Salt Spring Island is a hot destination for 2016 – but that's not likely to change the magic of its vintage chilled-out ways
REUBEN KRABBE/Destination BC
I spent several years on Salt Spring Island as a small child, living with my hippie parents in a ramshackle farmhouse on the south end of the island. My mother painted large canvases and dried herbs she sold at the Saturday farmers market; my father wrote poetry and picked fruit. Images of steep, craggy bluffs, white-capped waves and dense rain forests have never left me; it's as if the landscape imprinted upon my imagination.
I have memories of walking the cliffs of Ruckle Provincial Park with my father, kicking the moss off the rocks with my red gumboots and searching the horizon for whales. In the fall, I recall playing Snakes & Ladders in the community centre, Beaver Point Hall, as the rain lashed down on the 100-year-old ceiling, and eating homemade blackberry pies fresh from the oven every summer. And I remember racing through the idyllic orchards that surrounded our home, stopping to pick a single, perfectly tart apple.
So it was with some trepidation that I returned to the island of my youth. In recent years, the Southern Gulf Islands – once a sleepy outpost for vacationing Vancouverites – has become a hot international tourist destination. So much so, in fact, that The New York Times has just named it one of the world's 52 places to see in 2016.
Would Salt Spring still hold the same magic it had three decades earlier? If it was the new "it" destination, could it ever be the same?
From the moment that the plodding BC Ferry backed out of Tsawwassen Harbour near Vancouver, the experience was vintage Gulf Islands. The views were as spectacular as ever. A vast expanse of ocean surrounded the ship, each inlet decorated with rust-coloured arbutus trees, seagulls circling overhead. The atmosphere onboard was laid-back; toddlers raced around gleefully and old friends lingered over coffee, enjoying a good gossip after bumping into each other in the cafeteria line.
When we docked, I lined up for the public bus that arrived to take a crowd of greying seniors, yuppie hikers and bearded hipsters the 15-minute drive into downtown Ganges, where the farmers market was in full swing.
In the market, a fresh-faced busker strummed her guitar and sang a mournful folk song, as if no time at all had passed since the 1960s. I wandered the stalls, feasting my eyes on the buffet: homemade ice cream and brownies and cookies and cake. For lunch, I bought Vietnamese rice rolls filled with three varieties of locally grown sprouts. Delicious.
Salt Spring is an island with a long and storied history. It's Coast Salish territory – there's a 17-hectare reserve near Fulford Harbour that dates back to 1877 – and was originally called Klaathem ("salt") by the Cowichan and Cuan ("mountains at each end") by the Saanich. In 1905, it became known as Salt Spring, for the salt springs in the island's north end.
Settlers arrived in 1859. Many were African-Americans fleeing racism in California, but there were also Hawaiians who had worked in the whaling industry and fur trade, and Japanese labourers. In the 1930s, the island became a tourist haven. And in the 1960s, a wave of artists and American draft dodgers arrived. Many never left.
Salt Spring is known for prioritizing lifestyle. With its mild climate and relaxed vibe, people pass their days beachcombing, doing yoga, making artisan food products, soaking up the thriving arts and music scenes, and eating very, very well.
Government of British Columbia/The Canadian Press
The Islanders' passion for locally grown food dates back to the hippie era – decades before it became a bona fide trend – and as a result there are more than enough good eats here to keep foodie travellers satiated.
The first night of my visit, I enjoyed an exquisite halibut dish, with new potatoes, zucchini, beets, carrots and wild bitter greens at a local bistro, Auntie Pesto's. Its patio looked out over the picture-perfect boardwalk of Ganges Harbour. Sipping a strong Americano after dinner, I watched the dusk settle and sighed contentedly. It was nothing short of lovely.
Ask locals where to eat, and you're sure to hear mention of Embe Bakery, at the foot of Ganges Hill. It's another must-visit, especially for its home-baked bread. It opens at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m., and houses the island's hitchhiking station – complete with pre-made signs to indicate which area you're hoping to get a lift to. Bus service only came to the island in 2008; for young people and seniors on fixed incomes who can't afford cars, hitchhiking had always been an accepted mode of transportation, and remains so today.
Since I didn't want to pay sky-high ferry rates to bring a rental car to the island, I decided to partake – nerves be damned.
One of my main goals for the three-day getaway was to get out into nature. I'd been living in the concrete jungle of Toronto for a decade, and felt starved for the West Coast landscape. I wanted to head to Ruckle Provincial Park, at the far southeast corner of the island, but it was a half-hour drive from Ganges along Beaver Point Road.
Government of British Columbia/The Canadian Press
I took a deep breath, hoisted the Beaver Point sign over my head, and thrust out my thumb. I lucked out with friendly rides: a woman in her 50s who owns a B&B ("once you've experienced the wilderness here, you never forget it," she said knowingly) and then a male retiree from Victoria, who took me the rest of the way.
Ruckle park was just as majestic as I remembered it. I hiked to the point and sat on a bench as a light rain fell, watching a ferry chug slowly through the Pacific. Then I set off on the shoreline trail, taking a wrong turn that landed me deep in the forest and questioning the intelligence of hiking alone.
But this trail eventually brought me back to a road that led to the park entrance, and past one of British Columbia's oldest family farms, settled by Irish immigrant Henry Ruckle in the 1870s. I was invigorated by the exercise and miles of lush green, and infinitely glad I'd come.
I didn't have to hitch home, BC Transit was trying out a summer bus service to Ruckle, so it was an easy trip back to Ganges and my B&B.
I'd discovered Hedgerow House online, and it was a fortunate find. The owners, Peter and Jayne Lloyd-Jones, happen to also work in public relations, and they were a storehouse of information about Salt Spring, not to mention discounts for area businesses.
And the food at Hedgerow was spectacular. Upon arrival, I was served a gorgeous platter of garlic and herb goat cheese from Salt Spring Island Cheese and Beddis blue from Moonstruck Organic Cheese, paired with sausage, olives and crackers.
Each morning, the three-course meal was a sight to behold. Farm-fresh eggs with asparagus and smoked salmon. Thick, hearty bread and preserves that exploded with flavour. Yogurt, garden berries and house granola, drizzled with the sweetest of honey. And, of course, lots of locally roasted coffee.
On my final day, I was determined to get out on the ocean, and so, on the couple's recommendation, I hired a private guide at Island Escapades to kayak with me to Goat Island, several nautical miles from shore.
As we paddled along, battling rocky waves, Nathan, my twentysomething guide, pointed out intertidal wildlife (sea stars!) and shared history of the area. He was a kinesiology student from Simon Fraser University on the mainland and he'd come to enjoy Salt Spring's outdoorsy lifestyle. We stopped at Goat Island – owned by a family who were happy to let a couple of kayakers enjoy its scenic beach – and took a serene break. Nathan poured us herbal tea from his thermos and served cookies from Embe Bakery.
Unfortunately, my city slicker ways ran a little deeper than I had hoped. I was so exhausted from two hours of paddling against the wind that he ended up offering to tow me in. (Though he thoughtfully unhooked me before we got to shore. Nobody needed to know, he winked.)
I passed my last hour on Salt Spring on the patio of TJ Beans, a favourite local coffee shop, drinking a latte and entertaining myself eavesdropping on the free-spirited locals. One thing was certain: I wouldn't let another few decades go by before I returned to drink in the magic again.
REUBEN KRABBE/Destination BC
IF YOU GO
It's quicker to reach Salt Spring by float plane (flight time is 35 minutes) via Harbour Air ( harbourair.com) or Salt Spring Air (saltspring- air.com). Both cost $262 round trip.
More time? The BC Ferries trip from Vancouver takes three hours, but you can cut down that travel time by about 45 minutes by taking a ferry to Vancouver Island and transferring at Swartz Bay ( bcferries.com) – a "through fare" trip. This smaller, open-air boat delivers you to Fulford Harbour on the south end of the island, an utterly charming little village. An adult walk-on ticket on the Vancouver-Salt Spring boat is $19.45, one way; a standard vehicle is $61.55 off peak (plus passenger fares) or $71.45 peak (plus passenger fares) one way. "Through fare" is the same total price. The island has its own bus service and schedules are posted at bctransit.com.
WHERE TO STAY
The ecoconscious Hedgerow House is perfectly located on bus routes if you don't plan to bring a car. And, indeed, the "pedal power" discount of $20 per booking encourages you not to. Rooms from $140, breakfast included. 238 Park Dr., hedgerowhouse.ca
WHERE TO EAT
The family owned bistro Auntie Pesto's serves innovative, local, seasonal West Coast cuisine from Chef Shawn Walton. 2104-115 Fulford-Ganges Rd., auntiepestos.com
A favourite of locals, the Tree House Café is an ideal place to kick back and relax with a wholesome gourmet burger, a beer and some live music. 106 Purvis Lane, treehousecafe.ca
For a fancier night out, House Piccolo offers upscale Scandinavian-inspired cuisine, in a charming cottage setting. 108 Hereford Ave., housepiccolo.com
For scenic group and guided kayak trips, try Island Escapades. Day tours start from $60 a person. 163 Fulford-Ganges Rd., islandescapades.com
Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly stated that the Tsawwassen ferry terminal is in Vancouver. It is actually in Delta, B.C., which is south of Vancouver. This story has been corrected.