Southern Gulf Islands cast spell over summer

New inn and e-bikes add to charm of getaways to Galiano and Salt Spring Island

In the dark of night, the underwater boulders along the shoreline sparkle like tiny stars.

A fish suddenly streaks through the water, leaving a swath of light in its wake. Droplets of water from our raised paddles create silvery circles as they splash down.

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Kayaking this still channel between Galiano and Parker Islands is special even without bioluminescence – but the glow-in-the-dark spectacle created by microscopic dinoflagellates (plankton) in the water makes this night time paddle downright magical.

It’s ironic, really. We often travel to the far corners of the world for new bucket list experiences; yet just a short scenic ferry ride away, Galiano is where we glide through fairy dust.

Fairies sprinkle their magic on Salt Spring Island, too. OK, not real fairies. But we spy several doors to their houses on Mount Erskine. A short, stiff hike up the 488-metre mountain takes you past twisted old trees, moss carpets and “fairy doors.” Carved by locals, these wee doors – some decorated with painted pebbles and bits of glass – are attached to boulders off the side of the trail. They make us smile, just as the OMG-bird’s eye views at the summit over Sansum Narrows and toward Vancouver Island do.

If you haven’t visited Galiano or Salt Spring lately, you’ll find lots that’s new.

One welcome addition? You can now rent e-bikes.

On Salt Spring, we take out throttle-style “Juiced” bikes for a lovely 28-kilometre loop from Ganges. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of these step-through beasts. Soon we’re whizzing up steep hills with little effort. Wild pink sweet peas scent the air, and deer occasionally skip across the road.

At Southey Point, we stop to look at small boats in the harbour – and marvel at how “regular” bicyclists manage the ups and downs of the island. Without the boost of these electric bicycles, we doubt we’d even try cycling. But we still have to pedal, so we feel somewhat smug that we’re getting some exercise.

Smug enough that we feel no need to rein it in at the OysterCatcher at dinner that evening. On its waterfront deck, basking in the sunset, we can’t resist deep-fried oysters and mussels in a ginger cream sauce with lots of fresh-made focaccia. Tonight, the former lead singer of the Grapes of Wrath, Tom Hooper, strums soulful guitar tunes from the ’80s. Very chill, just like Salt Spring itself.

Over on Galiano Island, the new Woodstone Manor is attracting attention with elegant rooms and a Michelin-starred chef in charge of its restaurant.

Individually decorated, Woodstone’s 12 rooms feature plank wood floors covered with Persian rugs, heavy silk drapes and crystal gas fireplaces. The first thing we do upon checking into our king-bedded room is open a bottle of wine to sip on our small patio – it has bucolic views of rolling green pastures with horses grazing peacefully, against a backdrop of forested hills.

Dinner is a treat at Woodstone too. Chef Katsuyuki Sekihata (Seki for short), who has earned three Michelin stars for his culinary creations in Europe and Asia, was recently lured here. His frothy prawn bisque with champagne, garnished with edible flower petals, is pure bliss. We eat inside, but some hardy folks, wrapped in ponchos, have a convivial time on the outdoor patio by the roaring fireplace.

Spring and fall are ideal for taking in the art and food scene on the islands.

Salt Spring, in particular, has long been a sanctuary for painters, sculptors and other artists (Robert Bateman is perhaps the best-known). You can take a self-guided tour to more than two dozen galleries and studios, meeting the artists where they work. The Salt Spring Saturday Market, which runs from April to October, is also very popular, with 140 stallholders selling what they make, bake or grow on the island.

One thing’s for sure. No matter when you go, the islands will cast their spell on you – and have you wondering why on earth you didn’t visit (or revisit) sooner.


Salt Spring Island

Bring the family! On Bullock Lake (where you can swim), each of The Cottages have two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a full kitchen.

Hedgerow House is a sweet, professionally-run B&B with three ensuite guestrooms in a flower-filled garden in Ganges.

Salt Spring Adventure Company rents Juiced e-bikes so you can tackle the hills while exploring on two wheels ($50 a half day).

Dine on local ingredients at the OysterCatcher on its waterfront patio in summer or by the river-rock fireplace in winter.

Open daily year-round, the Salt Spring Inn serves hearty, home-style food at breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Galiano Island

Deluxe rooms at the boutique Woodstone Manor are kitted out with super comfy beds, waffle robes and slippers, and bar fridges. Rates include a continental breakfast.

Galiano Inn & Spa offers waterfront dining in a casual setting.

The bioluminescence night tour with Gulf Island Kayaking on Galiano costs $65 p.p. The owner can deliver rental bikes to your hotel too.

Getting there: From Tsawwassen, B.C. Ferries offers non-stop service to Salt Spring (90 minutes) and Galiano (55 minutes). Reservations are recommended.

More information: See the Southern Gulf Islands tourism site.

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