Traveling is fun when you stay with friends.
Diane and I were sitting at our respective desks last year, doing something tedious at our computers, when she exclaims: “Oh, how nice.” A friend, whom she hasn’t been in contact with for a while, has invited us to come and stay for a few days at her house on Salt Spring Island, off the south-east coast of Vancouver Island. Sue has long ago uprooted herself from the Toronto scene and has become a successful real estate agent on this gem of an island. We start planning our trip immediately. Early July suits everyone and we hope the island weather will have improved by then.
I’ve visited Vancouver Island many times, but Salt Spring has escaped me. The island was originally inhabited by Salishan people of various tribes, and first settled by emancipated American slaves in 1858. It was not only the first of the Gulf Islands to be settled, but also the first agricultural settlement in the Colony of Vancouver Island not owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Bay still doesn’t have a store there. Salt Spring, cleverly named after the island’s salt springs, was officially called Admiralty Island in 1859, after some naval chappie of the day. It reverted to the current nomenclature in 1905 or 1910, and is spelled as one word or two, depending on who you listen to. The two-word version seems preferred by the locals.
And so we find ourselves on the car ferry from Swartz Bay to Fulford Harbour, the sun shining brightly. Sue has very kindly met us at the terminal, as her house is hard to find. “Brilliant weather you’ve brought with you. It’s been raining for weeks,” she says. We follow her off the ferry and around the country lanes of Salt Spring, through the village of Ganges, named after the naval chappie’s warship, and up a lane to a narrow peninsular, with exclusive and private houses. Her very west coast styled house is lovely and, with help from the friendly dog, she installs us in a lower-level guest apartment overlooking the sea inlet of Long Harbour.
Within minutes of our arrival a sail boat glides by with barely a ripple. During our stay we sit on the deck and watch boats of all shapes and sizes come and go: posh yachts to the outpost docks of the Royal Vancouver YC; power boats and fishing boats; and two or more times a day, a huge ferry, which seems to touch the channel on either side, going to and from Pender Island. We wave at the passengers, but they can’t see us for the thickness of the trees.
There’s a steep path down to a dock, crossed by another path worn through the underbrush by a family of deer. We see them every morning and evening, daintily picking their way through the vegetation, stopping every now and then for a nibble. The garden, a riot of flowers, is protected by a very high net fence, more than the six feet an adult deer can easily jump. The dog is master of the garden and helps guard the flowers too.
Busy salesperson that she is, our host leaves us to explore the island during the day, and we do, discovering hidden coves, delightful beaches, and spectacular vistas in our wanderings off the beaten track. Each morning we start late with a generous foamy latté and a light breakfast or an early lunch at the Treehouse Café, a charming spot in Ganges, with the tables and chairs scattered around a huge old tree. We’re encouraged not to feed the birds, although Diane can’t help but throw a few crumbs to the sparrows. The centre of Ganges is where all the action on the island happens and, indeed, it is almost exactly in the middle of the island. There’s a good liquor store, this one still government-owned, and all the usual amenities.
We walk down by the docks and there are hundreds of boats moored. We chat with an old salt, busily restoring a lovely wooden sailboat, still mast-less. Later, we see her cruising up the channel behind the house. She cuts through the water cleanly, and I can imagine how beautiful she will look when her mast is up and sails are rigged.
Continuing with the nautical tradition, we check out the giant buoy at the entrance to Centennial Wharf. Once a Coast Guard marker far up the coast, it’s now been adorned with a mural of life above and below the waterline. Of course, there are orcas. How could there not be?
We take our paperbacks, bought for the flight west, into Black Sheep Books and exchange them for more holiday reading material. It’s one of the best second-hand bookstores we’ve visited anywhere, and the lady behind the counter is helpful and knowledgeable. She points me to the large section of nautical history fiction, where I pick up one of my favourite Patrick O’Brian novels, with another yarn about Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, naval physician and spy, Dr. Stephen Maturin.
There are art galleries galore to explore. Robert Bateman is a well-known Canadian artist and long-time island resident. A gallery is showing selections of his work and signed prints are for sale.
Mouat’s own a whole block and have been here forever, with hardware and grocery stores. Their clothing shop has interesting apparel for women and men. We buy clothes, naturally, since Diane can’t resist a fetching white sweater.
On our last full day on the island, there’s a Saturday Farmers’ Market in Ganges. We graze through the food stalls, buying dirt covered organic veggies, scrumptious fruit pies, redolent fresh-baked bread and warm hand-sized quiches, which never make it back to the car. We eat them for lunch on the spot. There are artists and artisans and we admire their work, especially a man making complex mats using rope and an endless repertoire of nautical knots. I covet one, but they’re too heavy to fly home with. We walk up the road to The Fishery, a little shack selling fresh-from-the-sea fish and seafood. I can’t resist wild salmon filets, which we pan fry for supper with our colourful veggies simply steamed. Although I personally prefer Atlantic salmon, these Pacific cousins are hard to beat.
Sunday morning, the weather still spectacular, we leave early for Vesuvius Bay and the ferry crossing to Crofton on Vancouver Island, and a visit with my very oldest and best friend, someone I’ve known since birth. That’s my next story. As we look back at the island, we appreciate the quiet life our friend has found here, the slower pace, the neighbourliness of the islanders, and naturally, the interesting local politics created when a bunch of independent free-thinkers set down roots, not forgetting the scenery.
If you want to visit Salt Spring Island there are a couple of dozen hotels and B&Bs, most with informative websites. For boaters there are several marinas and public docks around the coast in sheltered creeks.
This article was originally published on May 15, 2013.
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