Beautiful BC: Exploring the stunning Southern Gulf Islands

Nov 10 2021, 11:36 pm

The Southern Gulf Islands are a collection of relatively small landmasses between Vancouver Island and the mainland — and they’re some of the province’s best kept secrets.

They offer vacation experiences that are beautiful, relaxing, and almost magical. A summertime Gulf Islands getaway rivals a tropical escape with turquoise waters and secluded beaches, while a winter trip means lush forest trails and affordable cozy cabins.

“When you get onto the islands, everything is really related to environment and nature around you,” Jacqueline East, spokesperson for the Southern Gulf Islands Tourism Partnership Society, told Daily Hive.

“It’s a giant slowdown. And it’s going to feel like an escape into wellness.”

gulf islands map

BC Ferries

The islands’ economies are very dependent on tourism, but they need to balance that with the onus to protect the stunning natural ecosystem. To that end, East said the islands strive to attract a certain type of visitor — someone who’s environmentally conscious, appreciates nature, and is perhaps tapped into local artisan culture.

“We like travellers who give back more than they take,” East said. “We hope to encourage regenerative travel.”

Here’s some inspiration for picking your next escape:

Salt Spring Island

Salt Spring is the most populated and developed of all the Gulf Islands, meaning you’ll have many options for accommodation, fresh groceries, and activities. Check out the cidery, the lavender farm, the winery, the brewery and the goat cheese-making farm.

The Saturday Market is also a must.

 

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For nature lovers there are also ample hiking opportunities in Mount Maxwell Provincial Park and Mount Erskine Provincial Park. There are also incredible campsites in Ruckle Park.

 

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Aquatic adventure-seekers can also try renting kayaks and paddle boards to see seals, sea lions, eagles, otters, and more.

Getting there is a simple ferry ride from Tsawwassen, and direct sailings are sometimes available.

Don’t forget, there are plenty of drool-worthy accommodations to choose from:

Harbour House Hotel

This ocean-facing hotel with a stunning patio can also host weddings and other events.

Private cottage with ocean views & trail access

Private cottage with ocean views & trail access/Airbnb

This Airbnb offers views of the ocean through its floor-to-ceiling windows. It sits on five acres of land, so you’ll be sure to get the peace and quiet you’re looking for.

The Sanctuary

sanctuary

The Sanctuary (sanctuarysaltspring.com)

The entire two-level home can be rented for groups of up to six people, and smaller groups have the option of renting individual suites.

Galiano Island

This is another popular destination along the Tsawwassen-Southern Gulf Islands ferry route. Perhaps even more relaxed than Salt Spring, it has some incredible hiking and gorgeous waterfront rentals that make it an ideal destination year-round.

Bodega Ridge Provincial Park

Daily Hive Vancouver

Nature-lovers can walk the Bodega Ridge Provincial Park trail which offers spectacular ocean views for most of its length.

Also check out the sandstone formations at Dionisio Point Provincial Park. If you visit when the tide is low enough, you could go inside the sea cave.

 

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Mayne Island

Less populated than Salt Spring or Galiano, but still easy to access with one ferry from Tsawwassen, is Mayne Island. Choose this one to truly feel like you’ve escaped the hustle and bustle of city life.

Mayne Island offers huge trees and beginner-friendly hiking trails. The highest viewpoint is Mount Parke, providing a stunning vista for only a short exertion.

 

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Another must-see is tranquil Dinner Bay. There’s a pebble beach, a frisbee gold course, and  a charming Japanese Garden.

 

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Food and gastronomy are huge parts of any Gulf Islands trip, according to East. The islands have a mild climate because they’re sheltered by larger Vancouver Island, meaning they have very long growing seasons and farms. You can also find a lot of farm stands selling local produce.

Mayne Island has a new farm-to-table restaurant called Das Nest that was started by two former Vancouverites who’ve worked at Farmer’s Apprentice, Acorn, and Maenam.

As for accommodation, Mayne Island has everything from resort rooms to lavish cabins:

Mayne Island Resort

Mayne Island Resort dock

Daily Hive Vancouver

Stay right on the waterfront and rent kayaks and paddle boards to see local wildlife.

Cobb Cottage

most-wish-listed-airbnb

Airbnb

Mayne Island is also home to one of Canada’s most wish listed Airbnb property.

Your Mayne Island Retreat

mayne island airbnb

Your Mayne Island Retreat/Airbnb

There are also ample waterfront cottages to pick from if you start looking early enough.

Pender Islands

Pender Islandshttps://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/coastal-scenes-pender-island-canada-1218373069

CMNewell/Shutterstock

Another island that’s accessible directly from Tsawwassen is Pender Island. Divided into northern and southern parts, Pender boasts inland lakes for paddling and stunning nature in a Mediterranean-like climate.

Must-try eateries include Jo’s Place for brunch, burgers, and pizza — and of course, the Vanilla Leaf Bakery for fresh pastries, desserts, and coffee.

 

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There are some pretty exciting accommodations to book:

Woods on Pender

 

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Book a renovated airstream at this glamping-style motel. Some even come with their own private hot tub.

Poets Cove Resort and Spa

poets cove daytime

Poets Cove Resort and Spa

This luxurious resort offers spectacular sunset views and has an on-site spa.

Cottage on the Bluff

cottage on bluff

Cottage on the Bluff/Airbnb

Pender also has many vacation rentals with excellent ocean views.

Saturna Island

Saturna is much more laidback and rural compared to the busier Gulf Islands surrounding it, but travellers from Vancouver can still get there on a single ferry ride from Tsawwassen.

Saturna feels more remote than other Gulf Islands which could make for a more relaxing stay. With a permanent population of only 350 people, the island quiets down in the winter months but becomes a sunny playground in the summer.

The island is great for hiking, cycling, kayaking, and swimming. Mount Warburton Pike trail offers great views, and Thomson Park has an excellent swimming and a frisbee golf course.

 

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Grab a pint at the Lighthouse Pub, and consider calling to book tours of local artists’ studios.

There are plenty of quaint ocean-facing accommodations to choose from:

Four Winds B&B

Four Winds B&B

Four Winds B&B

This cottage is right on the waves and gives guests complimentary continental breakfasts.

Arbutus Point Campground

 

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Try glamping within walking distance of the ferry dock in one of their two walled-in tents with views of the ocean.

Unique Gulf Islands Cottage

saturna

Central, Unique Gulf Island Cottage/Airbnb

This Airbnb with a colourful garden can sleep up to four guests.

Gabriola Island

gabriola sandwell

Sandwell Provincial Park on Gabriola island (karamysh/Shutterstock)

Gabriola is further north than the rest of the Southern Gulf Islands, but it’s fairly busy with a year-round population of about 4,200 residents.

It’s accessible from a smaller ferry that sails out of Nanaimo Harbour, meaning residents coming from Horseshoe Bay will need to drive to the second ferry terminal once they arrive in Nanaimo.

Hikers can visit Drumbeg Provincial Park or Descanso Bay Regional Park for stunning ocean views, and there are also excellent beaches at Gabriola Sands Provincial Park and Sandwell Provincial Park.

As for accommodation, there are plenty of options:

Page’s Resort and Marina

This property rents fully equipped seaside cottages, and offers activity packages and rentals for active holidaymakers.

Relm Cottage

fireplace

Relm Cottage – quiet beach on a secluded bay/Airbnb

This six-person bungalow has a gas fireplace on the porch for guests to stay cozy while watching for otters, sea lions, and whales.

Sage Cottage

sage cottage

Sage Cottage at The Last Resort on Gabriola/Airbnb

This heritage cottage offers unobstructed views of the ocean, and has a barbecue for grilling.

Thetis Island

thetis

Daily Hive Vancouver

A short drive from Nanaimo there’s Thetis Island, just off Chemainus. Getting here is a bit of a journey for Metro Vancouverites because it requires two separate ferries and a highway drive between them.

But once you’re there, Thetis is a summery escape with warm water, a charming marina restaurant, and a weekend market where vendors sell homemade fruit pies. Pack a picnic and visit Pilkey Point to spot some starfish.

There are only about 300 permanent residents on the island and no major grocery stores, so visitors should come prepared to cook many of their meals. There also aren’t many rugged hikes on the island, but there is a community dock for soaking up the rays.

Check out some of the places to stay:

Oceanfront Self-Contained Cabin 

million dollar view

Oceanfront Self-Contained Cabin on Thetis Island/Shutterstock

This two-person Airbnb boasts a “million dollar view” of the harbour.

Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge

https://www.cedar-beach.com/stay-with-us

Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge (cedar-beach.com)

This waterfront retreat has salty air, ocean views, and wood-fired pizza.

Cufra Cottage

cufra cliffs

Cufra Cottage (thetisisland.net)

This is a true bed and breakfast with a hot tub built out at the edge of a cliff.

Other Gulf Islands

We’ve mentioned the five main Southern Gulf Islands, plus Thetis and Gabriola which are a little further north. Beyond them there are the Northern Gulf Islands, sometimes called the Discovery Islands. They include Hornby Island, Quadra Island, Cortes Island, and more.

These islands all require two ferry rides from Vancouver — one to Vancouver Island, and a second to the Gulf Island of your choice.

One thing’s for certain, it’s hard to get tired of exploring this beautiful region.

Megan DevlinMegan Devlin

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