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;, which flies from Heathrow. British Airways operates the same route (0844 493 0787;

Getting around

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

* Galiano Kayaks (001 250 539 2442;

* Salt Spring Air (001 250 537 9880;

Staying there

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

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

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

More information



Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Restaurant Manager / Sommelier

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Seasonal Placement

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced Hotel Receptionists...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Poole

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn