Canada: Seduced by a fragile sanctuary

British Columbia's pretty Gulf Islands are protected by a passionate local community, says Anthony Lambert

The two young river otters were slithering round the rocks as though playing hide-and-seek along the shoreline, their glistening coats not 10 metres from us. They displayed no fear as we quietly inched our kayaks closer to a shore fringed by woodland that rose steeply towards the sandstone cliffs which form part of a spine along Galiano Island.

I had been shown these treats of nature by Ben Miltner, who has been guiding kayakers from the secluded pier at Montague Harbour for 25 years. (His winters are spent doing the same thing in Costa Rica.) His silvery ponytail spoke of the generation who came to the Gulf Islands in the 1960s, some dodging the draft during the Vietnam War, all in search of an alternative way of life in undeveloped, idyllic surroundings.

Today people such as Ben form part of the islands' vibrant artistic life; they operate small-scale enterprises; and they have fought to stop and prevent inappropriate development here. In their attempts to buy threatened land and give it permanent protection, communities have often had to raise huge sums of money (in one case they borrowed the central conceit of Calendar Girls as a means of doing so).

British Columbia's Gulf Islands are strewn across the Strait of Georgia between the mainland and Vancouver Island, and are divided into Northern and Southern archipelagos. Most of the islands are tiny and uninhabited, but the larger ones have permanent and summer-only residents; many visitors have come to enjoy the slower pace of life and the beautiful landscapes that abound here.

Each island has a distinct character. Galiano, long, thin and densely wooded, boasts some great walks, such as the hike through almost primeval forest covering the slopes of the island's highest point, Mount Galiano. A good place to watch a selection of the 150 bird species found on Galiano is Bodega Ridge, reached by a walk from Cottage Way, which has magnificent views across the Trincomali Channel to Salt Spring Island.

I caught up with Ben again while waiting for the ferry to Pender Island, sitting beside Max and Moritz's Spicy Island Foodhouse, a trailer serving an eclectic mix of takeaway food. Ferry rides between islands give a broader picture of the landscape here and help sort out the complex geography of the area, which must have been a nightmare for the early British and Spanish navigators to map.

At Otter Bay on Pender, there was an immediate clue to the nature of island life: the Car Stop Program, a form of organised hitch-hiking. Pedestrians wait at designated stops and passing motorists pick them up. Everyone drives slowly, avoiding the black-tailed deer which enjoy browsing on the roadside vegetation; signs warn of "Quails Crossing".

I made for Poets Cove Resort, and paused at the retail hub of Pender Island life, the Driftwood Centre, to sample its bakery and café. At the resort's dock, which overlooks the deep inlet of Bedwell Harbour, I joined Dan and Tara Hodgins for an afternoon of whale-watching. Nutrient-rich waters at the confluence of three channels to the south of Pender attract orcas, making it a popular place for boats out of Victoria and Vancouver. Strict rules keep boats well away from the whales, but we still relished the sight of the black-and-white backs of a family group breaching.

After the tranquillity of Galiano and Pender, Salt Spring Island was almost a shock. With a permanent population of 10,000, it has more people the other Gulf Islands, and gets many more visitors. Most come to enjoy the Saturday market in the capital, Ganges. Everything for sale is required to have been made or grown on the island. Dozens of stalls are arranged around two sides of a park near the harbour and sell fragrant spices, cheeses and jams, sculptures, scarves, banjos and more.

If you have become attuned to a saner pace of life, Ganges can seem overwhelming. But there are plenty of quiet spots for reflection, and none more welcome than Hasting House. Built in the style of a Sussex manor house by a descendant of Warren Hastings, it is now an idyllic country-house hotel overlooking Ganges harbour. The old farm buildings have been sensitively adapted to become cosy suites, and the food in the manor house dining room has won numerous awards for its Swiss chef Marcel Kauer.

Even more secluded is Beaver Point in Ruckle Provincial Park, named after the 19th-century Irishman Henry Ruckle whose farmland has been preserved as a working organic farm. Among the thick belt of Douglas fir and western red cedar that separates the farm from the sea, a few picnic tables have been placed among the trees overlooking Swanson Channel and the ferry route into Long Harbour.

To gain a sense of the island's fissured coastline, I took a floatplane with Philip Reece. Besides running Salt Spring Air and being Director of Tourism, he is a DJ on Salt Spring Radio. His 1956-built plane skimmed past the island's four mountains, wheeled over three vineyards and allowed us to see the clearings in the forest left to create pasture for the sheep that have made Salt Spring lamb renowned along the West Coast.

Philip talked of the challenges of getting the right balance of development on the islands. Islanders feel passionately about their environment because most have chosen to live there: nearly everyone is from somewhere else. It's a fragile Eden that they are proud of, a place where people have time to talk and enjoy the spectacular seascapes. I left with more than a hint of envy.

Travel essentials: The Gulf Islands

Getting there

* The closest airport is Vancouver. The writer travelled with Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com), which flies from Heathrow. British Airways operates the same route (0844 493 0787; ba.com).

Getting around

* BC Ferries (001 250 386 3431; bcferries.com) operates to the islands .

* Galiano Kayaks (001 250 539 2442; seakayak.ca).

* Salt Spring Air (001 250 537 9880; saltspringair.com).

Staying there

* Galiano Oceanfront Inn, Galiano Island (001 250 539 3388; galianoinn.com). Doubles from C$179 (£112).

* Poets Cove Resort & Spa, Pender Island (001 250 629 2100; poetscove.com). Doubles from C$212 (£133).

* Hastings House Country House Hotel, Salt Spring Island (001 250 537 2362; hastingshouse.com). B&B starts at C$467 (£293).

More information

* BritishColumbia.travel

* Canada.travel

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform