British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands: Each With A Unique Story to Tell

Pender Island Community Hall
Pender Island Community Hall. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Located in the Salish Sea, right between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, are the Gulf Islands. We Explore Canada contributor Hans Tammemagi walks you through how to make the most of the famous Southern Gulf Islands, one island at a time.

Trying to look like Easy Rider, I revved the motor and bumped my “hog” off the ferry and onto Mayne Island. OK, so my motorbike is only a 50-cc scooter with a torpid top speed of 70 kph, but it’s perfect for the winding roads of Mayne Island, my favourite of the gaggle of isles that form the southern Gulf Islands on the southwest coast of British Columbia. I putt-putted along enjoying sea views and forest glades.

Exploring Historic Mayne Island

Agricultural Hall on Mayne Island
The Agricultural Hall on Mayne Island. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Under the hot sun I found the Springwater Lodge on Miners Bay and ordered a cool ale. Kids squealed as they jumped off the wharf into the cold water. Sailboats lay at anchor. Gleaming superferries sounded deep throaty warnings in the narrow confines and turbulent waters of Active Pass. It was so deliciously nautical.

Mayne is soaked in history. The Springwater, for example, is the oldest continuously operating hostelry in British Columbia (established 1892), and, apparently, is haunted by the ghosts of miners who stopped here long ago en route to the goldfields on the mainland. The first jail in the Gulf Islands — a testament to their revelry — is just up the street.

Refreshed, I puttered to Georgina Point where an 1884 lighthouse guards the eastern entrance to Active Pass. Sitting among smoothly sculpted sandstone at the lighthouse’s base, I pondered my quest. In 2016, the New York Times nominated the Southern Gulf Islands, this series of islands south of Vancouver, as one of the 52 best places in the world to visit. Inspired, I was touring all five islands (Mayne, Galiano, Salt Spring, Pender, Saturna) aboard my “hog,” Big Max. This, is in contrast to my other recent British Columbia explorations, where I was lucky enough to fly to Ursa Minor Brewing.

I was eager to explore, for the region has a distinctive ecosystem formed by Canada’s only Mediterranean climate, and is home to many unique plants and animals.

A short ride took me to the elegant Japanese Gardens where I sat in the meditation pavilion, reflecting on World War II when the island’s Japanese were removed to internment camps, their farms and possessions confiscated and never returned.

Heading Back in Time on Saturna Island

Mount Warburton Pike
Big Max on Mount Warburton Pike (Saturna Island). Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

The Mayne Queen carried me to Saturna Island, the least populated of the southern Gulf Islands, and considered by many to be lost in a time warp. On that note, do make sure to check the BC Ferries schedule for the Southern Gulf Islands when you’re planning your trip.

I puttered to East Point where, after a visit to the museum, I lay on sandstone rocks warmed by the sun and watched seals and sea lions laze on the rocks of Boiling Reef. 

Big Max easily negotiated steep slopes, farmers’ tracks and, once, even a ragged trail formed by feral goats. I was pleased that the drivers of the occasional passing cars all gave friendly waves. With no modern distractions and only 350 residents, Saturna has a relaxed, slow-paced lifestyle. “I moved to Saturna in 1970 and fell in love with the deep quiet and the balance between human beings and the land,” said longtime resident Priscilla Ewbank. 

Big Max carried me up a winding dirt road to the peak of Warburton Pike, where views of the surrounding islands lay before me like a banquet. I hiked through the Douglas fir forest under a sparkling sun.

Every July 1st, this quiet island hosts one of the most tumultuous and unusual Canada Day celebrations in the country.  The population of the island more than triples as an enormous flotilla of boats packs into Winter Cove. About 30 lambs are roasted on tall iron crosses like crucifixes set in a circle around an alder fire. The site is pagan, but the result is mouth-watering. The event also features a band, craft fair, dunk tank and contests for children and adults. Virtually every person on the island contributes to making the event a huge success.

A handful of seagulls swooped behind as we chugged away from Saturna. Gazing back, I was sad to be leaving this outpost of yesteryear.

The Views from Galiano Island

Mount Galiano
The view from Mount Galiano. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

My next stop was Galiano Island where I puttered to Montague Harbour, which bobbed with vessels of every stripe, including a floating café selling coffee and scrumptious cinnamon buns. Mmmm! I continued down the road to the other end of this long narrow island stopping to admire pottery and take a long hike through an old-growth forest at the Galiano nature conservancy park.

Big Max and a short hike took me to the top of Mount Galiano. Spread before me was a glorious archipelago, including the 16 islands and over 65 islets that form the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Here and there sailboats flittered, their sails full of wind.

Boarding the ferry, I vowed to return in February for the Galiano Literary Festival and hoped the Wine Festival would resume after a covid-caused pause.

A Farmers Market and A Beverage or Two on Salt Spring Island

Salt Spring Island, Gulf Islands
Lavender on Salt Spring Island. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

The Queen of Nanaimo carried Big Max and me to Long Harbour on Salt Spring Island, the largest and most populated of the Gulf Islands. We headed straight to the Farmers’ Market, one of the best in Canada, which was abuzz with paintings, carvings, sculptures, fresh farm produce, stained glass and jams. 

Clutching a blackberry smoothie, I spoke to Janet Coulson, the project manager of “Experience the Southern Gulf Islands” who said, “people are attracted to the southern Gulf Islands by a sense of nostalgia. It’s a different way of life. We have a vibe and energy, yet it’s so close to nature. Anywhere you turn there’s something beautiful and soul-filling.”

Spot on, I thought. Since non-aboriginal settlement began in 1859, the Gulf Islands have been a refuge for those seeking a laid-back life including draft dodgers, hippie farmers, eccentrics, solitude seekers, artists, as well as the well-to-do and their glitzy water-front cottages.

After a day of hiking in Ruckle Park and then high up on Mount Maxwell, I was pleasantly exhausted. There was no problem relaxing with a tipple as the island offers three wineries, a distillery, a brewery and three cideries. The lodging choices were overwhelming. Hastings House, historic and sprawling elegantly on 22 seaside acres, beckoned, as did numerous inns and B&Bs.

Kayaking Off Pender Island

Brooks Point Pender Island
Brooks Point, Pender Island. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Pender Island offered double the fun, for it consists of two islands joined by a one-lane wooden bridge. I enjoyed hikes to Brooks Point, the summit of Mount Norman and to the end of Roe Islet. In the forest, I passed ramrod-straight Douglas firs, which were like battalions of tall soldiers at attention. But interspersed in their ranks, mockingly, were gangling arbutus trees, chaotic like hippies.

Protected by Vancouver Island, the serene waters of the Gulf Islands are ideal for kayaking, as I discovered while circling South Pender Island. Stroke after stroke, soothingly I passed log-lined coves and rocky promontories. The glistening head of a seal occasionally popped out of the water to witness my progress.

Landing, it was hard to decide whether to play disc golf, where a frisbee-like disc is thrown at a target — and it’s free! — or the other golf, where one whacks at a little dimpled ball. Both Pender courses are challenging and attractive.

At Poets Cove Resort on South Pender Island, I watched gleaming yachts and sailboats with tall masts from as far away as California and Alaska. At the bar, yarns were spun about distant places and the orcas, dolphins, eagles and sea lions the sailors had sighted.

That evening as the setting sun painted the horizon in vermilions and golds, I congratulated Big Max for carrying me around these delightful isles. 

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