British Columbia’s best island escape
Strolling around the crowded streets of Vancouver – Western Canada’s largest metropolis – it’s easy to be lured by what’s just outside the city. Looming mountains, the shimmering Pacific Ocean and dozens of tree-topped little islands constantly wink at you between downtown’s forest of shiny glass towers.
But while the area’s peaks and beaches are well-visited, a trip to the Southern Gulf Islands – strung like hundreds of pearls between the mainland and giant Vancouver Island – is the best way to tap into a chilled-out British Columbia vibe.
The smaller inhabited options – tranquil Galiano and quirky Saturna, for example – have their fans, but Salt Spring Island is the archipelago’s biggest enticement. The most populous of the group (more than 10,000 call the 180 sq km landmass home), its tree-fringed country lanes connect colourful wood-built communities and more than enough attractions for a lazy long-weekend.
First you have to get here, though. Regular BC Ferries (http://www.bcferries.com) services – ideal for bringing your own car – slide into Salt Spring’s three docks from the mainland and Vancouver Island. These gentle, scenic crossings weave between the multitudinous islands and lower your heart rate to ultra-relaxation levels.
But a floatplane hop on Salt Spring Air (http://saltspringair.com) from downtown Vancouver is more exciting. Taking just 35 minutes, these low-level flights provide mesmerizing panoramas of the city, the island-studded ocean and boat-fringed Salt Spring emerging in the water ahead. Landing at Ganges, the island’s main village, passengers stroll right into the heart of the action.
To market to market
And on weekends, that action is all about the Saturday Market (http://www.saltspringmarket.com). With almost 150 vendors – operating under the rule that everything sold here must be made, baked or grown on the island – its Centennial Park location is usually crammed with smiling browsers by 10am.
“There’s great music and conversation and lots to see and buy,” says twinkle-eyed Raffi Cavoukian (https://www.raffinews.com), a composer and entertainer famous across Canada for his children’s songs. He’s lived on the island for decades but still enjoys meeting visitors and selling his books and CDs at the market. “I started here in ’76 from the back of a station wagon – and it’s still fun.”
From fruity soaps to rustic loaves – the latter sold by the near-legendary Bread Lady (http://www.phillipvanhorndesign.com/bakery/index.html) – and from fresh-picked raspberries to sweet tomatoes, it’s hard not to fill you backpack with tasty purchases here. But Salt Spring’s artistic side – there are dozens of vendors displaying their creations at the market – lures just as many shoppers. It’s a reminder that the island has long been a haven for creative-types.
Visitors can explore this art scene via dozens of local galleries and studios. On-foot, by car or by bicycle (vehicle rentals are available, while Salt Spring Air provides free loaner bikes to passengers), a self-guided weave is the ideal way to spend your time beyond the market. And navigation-wise, the new (and free) Salt Spring Island App (http://hellosaltspring.com) can show you where they are.
“Everywhere else I’ve lived was three years here, five years there. But I’ve always felt this was home,” says Salt Spring painter Diana Dean (http://www.dianadean.com), who’s lived for 30 years in a skylight-studded wooden house surrounded by arbutus trees. “From the Native Indians onwards, I think this island has been a special, sacred place – and it’s definitely become more artsy in recent years.”
Back in Ganges, internationally-renowned husband and wife artists Kathy (http://www.kathyventer.com) and Deon (http://deonventer.com) Venter agree, adding that quality of life is also a big draw here. “This is a good place to raise kids – that’s why we first came here. And the kids, once they’ve left the island, always come back,” says Kathy, who mentions that visitors often drop into their studio-gallery space to chat about their work.
And often, they make the nearby Duthie Gallery (http://www.duthiegallery.com) their next art crawl stop.
Lined with large contemporary sculptures and intriguing installations, the locals will tell you the best time to visit this hilltop gallery is on summer evenings (Thursday to Saturday) when its woodland sculpture park stages starlit strolls. It’s also close to Hastings House hotel (http://hastingshouse.com), a popular sleepover for visiting art fans: like a mini-version of an English country estate, its manicured grounds display works by local artists.
But the other side of Salt Spring creativity – reflecting the Saturday Market’s combination of art and food vendors – is even tastier. There’s a growing menu of artisan food and drink producers on the island and many are open to visitors.
Start your foodie crawl with some java – and a side order of local gossip – at Salt Spring Coffee (http://www.saltspringcoffee.com) or go for brunch outside in the shade of a plum tree at Ganges’ ever-popular Tree House Cafe (http://www.treehousecafe.ca). Then hit the road.
Just outside the village, Mistaken Identity Vineyards (http://mistakenidentityvineyards.com) is one of several small wineries here. A sun-dappled spot for leisurely tastings (the highly quaffable Bianco is a top-seller), you can sip a glass or two and nibble on local cheeses at a picnic table near the vines – expect an inquisitive visit from Summerdale, the winery’s friendly black labrador.
Beer nuts are also well-served over at Salt Spring Island Ales (http://www.gulfislandsbrewery.com), occupying a rustic, cedar-built shack hidden between trees. Its funky little tasting room offers a friendly welcome (and free samples) plus a roster of all-organic brews from malty Extra Special Bitter to smooth Heatherdale Ale. The brewery recently introduced refillable “growlers” – 1.89-litre brown glass jugs – that make picnicking in nearby Ruckle Provincial Park (http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/ruckle) an enticing idea.
Nearby Salt Spring Island Cheese (http://www.saltspringcheese.com) provides further sustenance. A cute farmstead with strollable garden, wandering chickens and a winery-like shop, it produces goat and sheep milk Chèvres, feta and Camembert styles – the bestseller is Ruckles, soft goat cheese rounds in herbs and garlic. You can watch the handmade production through windows in the back of the building.
For cheesemaker David Wood, the island’s art and culinary scenes go hand-in-hand. “Salt Spring is on the cusp of being a foodie destination – I think we’ve reached a critical mass,” he says. “Many people move here for the lifestyle, but then they have to either get a job or figure out how to make something – there aren’t that many jobs so more people make things here. It’s why we have such a creative community.”
It’s an impulse that shapes the island, according to local artist Ron Crawford (http://ronaldtcrawford.com). His works – including a monumental Stonehenge-style rock ring that overlooks the waterfront outside Ganges – are installed on Salt Spring and around the world. “There’s a creative energy here not present in many other places,” says the 26-year veteran of island life. “When I first moved here, there were no galleries. But now there’s a rich community of artists.”