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

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