Canada’s creative island escape

A trip to the tranquil Southern Gulf Islands is one of the most popular ways to tap into a chilled-out British Columbia vibe.

Strolling the crowded streets of Vancouver, western Canada’s largest metropolis, it is easy to be lured by what is just outside the city. Looming mountains, the shimmering Pacific Ocean and dozens of tiny tree-topped islands constantly wink at you between downtown’s forest of shiny glass towers.

But while the area’s peaks and beaches are well-visited, a trip to the Southern Gulf Islands – strung like hundreds of pearls between the mainland and giant Vancouver Island – is one of the most popular ways to tap into a chilled-out British Columbia vibe.

The smaller inhabited options – such as tranquil Galiano and quirky Saturna – have their fans, but Salt Spring Island is the archipelago’s biggest enticement. The most populous of the group (more than 10,000 people call the 180sqkm landmass home), its tree-fringed country lanes connect colourful wood-built communities and more than enough attractions for a lazy long weekend.

Unwinding arrival
To get to Salt Spring, regular BC Ferries services – ideal for bringing your own car – travel from the mainland and Vancouver Island. These gentle, scenic crossings weave between the multitudinous islands and lower your heart rate to ultra-relaxation levels.

But travelling from downtown Vancouver via the Salt Spring Air floatplane is more exciting. Taking just 35 minutes, these low-level flights provide mesmerising panoramas of the city, with the island-studded ocean and boat-fringed Salt Spring emerging from the water ahead. Landing at Ganges, Salt Spring’s main village, passengers stroll right into the heart of the action.

To market to market
On weekends, that action is all about the Saturday Market. With almost 150 vendors (all operating under the rule that everything sold here must be made, baked or grown on the island), the market’s Centennial Park location is usually crammed with smiling browsers by 10 am.

“There's great music and conversation and lots to see and buy,” said twinkle-eyed Raffi Cavoukian, a composer and entertainer famous across Canada for his children’s songs. He has lived on the island for decades but still enjoys selling his books and CDs at the market. “I started here in 1976 from the back of a station wagon – and it's still fun.”

From fruity soaps to rustic loaves – the latter sold by the near-legendary Bread Lady – and from fresh-picked raspberries to sweet tomatoes, it is hard not to fill you backpack with tasty purchases. But Salt Spring’s artistic side lures just as many shoppers, and is a reminder that the island has long been a haven for creative types.

Art trail
Visitors can explore the art scene via dozens of local galleries and studios. On foot, by car or by bicycle (vehicle rentals are available from Salt Spring Car Rentals in Ganges, and Salt Spring Air loans free bikes to passengers), a self-guided weave is the ideal way to spend your time beyond the market. And navigation-wise, the new (and free) Salt Spring Island app can help you find your way.

 “Everywhere else I've lived was three years here, five years there. But I've always felt this was home,” said Salt Spring painter Diana Dean, who has lived for 30 years in a skylight-studded wooden house/studio surrounded by arbutus trees. “From the Native Indians onwards, I think this island has been a special, sacred place – and it has definitely become more artsy in recent years.”

Back in Ganges, internationally renowned husband and wife artists Kathy and Deon Venter agree, adding that quality of life is a big draw. “This is a good place to raise kids – that's why we first came. And the kids, once they've left the island, always come back," said Kathy, who added that visitors often drop into their studio-gallery space, Venter Studios, to chat about their work.

And often, their next art walk stop is at the nearby Duthie Gallery. Lined with large contemporary sculptures and intriguing installations, locals will tell you the best time to visit this hilltop gallery is on summer evenings (Thursday to Saturday) when its woodland sculpture park stages starlit strolls. The gallery is also close to Hastings House hotel, a popular lodging for visiting art fans. Like a mini-version of an English country estate, its manicured grounds display works by local artists.

Consumable creations
But there is a tastier side to Salt Spring creativity, with a growing menu of artisan food and drink producers on the island.

Start your foodie crawl in Ganges with some java – and a side order of local gossip – at Salt Spring Coffee, or eat brunch outside in the shade of a plum tree at Ganges’ ever-popular Tree House Cafe.

Just 6km northwest of the village, Mistaken Identity Vineyards is one of several small wineries. A sun-dappled spot for leisurely tastings (the highly quaffable Bianco is a top seller), sip a glass or two and nibble on local cheese at a picnic table near the vines; expect an inquisitive visit from Summerdale, the winery’s friendly black Labrador.

Beer nuts are well served over at Salt Spring Island Ales, occupying a rustic, cedar-built shack hidden between trees 11km north of the vineyard. Its funky little tasting room offers a friendly welcome (and free samples), plus a roster of all-organic brews, ranging from malty Extra Special Bitter to smooth Heatherdale Ale. The brewery recently introduced refillable “growlers” (1.89-litre brown glass jugs) that make picnicking in nearby Ruckle Provincial Park an enticing idea.

Nearby Salt Spring Island Cheese provides further sustenance. A cute farmstead with strollable gardens, wandering chickens and a winery-style shop and tasting room, it produces goat and sheep milk chèvre, feta and Camembert styles – the bestseller is Ruckles, soft goat cheese rounds in herbs and garlic. You can watch the handmade production through windows in the back of the farmstead.

For cheesemaker David Wood, the island’s art and culinary scenes go hand-in-hand. “Salt Spring is on the cusp of becoming a foodie destination – I think we've reached a critical mass,” he said. “Many people move here for the lifestyle, but then they have to either get a job or figure out how to make something. It is why we have such a creative community.”

According to local artist Ron Crawford, this is an impulse that shapes the island. His works – including a monumental Stonehenge-style rock ring that overlooks the waterfront outside Ganges – can be found on Salt Spring and around the world. “There's a creative energy here not present in many other places,” said the 26-year veteran of island life. “When I first moved here, there were no galleries. But now there's a rich community of artists.”