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.