Explore the Pacific Northwest

B.C.’s Dazzling Gulf Islands

Explore the Pacific Northwest

Art, Nature and Artisan Foods Create a Reinvigorating Northwest Island Escape

Aerial view of Salt Spring Island's Ganges

The blue sea changes gradually to teal as it nears the shoreline, where it ripples over a blanket of white sand before lapping at the edges of the beach we’re strolling along. The scene is reminiscent of Florida’s Gulf Coast or the Caribbean, except for the fringe of Western red-cedar and maple trees that back the beach. We’re much closer to home. This startlingly beautiful beach, made of wave-washed clamshell middens from the site of a 3,000-year-old First Nations village, is on Galiano Island in B.C.'s Southern Gulf Islands, just north of the San Juans.

On a getaway to the Southern Gulf Islands, in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and the mainland, my partner, Brian, and I find a place lost in time, with a touch of wilderness in the salt-tinged air. Reached via BC Ferries' sleek, modern ships, the forested islands offer a languid pace with stunning scenery, a thriving arts scene, delicious local foods, and flourishing wineries and craft cideries.

Gorgeous Galiano

Bellhouse Provincial Park view of Active Pass

The ferry docks at Sturdies Bay, which has a perfect vacation trifecta on Galiano Island (above): Galiano Island Books sits next to Sturdies Bay Bakery & Cafe, which turns out dreamy peach scones, in season. Nearby, Galiano Oceanfront Inn and Spa is a relaxing retreat with a spa next to a koi-filled pond. In the resort’s lobby is an unexpected masterpiece: Kunamokst is a massive mosaic made of panels created by nearly 200 West Coast artists who were given only a palette of colors and a general outline, but no hint about the final form: an immense orca and her calf. Brian and I pore over the individual panels for a half-hour with the project’s instigator, Conny Nordin, finding delightful details and hearing moving stories about some of the panels, each a work of art.

Whales are often spotted from viewpoints around the island, according to Tour Galiano guide Rachelle Hayden, who enthralls us with island lore on a hike up 1,030-foot-tall Mount Galiano. A prize awaits at the top: a panoramic view of emerald Gulf Islands atop silvery water where miniature-looking ferries and sailboats resemble water bugs, complete with "v"-shaped wakes.

Salt Spring Sips and Noshes

Salt Spring Islands Cheese

Yes, there is salt on Salt Spring. Salt Spring Sea Salt, to be precise. The handmade fleur de sel is made from evaporated and purified seawater. It’s just one of many gourmet treats to be found on this food-focused island whose front porch is the delightful seaside village of Ganges (top). An island drive yields a visit to Salt Spring Island Cheese (above), which turns out creamy, tangy chèvre in nine flavors, from basil to truffle. Honor-system farm stands at the ends of country lanes sell everything from fresh-baked bread to jams and vinegars. Salt Spring Vineyards and Garry Oaks Estate Winery turn out sought-after varietals, and Salt Spring Island Ales adds artisan brews to the mix.

Brian and I sample a flight of cider at Salt Spring Wild Cider, made, to our surprise, with wild apples and pears that grow across the island. Salt Spring, we learn, was a major apple producer beginning in the late 19th century. Remnants of these orchards today yield an astonishing bounty: more than 450 varieties of apples, most organic. For a taste of 350 of them, visit in fall for the island’s annual Apple Festival .

Salt Spring has long been home to a thriving arts community, with studios tucked into the woods throughout the island, and Ganges has several notable galleries. Brian and I stroll through the Duthie Gallery’s outdoor sculpture park at dusk, on our last night on the island. Whitewashed wooden human-like figures and several massive pieces—including a monumental Sitka spruce sculpture made from an ancient tree—hide in the shadows along a woodland path and, as we walk, their emergence from the silent, dark cedar woods lends a mystical air.

Natural wonders on Pender Islands

Woods on Pender campsite
WOODS on Pender

Pender Islands (North and South, linked by a bridge) are all about the outdoors, including a luxe “camping” experience, WOODS on Pender (above), where Airstreams are outfitted with hammocks, fire pits and grills. Deer visit our little home in the woods, and we encounter harbor seals, including wide-eyed babies, lounging on rocks, while we kayak around Otter Bay with Kye Nahanni, owner of Dog Mermaid Eco Excursions.

We don’t know it until we arrive, but it’s clear we’ve saved the best for last: The sun is low in the sky, turning blufftop grasses flaxen and casting long shadows, as we hike between Gowlland Point and Brooks Point, one of the last undeveloped headlands in the Southern Gulf Islands (and home to rare chocolate lilies, in the springtime). Mares’ tail clouds paint the sky with brush strokes, and Mount Baker seems to float atop the cobalt waters. Like nearly everywhere on this trip, we have this theatrical setting all to ourselves. In the Gulf Islands, we’ve come to expect nothing less.

—Written by Leslie Forsberg

Getting There

BC Ferries offers regular service to the Gulf Islands from Tsawwassen, south of Vancouver, B.C., and Swartz Bay ferry terminal, 19 miles north of Victoria. Washington State Ferries, from Anacortes, dock in Sidney, 4 miles south of Swartz Bay. Victoria International Airport has regularly scheduled flights from Seattle and Spokane. Victoria's Inner Harbour is served by Kenmore Air and the Victoria Clipper, from Seattle, and the Black Ball Ferry Line, from Port Angeles. Call or visit your nearest AAA store for maps, guidebooks and other travel-planning resources, including assistance from one of our expert Member Travel Counselors.

Top Gulf Island Restaurants

Galiano Island
Atrevida
134 Madrona Dr., (250) 539-3388

Babes in the Woods Eatery
2540 Sturdies Bay Road, #1B, (250) 539-2817

Pilgrimme
2806 Montague  Road,(250) 539-5392

Salt Spring Island
Auntie Pesto’s
115 Fulford–Ganges Road, #2104, (250) 537-4181

Barb’s Bakery & Bistro
124 McPhillips Ave., (250) 537-4491

House Piccolo
108 Hereford Ave., (250) 537-1844

Pender Islands
Coffee + Kitchen at Woods on Pender
4709 Canal Road, (250) 629-3353

Jo’s Place
4605 Bedwell Harbour Road, (250) 629-6033

Island Festivals

Festivals add to the many reasons to visit the Gulf Islands. The best festival for sampling multiple Southern Gulf Islands is Tour des Iles (June 22-24), which features all-day foot-passenger ferries that connect with shuttles continuing on to farmers markets, art galleries, nature trails and more. Additional festivals include the following:

Aug. 1–11
Hope Bay Boat Days
Hope Bay, Pender Island

Aug. 4  
Galiano Music Festival
Lion’s Field, Galiano Island

Sept. 30
Apple Festival
Fulford Hall,Salt  Spring Island