Salt Spring Island

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? Or is it Saltspring? Yes, it’s spelling inconsistencies like these that drive editors slowly mad.

Salt Spring? Or is it Saltspring? Yes, it’s spelling inconsistencies like these that drive editors slowly mad.

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?)

This view of Vancouver  Island is your reward for climbing Channel Ridge

This view of Vancouver Island is your reward for climbing Channel Ridge.

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.

Hiking in a rainforest in the sunshine is the best. Hiking in a rainforest in the sunshine with a rambunctious Lab leading the way is even better.

Hiking in a rainforest in the sunshine is the best. Hiking in a rainforest in the sunshine with a rambunctious Lab leading the way is even better.

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.

Salt Spring's Mediterranean-like climate is well suited to growing grapes.

Salt Spring’s Mediterranean-like climate is well suited to growing grapes.

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.

Garry Oak Winery is named after the garry oak ― the only oak native to the Pacific Northwest.

Garry Oaks Winery is named after the garry oak ― the only oak native to the Pacific Northwest.

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.

Garry Oak Winery started out as a sheep farm. The conversion from pasture to vineyard was begun in 1999.

Garry Oak Winery started out as a sheep farm. The conversion from pasture to vineyard was begun in 1999.

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.

Fulford Harbour

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