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.