Skip to content

TRAVEL: Cruising the quirky Gulf Islands archipelago

The Gulf Islands, nestled in the bottom, left-hand corner of the country, are like glittering jewels — and they’ve got some fascinating history, too. Before planning your trip, however, a word of caution.
TRAVEL: Cruising the quirky Gulf Islands archipelago_0

The Gulf Islands, nestled in the bottom, left-hand corner of the country, are like glittering jewels — and they’ve got some fascinating history, too.

Before planning your trip, however, a word of caution. The archipelago also has a bizarre, quirky side. The Gulf Islands (Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne, Galiano, Saturna) are home to the country’s most eccentric citizenry with a laid-back, left-leaning, hippy character. And now Trump refugees are percolating across the border. Hitchhiking — illegal in most of Canada — is not only encouraged, but several islands have car-stops where those seeking rides wait for cars to pick them up. No money changes hands, it’s fun to meet people and, hey, it’s helping save the globe from that persnickety carbon dioxide.

How does one travel from island to island, you wonder?

The archipelago is ideal for sailboats, yachts and kayaks. Gulf Islanders, however, are also reliant, rather begrudgingly, on BC Ferries Corporation. You must plan meticulously and arrive at the terminal at least 30 minutes early. You will then learn the ferry is running late. Finally, it chugs into the terminal. Oops, it’s overloaded and you get left behind. Not to worry, you’re on “island time.” This is a handy phrase commonly offered, and accepted, especially when running late. Saturna, with only 300 residents, is the smallest and most isolated of the Gulf Islands — seems lost in a time warp.

The top of Mount Warburton Pike offers fabulous views, but the slopes are ringed by contour lines, trails made by about 300 feral goats. The goats are adaptable, nimble and with no pretence. Much like the human Saturnians.

Mayne is arguably the most historic and interesting island. At the Springwater Lodge (established 1892), the oldest continuously operating pub in the province, you can quaff an ale while watching gleaming white ferries in Active Pass. The Lodge served the men rowing from Victoria to the mainland’s gold rushes.

Occasionally joined by smugglers, cattle rustlers and bootleggers, they partied so hard the lodge became known as “Little Hell.” Not surprisingly, in 1896 the first jail in the Gulf Islands was built just up the road.

During the Second World War, Japanese, who formed a third of Mayne’s population, were removed to internment camps. They never returned, thereby losing all their property. In 2002, the islanders built an elegant Japanese garden to honour these early good neighbours. In 2003, the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve was established on numerous islands and smaller islets.

Flummoxed as to where to place the entrance booth, Parks Canada decided park entry would be free. Isle-de-Lis is the name of a small, uninhabited island near the U.S. border. Locals prefer the former name of Rum Island, which evokes memories of Roy Olmstead, a bootlegger during American Prohibition. Olmstead brought Canadian liquor to Rum Island; smaller craft later moved the contraband to Washington State, invariably during rough weather to avoid the Coast Guard. Islanders at the pub claim similar clandestine shipments continue today. From 1891 to 1924, uninhabited D’Arcy Island, another national-park island, was a leper colony for Chinese immigrants. They were visited by a supply ship every three months.

According to tales, the ships often did not land, throwing supplies over the side before retreating rapidly. At Russell Island, a clam garden, a metre-high retaining wall, runs near the low-tide line. Tides drop sediment and broken shells on the shore side, forming a fertile area that attracts clams.

Coastal Salish First Nations, who have used clam gardens for millennia, say, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” As you travel, you’ll note many names were given by early Spanish and British explorers and are, well, pretty boring, reflecting ships and their officers.

Thieves Bay on Pender Island, however, is named after a pair of crooks who in the 1890s had just stolen two sheep when the police apprehended them. But the thieves got loose, stole a rowboat and escaped to the U.S. In disc golf, which is simple and free to play, you toss a disc between, around — and sometimes at — stately Douglas firs and gangling arbutuses.

The clang of discs hitting metal posts is often accompanied by the aroma of a certain B.C. product wafting through the forest. As the sun sinks low, hike to a viewpoint and watch the sun paint the horizon shades of vermilion and orange.

Raise your glass and toast this delightful, but quirky, feast of islands.

Travel Writers’ Tales is an independent newspaper syndicate. For more information, go online to