Snug in the Georgia Strait, between the BC mainland and the east coast of Vancouver Island, are the Gulf Islands and Discovery Islands of British Columbia.
Each of the Gulf Islands seems to be a world unto itself. Each has its own history, culture and colourful characters. Spectacular scenery, talented artisans and artists, great outdoor recreation, and a great mediterranean climate are among the many attractions of the popular Gulf Islands.
Southern Gulf Islands
There are seven major islands in the southern half of the Strait of Georgia. Each island has its distinctive charm, and deserves at least a day or two for exploring.
A good way to do so is by bicycle, stopping at campgrounds or bed and breakfasts along the way. Roadways and trails take you on a tour of natural beauty, leading you to hilltops for fabulous views and down to the beach for an afternoon swim. Around each corner is an artisan's gallery or a cafe, a row of unique little shops, or a quiet marina. There is also camping, hiking, fishing, boating and sailing, all in beautiful surroundings and a friendly, relaxing atmosphere - truly what holiday memories are made of.
Decide in advance which island best suits your purposes, then consult a BC Ferries schedule to see if you can manage the connections in the course of a day's visit, or whether you'll have to seek overnight accommodation. Ferry service to many islands is restricted to one or two sailings a day, except in summer months. You may find that in order to catch a ride, you'll have to start your day well before dawn and return home late in the evening. The trade off is that you'll find far fewer visitors sharing the roads, waterways and parks with you as you travel at off-peak times.
Saltspring Island is Canada's arts and crafts island. Because of its mild climate, mellow pace, beautiful landscapes and island isolation, artists and crafts people are drawn from all over the world. Although Saltspring is well known to boaters and may be reached by three ferries and scheduled air flights, it remains a quiet lesser-known paradise for most travellers. On Saturday mornings in the summer, the spirit of Saltspring can be caught in the local Market in Ganges, the biggest town in the Gulfs.
Rolling orchards and warm rock-strewn beaches abound on Mayne Island, a rustic 13 square-km spot. It's small enough for a day trip, but pretty enough for a lifetime. Drop by the lighthouse, watch the frantic activity as fishermen wait till the last minute to get out of the ferry's way in Active Pass, or stroll up the top of Mayne's mountains for a view of the Strait of Georgia - and you'll begin to discover what Mayne is all about.
Saturna Island is tucked away at the southern end of the island chain. Rural, sparsely populated, and difficult to reach, Saturna Island is easily the least spoilt of the Gulf islands.
The Pender Islands are known as the 'Friendly Islands' and the 'Islands of Hidden Coves' - with over 20 public ocean access spots to visit along the beaches and coves. The mild climate and pristine wilderness make the Penders perfect for family holidays, romantic retreats, golfing, hiking, biking and nature-watching.
Galiano Island has always enjoyed the reputation of being the most welcoming to visitors. Galiano is a hub for sea-kayak trips and the site of the Montague Harbour Marine Provincial park, one of the largest Marine Provincial parks on any of the islands. This isn't to say that residents of the other islands won't be just as pleased to see you disembark at the dock. Indeed, tourism is important to the livelihood and economic well-being of most of the Gulf Islands, although some are better prepared for it than others.
Gabriola Island, the most accessible of the chain, features three provincial parks, quiet beaches, and sensational ocean views. Perhaps the most interesting limestone formations on the Gulf Islands are located at Gabriola Sands Provincial Park, called the Malaspina Galleries.
Island life on Thetis Island is relaxed, rural, peaceful and crime-free, with delightful rural scenes, beautiful shoreline, crystal clear waters, and wonderful views. A Mediterranean combination of mild winters and warm, dry summers supports a unique ecosystem and provides an ideal environment for outdoor recreation.
Although located in the Strait of Georgia, Kuper Island falls under the Cowichan Valley, and belongs to the Penelakut First Nations Tribe. There are no commercial establishments on Kuper Island.
De Courcy Island
De Courcy Island is located in Northumberland Channel, between Nanaimo and Valdes Island. De Courcy Island is about 300 acres in size and is heavily forested in most areas. There are several middens on De Courcy Island that indicate native use of the land going back over 3,000 years.
Valdes Island is located in the Strait of Georgia, sandwiched between Gabriola Island and Galiano Island. The island supports a small community of residents at Starvation Bay on the north shore, but the majority of the population of the island consists of part-time vacationers. A third of Valdes Island is a First Nations Reserve for the Lyackson First Nation at Shingle Point.
Albeit that Newcastle Island is located off the coast of Vancouver Island, it is not considered one of the Gulf Islands. Accessible by foot-passenger ferry from Nanaimo, Newcastle Island is a nature reserve, and a delightfully adventurous location for a picnic, with sandstone cliffs, forests, gravel beaches, caves, caverns and prehistoric native middens.
Northern Gulf Islands
The term Northern Gulf Islands is infrequently used to describe the islands between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland that aren't considered Southern Gulf Islands. This is potentially confusing, as Quadra Island and Cortes Island are included in the Discovery Islands.
These islands, part of a chain of 6,000 islands that shelter the British Columbia coastline between Washington and Alaska, lie beyond the quick-access range of Vancouver and Victoria.
|Pastoral scenery of the BC Gulf Islands
The wonderful silence that envelops these islands is characteristic of the ambience in remote central coast locales. It wasn't always this way. In the heyday of fishing and logging camps, the population on the more isolated islands was surprisingly higher than it is today.
Evidence of this can be seen in the abandoned cabins, ancient villages, and overgrown logging roads. Explore by car, kayak, mountain bike or on foot. Find a location that appeals to you, and within this microcosm, experience the wonder and magic that pervades life here.
Quadra Island is a 10-minute ferry ride from Campbell River. Resident artists and craftspeople make the island a fine place to sleuth around for pottery and other wares. The Nuyumbalees Cultural Center (formerly Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center) contains an outstanding collection of authentic artifacts.
After going to the effort to reach Cortes Island, with its placid lakes, beaches rich in shellfish, and rugged gorges - your reward is finding a campsite on the southwestern corner at Smelt Bay Provincial Park, a heavenly setting on this picturesque island.
Tranquil and bucolic, Denman and Hornby Island sits just off the east coast of Vancouver Island. Denman, the larger of the two is known for its pastoral farmlands and its population of talented artisans.
Lying off the south end of Denman Island, Hornby Island is the smaller of the two and offers a rugged, seductive mix of northwest rainforest and magnificent warm-water swimming beaches.
Originally home to a whaling station, Texada Island is now the site of a working limestone quarry. Texada offers biking, hiking, fishing, swimming, scuba diving, birdwatching and rock hounding.
Hop aboard the foot passenger ferry from French Creek and cruise across the Strait of Georgia to Lasqueti Island. Largely undeveloped, Lasqueti is a worthwhile destination for a day trip or longer - not only for its natural beauty, but it is so distant from the mainstream.
Jedediah Island is a Marine Provincial park located between Lasqueti Island and Texada Island, in the Sabine Channel of the Strait of Georgia.
It is the largest and most diverse island of a chain of over thirty islands and rocky islets located north and west of Lasqueti Island. Jedediah's isolation and tranquility make it an excellent destination for kayaking and wilderness camping.
The Rendezvous Islands are located in Calm Channel off the northeast end of Read Island in the Discovery Island chain of islands. The Rendezvous Island group comprises North Rendezvous Island, Middle Rendezvous Island, and Rendezvous Island South.
Savary Island and the Copeland Islands Marine Provincial Park are only accessible by private boat or water taxi from Lund on the Sunshine Coast. The best beaches in the entire chain of Gulf Islands are to be found on Savary Island. It's debatable which side of the snout-shaped island has the best beaches, but when you're in heaven, it doesn't matter which side of the street you walk on!
Location: The Gulf Islands are dotted in the Georgia Strait, between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. BC Ferries provides service to the Gulf Islands from several terminals on Vancouver Island, including Swartz Bay (Sidney), Crofton, Buckley Bay and Nanaimo, and from Tsawwassen near Vancouver on the mainland. Vehicle reservations are recommended for sailings between Tsawwassen and the Gulf Islands.
The fleet of BC Ferries that services the Northern Gulf Islands is not as large nor are the sailings as frequent as the fleet for the Southern Gulf Islands. Some of the Islands can only be reached by private transportation such as water taxis, kayaks, canoes and, occasionally, floatplanes. Many visitors travel to the Gulf Islands by private boat. Boaters can choose from many marinas, government docks and anchorages. If you're travelling from the United States, there's a convenient Customs office at Bedwell Harbour on South Pender Island. Visitors will find that the further north in the Strait of Georgia they explore, the fewer fellow travellers they'll encounter.