Saturna.
Top Image: John Cameron