Nestled in the Strait of Georgia---off the calm side of Vancouver Island---the southern Gulf Islands offer relaxed holiday getaways in a quiet, pastoral environment. Separated from Washington's San Juan Islands by just a little bit of water and the unseen U.S. border, the Canadian Gulf Islands hark back to an earlier age when people were close to the land and were more aware of their natural surroundings. What used to be the Strait of Georgia is now officially called the Salish Sea, honoring the native Indians that settled this area far before the Europeans came to settle in British Columbia and Washington.
These islands lack much of the sophistication and glitz of neighboring Vancouver, and they do not have the English manor-house ambience of Victoria. But that's not what we're looking for on these islands in the alish Sea. You should expect sparkling water, quiet winding roads through lush farmland and forests, with accommodations to suit the ambience: fine bed and breakfast homes; some outstanding intimate restaurants serving fresh West Coast cuisine; fascinating provincial parks with cobble beaches; bird life, including bald eagles; animal life, including island deer and killer whales; hiking along the coastlines and through the forests or golfing on some of the islands. These idyllic isles offer a chance to get away to a more peaceful kind of recreation, similar to that available on the neighboring San Juan Islands---but with a Canadian difference.
The most southerly of the islands are the more populated and more accessible: Saltspring, Pender, Mayne, Saturna and Galiano. These are reached by ferry from Swartz Bay near Victoria or from Tsawwassen near Vancouver on the mainland. They all have accommodations and attractions for travelers, although Saltspring and Galiano are more geared to tourist traffic. Pender is actually two islands, joined by a bridge where a peninsula was blasted away to create a narrow ship passage.
Saturna has a smaller population, and fewer services than the other islands, but it is the location of the Gulf Islands National Park Preserve which takes up much of the island. Winter Cove is a spot for a picnic or a shoirt walk. Hiking trails are also available at Lyall Creek. Try a picnic and a short walk at Winter Cove. Enjoy a hike at Narvaez Bay or along Lyall Creek. Great views are available at the top of the drive up Mount Warburton Pike.
The southern Gulf Islands are becoming increasingly popular as residents of the Vancouver area look for interesting weekend getaways in quiet surroundings. Several new bed and breakfast inns have opened in recent years, and the islands have continued their tradition of serving fine food in distinctive restaurants. They have become a haven for sea kayakers who flock to the archipelago to paddle throughout the quiet waters between the islands and to camp along the shore in one of several provincial and local parks. The islands also appeal to cyclists who can easily do a tour of an island in a single day, using the rural sideroads, which are free from heavy traffic.
The Island Environment
Like the San Juans to the south, the Gulf Islands are composed primarily of sandstone and shale. Only the southern part of Saltspring Island is volcanic in nature.
Much of the shoreline of the southern islands is rocky and rugged, often with cliffs, which the sea erodes. Vegetation on the islands is primarily Douglas fir, with groves of madrone (arbutus) and some Garry oak. There is also some western red cedar. Salal is the dominent plant in the underbrush, along with salmonberry and huckleberry. Parks on the islands present ample opportunity to walk through the forests. One of the great benefits of visiting these islands is the wealth of wildflower life on the spring meadows, including stonecrop, blue camas and satin flower.
The pods of killer whales (orca) that inhabit the north Puget Sound area also come to visit these islands. It's a thrillling experience to watch these families as they stop to feed on the abundant local salmon, with fins piercing the calm waters betwen the islands, and their frequent gliding through the surface into the air. Harbor seals breed in Georgia Strait and can be seen along the island coastlines, more likely from a boat than from the shore.
Birding and Cycling
The Gulf Islands provide superb opportunities for birding, with sea birds nesting throughout the southern islands. Species include cormorants, gulls, tufted puffins, guillemots and the great blue heron. Should you stay overnight on one of the islands, you'll no doubt be serenaded in the night by one or more of the many loons who live in the area. Loons are most populous in April and May when they are flying north on the Pacific Flyway to their northern nesting grounds. The king of Gulf Island birds is the bald eagle. Eagles are common on the islands, and you'll see their huge stick nests atop many trees along the shorelines.
There is a moderate pace on the islands, which makes them perfect for cycling. If you have bikes, bring them along. You'll appreciate leaving your car or RV at your campsite or inn and exploring the country roads of the island at your leisure by bicycle, or by taking leisurely walks along the quiet, narrow roads or beside the water.
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