The Gulf Islands of British Columbia may be the undiscovered version of the San Juans, but they're not everyone's idea of paradise. There are hardly any beaches, and the water's too cold for swimming anyway. They're not even in a gulf: they were given their name because George Vancouver, who charted these waters in 1792, thought the Strait of Georgia, which separates Vancouver Island from the mainland, was enclosed on three sides. It was decades before anyone realized it's not, but by then no one had any interest in changing the name. Even now, the islands have the air of a semi-forgotten place—great for hiking, biking, and kayaking, but not much else. Which is more or less the point.
The northern Gulf Islands are little visited except by loggers and quarrymen. But the islands to the south—Salt Spring, Galiano, Mayne, Saturna, and the Penders—have drawn summer vacationers from Vancouver since the 1880's. The first European settlers had arrived only about 20 years before, when the region was awash with prospectors heading to the Fraser River goldfields. Most of the area was too rocky for farming, but as a summer retreat it proved irresistible.
It's the ferries I remember best: sleek and white, gliding effortlessly between rugged sandstone outcroppings. The ferries are a lifeline; you learn to pace yourself to their rhythms. That can mean taking half a day to get from one island to the next, or waking up before dawn to reach the mainland in time to catch a plane. But it also means the mainland is a world away.
I boarded the first of many ferries at Tsawwassen, 20 miles south of Vancouver, where the road runs out past the rich delta farmland on a causeway that stops dead in the water. The boat sailed across the strait for 45 minutes before entering a maze of rock and forest and water that led eventually to Swartz Bay, the main ferry terminal. There, I had to wait for a ferry to Salt Spring, whose 10,000 residents make it the most populous of the Gulf Islands. I'd be getting off at Fulford Harbour and driving nine miles to the village of Ganges—my first stop in a week of exploring.
Ganges is the kind of quasi-suburban seaside outpost you'd expect to see in a Steven Spielberg movie about a killer whale: sprawling parking lots, some unconvincing frame buildings, streets that just seem to peter out. Having somehow escaped the attention of Starbucks and the Gap, the village has a funky clothing store—decades ago it was a general store—and a tiny gourmet shop that sells a wonderful herbed goat cheese from the Salt Spring Island Cheese Co. In the only bookshop, I picked up a copy of Beautiful British Columbia magazine, which had an article on "How to Cook a Whale Found Dead," complete with a 1914 recipe. First ingredient: "Beached whale, not dead too long." But there were no whales in Ganges, dead or otherwise—just a couple of hundred sailboats anchored in the water.
I was staying at Hastings House, almost hidden beneath towering Douglas firs high above Ganges Harbour. It turned out to be one of those curious vestiges of empire that crop up in British Columbia: a faithful re-creation of a Tudor manor house in Sussex, built in 1940 by an English naval architect who had fallen in love with the islands but wanted to be reminded of home. The place has half-timbered walls, leaded windows, hand-hewn beams, and fireplaces big enough to walk into, plus what looks like an English garden on steroids: bright red begonias the size of cauliflowers, poppies that reach your chest, sunflowers so tall you have to crane your neck to look at them.
But flowers are everywhere on Salt Spring—hanging from baskets, bursting out of tubs, forming riotous hedges across front yards. Because the west coast of Canada is a rain forest, it pours for days at a time between October and March, but very little the rest of the year. England should be so lucky. Yet Salt Spring is no little England. I had lunch in a Greek café; I bought hiking boots from a German bootmaker; and on the road from Fulford Harbour I saw a bagpiper in Highland regalia outside a tiny chapel, skirling away as guests arrived for a wedding.
On the outskirts of Ganges is Mount Maxwell Provincial Park, one of the most dramatic parks in the islands. I reached the summit to see two clean-cut couples in jeans and khakis standing at the edge of a cliff. One of the guys asked sheepishly if I'd photograph them standing together. As I centered the viewfinder I thought, Where better to picture yourself? Spread out behind them was a patchwork of fields flanked by low mountains that reached out to embrace Fulford Harbour. Directly below was a rocky cove half-filled with logs, and beyond that a labyrinth of channels that dissolved willy-nilly into a densely forested landscape.
The next day it was time for another ferry—to Galiano Island, named after a Spanish sea captain. Seaplanes skimmed overhead, bringing passengers from Vancouver and Victoria, dipping low toward Ganges Harbour. Channels appeared and disappeared; from the water it was impossible to tell whether a given piece of shore belonged to Salt Spring or Galiano or some tiny islet. Then we saw sandstone cliffs that rose sheer out of the water, riven by deep clefts and topped by fir-covered hillsides. Clearly that was Galiano.
The ferry pulled in to the scruffy hamlet of Sturdies Bay. I set out on Galiano's only highway for the Bodega Ridge Trail, a two-mile hike along the spine of the island. At one point I made a wrong turn and found myself on a newly cut road, wide and deserted, that followed the ridgetop for a couple of miles. Then, inexplicably, the road came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that MacMillan Bloedel, the timber company that once owned most of Galiano, had been about to carve the property into housing lots when the government, responding to petitions from the islanders, said no. As I walked Bodega Ridge in dappled sunlight, with the soft buzz of the cicadas echoing, I could only be grateful.
But you can't fight development without trade-offs. On Saturday nights the marina at Montague Harbour, a sailboat haven on the island's western side, serves a barbecue on a wooden deck. But my timing was off; by 7:30, the prawn kebabs and salmon steaks were gone, and the only thing left was hot dogs. I had better luck the next day with a four-hour cruise aboard Tom Hennessy's 46-foot catamaran, Great White Cloud. As Hennessy hoisted the sails we started gliding along at an impressive clip, past islands inhabited only by gulls and black cormorants. On the treeless Ballingall Islets, seals sunned themselves on the rocks and eyed the water nervously for orcas—killer whales, which can grow 30 feet long and weigh eight tons or more.Crossing the three-mile-wide Trincomali Channel, we headed for Walker Hook, a narrow spit of land on Salt Spring Island. With a sudden shudder the cat's twin hulls dug into the sandy bottom. One by one we jumped into the frigid water and waded ashore, thankful that the dark sand had soaked up some heat and the beach was perfectly angled to catch the last rays of the afternoon sun.
If Salt Spring is vacation cottages and Galiano is forests, Mayne Island is characterized by small farms and open fields. The landscape is bucolic, though a little rough around the edges, with rocky coves as inhospitable as they are scenic. Beyond Mayne lies Saturna, the most isolated of the islands. With only 300 residents, Saturna has few roads, no campgrounds, and just a handful of businesses. I spotted an owl perched on a telephone line, silent and watchful in its ermine coat, and a llama in the middle of the road. "Mary! You get on home now!" cried a voice from a house in the woods. What next? I wondered. A unicorn?
That evening, over dinner on the deck at Saturna Lodge, I was feeling ridiculously pleased with myself. It had taken me half a day to get there, but now I was facing an extremely tasty veal ragoût, thick with roasted yams and zucchini, and garnished with a sprig of variegated sage. This was the home cooking of your dreams—not exactly in a league with the subtle East-West fusion cuisine of Vancouver, but certainly worthy of its setting. Overhead, a couple of baguette-shaped clouds tinged pink and then purple as the sun dropped behind a hillside bristling with fir. At the far end of the cove, a ferry pulled up to the dock, a small pocket of light amid the deepening night sky. Did it look festive, or lonely?Maybe both.
Saturna's major industry, if you can call it that, is a winery that was recently built by the family that owns Saturna Lodge. The winery and vineyard—one of just a handful on the B.C. coast—occupy a spectacularly beautiful shelf on the south side of the island. While I was there I found out that you can hike the mountain that looms overhead by contacting its owner at the neighboring farm. I found him on his tractor, a white-haired man in dark green overalls. Hike the trail?He didn't see why not. Where was I from?New York City?Would I like to see him cut up some lambs?
At just over 1,600 feet, Mount Warburton Pike is the highest point on Saturna. Its namesake was a Victorian writer, businessman, and philanthropist who figured mightily in early Gulf Islands affairs. The mountain is a fitting monument. Following a dirt road through the woods, I drove a third of the way and then got out to walk. There was no sun beneath the canopy of westernred cedars. The air felt cool and moist. Foxgloves were growing wild by the roadside, more and more of them as I climbed, their bell-shaped blossoms the only bright spots in the forest. They lined the road like sentries, some standing seven or eight feet tall, some bent over and drooping to the ground.
Eventually, the forest gave way to grasslands burnt golden by the sun. Then the land dropped off and I was standing at the edge, alone. The water sparkled before me. Somewhere far below, a tugboat strained to pull a harvest of logs. I guess it was moving, but from this height it didn't seem to be; from here, in fact, the whole world was standing still.
Hastings House 160 Upper Ganges Rd., Salt Spring Island; 800/661-9255 or 250/537-2362; doubles from $278. A bit of Olde England; ask for a hillside suite if you want to feel as if you're in Canada.
Woodstone Country Inn 743 Georgeson Bay Rd., Galiano Island; 888/339-2022 or 250/539-2022; doubles from $71. A small, gray clapboard establishment with pastoral views.
Saturna Lodge 130 Payne Rd., Saturna Island; 888/539-8800 or 250/539-2254; doubles from $92. Basic accommodations in an idyllic setting. Dining on the deck is the quintessential Gulf Islands experience.
Oceanwood Country Inn 630 Dinner Bay Rd., Mayne Island; 250/539-5074; doubles from $108.A rambling inn overlooking the water. Do the sunsets last longer here, or does it just seem that way?
Butterfield & Robinson 800/678-1147; from $2,850 per person, including meals and accommodations. Canada's top adventure outfitter leads six-day trips through the islands. Go biking, hiking, and sea kayaking.
Frank Rose is a contributing editor for Wired.