I used this month’s long weekend (November 11 is a stat holiday in Alberta and BC), plus a few of my vacation days, as an opportunity to fly to Alberta for a bit of family visitation. On one afternoon of that extra-long weekend, I was driving through the town of Lacombe with my dad en route to visit my various aunts and uncles and I thought to myself, “What a pretty little town this is!”
I don’t know the town of Lacombe very well, even though a whole passel of my relatives still live there and even though I spent a good chunk of my summers in the Lacombe area when I was growing up. That’s because we always parked our family tent trailer on the dairy farm of my aunt and uncle and there were far too many fun things to do on the farm for any of us kids to want to go into town. (I highly recommend spending summers on a dairy farm when you’re a kid.)
Anyways, the very same day (is that a weird coincidence or what?) that my dad and I were driving around Lacombe, its Historic Main Street (50th Avenue) was selected by the Canadian Institute of Planners as Canada’s Great Street for 2013. (Who knew there was a Canadian Institute of Planners? Not me.) The story made the local TV news that night, and it gave me an excuse to go back the next day and take some photos for this blog.
The architectural style of the buildings on Lacombe’s 50th Avenue is Edwardian ― that’s the style that was in vogue during the first decade and a bit of the last century. Lacombe’s Flatiron building (see above photo) was opened in 1904 and is the oldest flatiron in the province.
Lacombe started out as a boxcar train station on the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was incorporated as a village in 1896 and as a town in 1902. In 2010, it became Alberta’s 17th city (and, with of population of 11,000, its smallest).
I can’t leave off my tour of the Gulf Islands without posting a photo taken on a BC ferry. That’s because, for me, half the fun of a Gulf Island getaway is getting there.
The Queen of Nanaimo is the workhorse of the Gulf Islands. The ship is almost 50 years old, but it’s the one that does the daily milk run from Tsawwassen to Galiano to Mayne to Pender to Salt Spring and back again.
Almost a month ago, during this season’s first wind storm, the Queen of Nanaimo was blown off course and ran aground near Mayne Island. It sustained enough damage to be put in dry dock for two weeks, which meant that Gulf Island residents wanting to travel to Vancouver had a six-hour detour over Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island.
BC Ferries are the Gulf Islands’ highway and it’s easy to take them for granted ― until sailings are cancelled and you want to get from here to there.
The last island on my tour of BC’s Gulf Islands ― until I have a chance to explore some more, that is ― is Hornby Island.
Hornby is part of a group of islands known as the Northern Gulf Islands (as opposed to the Southern Gulf Islands that Pender, Salt Spring, and Galiano are grouped with). It’s a bit of a hike to get to Hornby from Vancouver: you first take a ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, then drive up island for about an hour, hop on another ferry at Bulkley Bay that takes you to Denman Island, drive across Denman, and then, finally, take yet another ferry to get to Hornby. (Denmanites refer to their island as the “bridge” to Hornby because most tourists and campers whiz across it without stopping.)
All told, it’s a good half-day trek. My friends and I went to Hornby on a long weekend, but, even with three days, the trip still felt rushed. If you are coming from Vancouver, I highly recommend going to Hornby only if you have at least four or five days, ideally a week, to make the travel time and ferry expense worth your while.
Hornby Island has a year-round population of 1000 and its size of 30 square kilometres makes it one of the smallest of the Gulf Islands. It’s named after Rear Admiral Phipps Hornby, a Brit, who was the Commander of the Pacific Station in the 1850s. The island’s Mount Geoffrey is named after his son.
Like the rest of the Gulf Islands, Hornby offers hiking, wine-tasting, and studio tours. It is also popular with cyclists and mountain bikers. The beach at Tribune Bay is beautiful and I added it to my list of favourite beaches as soon as I set eyes on it. I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time on that beach when I return to Hornby Island.
The first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge, I was in a plane. Only its two towers were visible; the rest of the bridge was hidden in the fog. I found out later that fog is a common weather phenomenon in San Francisco and the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge are often as much as you ever see of it from an airplane.
I didn’t get any closer to the bridge that time ― or see anything of the city ― as I was merely on a stop-over on my way to somewhere else.
The second time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge, I was in a car driving over it. I’d been visiting a friend in the Sonoma Valley and, after a couple days of touring wineries and wine-tasting, we decided we should spend a day in San Francisco. When you drive from the Sonoma Valley to San Francisco, you enter the city by crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge.
I couldn’t stop marvelling at the bridge; I may even have giggled. My first thought was probably, “Wow!” I know for sure my second thought was, “The Lions Gate Bridge is just a toy compared to this one!”
The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1936, and I like to think of it as the Lions Gate’s older, more grown-up sister. At six lanes, it’s twice as wide as the Lions Gate and it’s a kilometre longer. Those three additional lanes are what impressed me ― it feels more like an expressway in the sky than a bridge.
It I don’t know if the Golden Gate Bridge would have impressed me as much had I not been so familiar with driving over the Lion’s Gate Bridge. But I do remember I asked my friend to drive over it again, just for the thrill of it.
The Lions Gate Bridge is having a birthday, and it’s a big one. It was on November 14, 1938 ― 75 years ago today ― that the bridge was first opened to vehicle traffic. The Guinness family (yes, that Guinness family ― the one that brews the beer) wanted a bridge across the First Narrows of Burrard Inlet to provide access to the land on the North Shore they were hoping to develop. (The area was both then and now known as the British Properties.) To help move things along, the Guinness family offered to pay for the bridge to be built, and the City of Vancouver found itself with an offer it could not refuse.
It took 18 months to build the Lions Gate Bridge, its construction came in under budget, and, at the time of its opening, its 1.8 km length made it the longest suspension bridge in the British Empire. It is named after the Lions, the twin mountain peaks on the North Shore that face the city. Two Art Deco–style lions guard the approach to the bridge’s south end.
In 1955, the Guinness family sold the bridge to the province for exactly the same amount that they spent on building it ― a mere $6 million. The Guinness family also paid for the lights that have adorned the bridge’s cables since 1986, as a gift to commemorate Expo 86.
More than 60,000 cars cross the Lions Gate Bridge each day, a number it was never designed to accommodate and which has often led to it being called “Canada’s most scenic traffic jam.” By the 1990s, the bridge was showing its age and serious consideration was given to replacing it. Instead, it was restored and given a seismic retrofit, and its deck was replaced, all at a cost of more than $100 million. All work was done in 12 months between 2000 and 2001 without any disruption of daytime traffic ― no small feat in a city where traffic is easily snarled when any one of its bridges is closed. In 2004, the Lions Gate Bridge was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
Next up on my tour of BC’s Gulf Islands is Galiano Island. Galiano is named after the Spanish explorer Dionisio Alcalá Galiano, who sailed and mapped the Gulf and San Juan Islands in 1792. It is a long island (27 km tip to tip) and a narrow one (6 km across at its widest point, but only 1.6 km across at its narrowest). As the most northeastern of the Southern Gulf Islands, it is the island most easily accessed from Vancouver, but it is less developed and has fewer services than the others. That’s due to its rocky geography ― it hasn’t the farming history that the other islands have. In fact, until 20 years ago, the northeastern half of Galiano was a tree farm, which is why most of its 1200 year-round residents live at the south end.
I’ve been to Galiano a handful of times. The campground at Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park is one of my favourite campgrounds anywhere because of its beautiful white-shell beaches. Kayaks can be rented at Montague Harbour Marina, and there is nothing better than a cold beer on the marina’s waterfront deck after a day of paddling around Galiano’s rocky shores. If you prefer to keep your feet on terra firma, there’s plenty of hiking to be found ― even a mountain (Mount Galiano) to climb ― and plenty more cold beverages available afterwards at the Hummingbird Pub.
But my favourite Galiano pastime, which I try to do every time I’m on the island (rain or shine) is to hike up to The Bluffs. These cliffs, covered in arbutus and Garry Oak trees, overlook Active Pass, making them a prime venue for ferryspotting. If you have time for only one activity while on Galiano, make it this one. The views are spectacular.
Vancouver Opera has just finished its run of Puccini’s Tosca for which it received rave reviews. I got to see it on opening night and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve been looking forward to hearing this particular opera for many years ― and not only because I have yet to meet a Puccini opera I didn’t love.
No, I’ve been wanting to hear Tosca ever since the friend who introduced me to opera told me how, at the end of the opera, Tosca jumps to her death from the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo. Why did this make such an impact on me? Because my friend told me the story of Tosca’s demise when we were standing on the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo. (There’s nothing like context to make opera come alive!)
If you’re wondering how high those ramparts might be, here’s a photo of the Tiber that I took when I turned around after taking the above photo.
Another interesting detail about Tosca: Act I is set in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. My friends and I discovered this bit of trivia when we wandered into the church, which just happened to be located on the same street as our Roman hotel. Lesson learned: you never know what awaits you inside a Roman church.
The absolute best way to explore the Gulf Islands is to latch onto a local. I’m fortunate that one of my oldest friends lives on Salt Spring Island, and that I am welcome whenever I need an “island fix.” I call her up, we settle on a weekend, and off I go. Hers is the best B&B I’ve ever stayed at, no contest.
Thanks to my friend’s hospitality, I’ve visited Salt Spring Island in every season and it’s the Gulf Island I know best.
Salt Spring Island is named after the salt springs at its north end. It was long spelled Salt Spring (two words) until 1905, when the Geographic Board of Canada stuck its oar in and decided that it should be Saltspring (one word). Locals are divided on the issue, although the two-word version tends to be preferred. One federal department (Geographical Names Board of Canada ― the committee of Natural Resources Canada responsible for all place names in this country) spells the island’s name as Saltspring, while another federal department (Canada Post ― responsible for … uh … well … we’re not too sure anymore) spells the island’s name as Salt Spring.
Salt Spring has some great place names. My friend walks her dog at Duck Creek Park, and we have hiked Channel Ridge. I once made her drive past a house for sale on North End Road simply because I could imagine myself with a mailing address that read “North End Road, Salt Spring Island.” (Seriously, don’t these names sound like they come right out of Anne of Green Gables?)
Located between Galiano Island and Pender Island (to the east) and Vancouver Island (to the south and west), Salt Spring Island is the largest (180 square kilometres) and the most populated (10,500 residents) of the Gulf Islands. It is the only island with its own hospital and it has the Gulf Islands’ only high school. (Students commute from the smaller islands by boat.)
Salt Spring Island has long been known for its eclectic population. It is Coast Salish territory and home to the Tsawout First Nation. The African-Americans came around 1860, looking for a new life free from the racial restrictions of their native California. The first Hawaiians arrived around the same time. They were in BC to work as contract fur traders for the Hudson’s Bay Company and ended up on Salt Spring after their contracts ended. Their descendents still live on the island. The first Japanese settlers arrived in 1890, but only one family (the only one to return after the Japanese-Canadians were interned by the Canadian government in 1942) remains.
The tourists started coming in the 1930s … and they’re still coming. The artists (and more Americans) started coming in the 1960s … and they’re still coming. Salt Spring boasts a large arts community and has been called the best small arts town in Canada and one of the top ten arts communities in North America.
So … what to do when you’re on a Salt Spring Island mini-break?
There’s some terrific hiking on Salt Spring Island.
There’s also peeking into the windows of old churches and wandering through old cemeteries and taking scenic drives past old farmhouses.
There’s the Salt Spring Island Saturday market. Be careful ― the cash just flies out of your wallet at this place, which I can attest to from personal experience. This outdoor market runs from Easter to the end of October and features 140 vendors, all of whom must “make it, bake it, or grow it” themselves. Many of the island’s artists and artisans sell their wares at this market, as well as the farmers with their fruit and vegetables, eggs and poultry, and lamb. (A dozen different breeds of sheep are raised on the island.) And then there are the bakers, the cheesemakers, and the soapmakers. I am sure there must even be a candlestick-maker.
You can always do a studio tour. Maps for this year-round self-guided, self-drive tour are available on any BC ferry and in various places on the island. Some studios offer tours or a demonstration ― and there’s always plenty of opportunity to sample, look, and buy. (Be sure to stop at the cheesemakers.)
And then there’s wine-tasting at Salt Spring Island’s three wineries. My friend has taken me to two of these, and the only reason we didn’t stop at the third was because we couldn’t find a parking spot ― it was that popular.
My favourite is Garry Oaks Winery. I overdid it though when I bought three bottles of its Pinot Gris, which is not too smart when you are schlepping your way home as a foot passenger on the ferry with your luggage on your back.
At Mistaken Identity Vineyards, we encountered a Tasmanian cheesemaker who wanted to purchase a glass of rosé ― just one ― to enjoy with his picnic lunch. The woman pouring the wine tastings seemed puzzled that he didn’t want an entire bottle, explaining to him that the bottles were screw-top so the wine was safe to take away, but she gladly poured him a glass, and off he went to eat his cheese and sausage and drink his wine at one of their picnic tables.
It was an idyllic setting for a picnic, to be sure. But the Tasmanian cheesemaker assured the woman behind the counter that he wouldn’t be able to finish off a bottle in the one remaining evening he had left on the island. This declaration prompted a bit of discreet chuckling among my friend, myself, and the woman behind the counter (who recognized my friend as a local, which led to an interesting conversation about how and where they knew each other). All three of us marvelled at a Tasmanian who didn’t think he could finish off a bottle of wine between lunch and breakfast.
If you need a caffeine fix, I recommend Café Talia in Ganges or the Fernwood Cafe located at a beautiful spot overlooking Trincomali Channel. For the best fish and chips on the island, check out the Seaside Restaurant in Vesuvius. Dinner at the Salt Spring Inn is especially fun when your friend knows everyone in the dining room, and if you find yourself waiting for a ferry at Fulford Harbour, stop in for some sustenance at the
Tree House Cafe Rock Salt Restaurant and Café.
As for where to stay, accommodation ranges from pitching your tent at Ruckle Provincial Park‘s waterfront campground, renting a self-catering cottage by the week, enjoying the hospitality at a B&B, or pampering yourself at the Salt Spring Spa Resort. But I’m keeping the name and location of my favourite B&B (my friend’s home) a secret.
Because I don’t want to lose my guaranteed reservation status.