Escape to the North
Think island life is all palm trees and piña coladas? Think again. Just off Canada’s west coast, sprinkled alongside mainland British Columbia, lies a string of islands that provide
an entirely new dimension to the concept of island escapes. And while you would be hard-pressed to find macrame hammocks swaying underneath coconut trees in these parts, what you can expect are pristine old-growth forests, breathtaking beaches, rich First Nations history, and fiery sunsets, with an array of boutique cabins from which to enjoy them.
Salt Spring Island - Paddock-to-plate and pint
Carving out a particular niche with agritourism, Salt Spring’s strength is in the number of farm tours and culinary experiences available.
The most efficient way to eat your way around the island, is at the famed Salt Spring Island Saturday Market, with more than 140 artisans and food producers trading all things locally grown or made, from fruit and pastries to soaps, jewellery, body art, ceramics and everything in-between. For a ready-made feast, there is no shortage of restaurants and cafes, such as the whimsical Tree House Cafe, promising culinary cues from across the globe and live music, through to House Piccolo, combining the finest local produce, European-style flair and a decidedly upscale dining experience. At the end of the day, retire (and digest) at the lavish Stonehouse bed and breakfast, with its beautiful suites overlooking mountains and the Salish Sea. Enjoy the gardens and the Standing Stone Circle — a ‘monument to stillness’.
Galiano Island - Off-the-grid relaxation
Geographically speaking, Galiano is the closest Gulf Island to Vancouver (on a clear day you should be able to actually see the city’s distant skyline from across the water), however, the 27.5-kilometre-long island itself feels worlds away. Known as ‘The Gem of the Salish Sea’, Galiano is very laid-back, with little more than 1000 residents enjoying its easygoing lifestyle.
Close to Galiano’s Sturdies Bay Ferry Terminal, you’ll encounter most of the island’s amenities — a bakery, an ice-cream parlour, one of two grocery stores and a couple of shops. The island’s lone watering hole, The Hummingbird Pub, is located just down the road.
With the rest of the island characterised by thriving forest reserves, there are hiking and mountain-biking trails that cater to different fitness levels. Be sure to explore Retreat Cove on the north-west of the island, with its magnificent network of sandstone caves, hollowed out to reveal striking ocean views. Since the island is just six kilometres at its widest point, superb sights such as these are never far away; nor are water sports, including fishing, sailing and kayaking.
Hornby Island - Hawaii of the north
While it does take longer to reach compared to its larger neighbours, that doesn’t prevent savvy mainlanders visiting — seeking an island escape akin to somewhere closer to the equator. Tribune Bay is the centrepiece of Hornby, beloved for its dramatic cliffs, sweeping sandy beach and protected, aquamarine waters, which are rated as some of the warmest in British Columbia for saltwater swimming — they register near-tropical temperatures in summer. Beyond frolicking in the shallows, Hornby plays host to a rich variety of marine life. Swim, snorkel or dive alongside Giant Pacific octopuses, wolf eels, harbour seals, lingcod, rockfish, nudibranchs and colourful anemones.
However, the main attraction is the opportunity to swim with resident sixgill sharks which, despite being a notoriously deep sea fish, make their pilgrimages to the shallow waters of Flora Islet, a rocky reef. This offers divers a chance to see the majestic animals from spring to summer. Refuel with a sweet bun, muffin, tart or croissant from The Cardboard House Bakery & Cafe, or while away the afternoon browsing the many artist studios on the island, before retreating to a waterfront cottage at Sea Breeze Lodge.
Vancouver Island - All in one
While not strictly within the Gulf Islands, but forming the border of it, Vancouver Island spans more than 30,000 square kilometres, encapsulating the cosmopolitan delights, beauty and diversity that the rest of British Columbia has to offer on one island. Starting in the south is the province’s capital, Victoria, revered for its English charm and metropolitan line-up of museums, restaurants and craft breweries, as well as the Butchart Gardens. It’s here you’ll also find the Fairmont Empress Hotel, which recently underwent a $60 million restoration. Outside the city limits, quaint communities dot the island’s landscape, sometimes championing their fishing or logging roots. There are swathes of old-growth forest, among them some of the Pacific Northwest’s most challenging hiking trails. These include the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, which stretches 47 kilometres along the south-west coast, while the West Coast Trail traverses 75 kilometres of gorgeous yet rugged wilderness.
If your outdoor preferences lean more to the leisurely side, on the west coast are the sandy beaches of Canada’s relaxed surf capital, Tofino. Kayaking and fishing are also popular activities along this stretch of dazzling coastline.
Virgin Australia offers flights to VANCOUVER with its codeshare partner Air Canada. To book, visit www.virginaustralia.com.