2 min

Salt Spring Island, British Columbia

Soak up the offbeat ambiance

Ganges Harbour. Credit: Aefa Mulholland

The largest of the Southern Gulf Islands, Salt Spring Island basks in the Georgia Strait between mainland BC and southern Vancouver Island. It presents the perfect package of rocky coves, Douglas fir-fringed beaches, mountains and farmland, plus a quirky constellation of tiny towns and villages, from Vesuvius to Ganges to Fulford Harbour.

Throughout its history, quite the cast of characters has contributed to Salt Spring’s distinctive personality. Salishan tribes have been residents for 5,000 years; pioneers joined them rather more recently, including disappointed prospectors who failed to find the good stuff in the Fraser River gold rush who arrived in the 1850s, African-American former slaves who arrived in the 1860s, Hawaiians and Japanese whalers and fur traders who joined the throng in the late 1800s and American draft dodgers who followed a century later.

Today the 10,000-strong population of this quirky 70-square-mile isle comprises an eclectic mixed bag of artists and artisans, LGBT folks, retirees and plenty of people who qualify as an amalgam of all three. The island is a wonderfully gay-welcoming spot with a small but exuberant Pride festival held over a weekend every ­September and a quirky annual film festival in spring. The island might have only 10,000 inhabitants, but it has its own monetary system with an ATM that dispenses Salt Spring Dollars, plus an arts council that’s responsible for the summer ArtCraft festival and WinterCraft in December.

Once on-island, you can soak up the offbeat ambiance by driving twisting island roads, dotted with honour stands that sell eggs, flowers or kale chips, turning off to visit wineries, cheeseries — including lesbian-owned Moonstruck Cheese — or some of the dozens of artists and artisans that confetti the island. Or hike verdant trails through mountains and forest. Or picnic on one of the island’s 22 beaches while sea otters and orcas frolic in the chilly turquoise waters beyond. Or dive in, literally, if you’ve brought the gear and a hardy constitution, or by renting a kayak from Salt Spring Island Adventure Company, which also offers bicycle rental and mobile yoga if you’re just too relaxed to get up and go to a class. But for a concentrated dose of Salt Spring’s eccentric charm, you’ve got to go to Ganges.

Ganges is the heart of the island — both literally and in terms of island identity. Set on Ganges Harbour, six kilometres from Long Harbour Ferry Terminal, one of the island’s three ferry ports, the town is by turns laid-back and boisterous. If you’re there on the weekend, the island’s famous Saturday Market offers everything from fine art to flowers to food to locally made frocks, April through October. Tuesday’s Food Market is a more local affair. Locals lounge at LGBT-adored Barb’s Buns and the excellent Salt Spring Coffee Roasters, both excellent spots for baked goods, breakfasts and freshly brewed coffee.

The all-suite Hastings House holds court over 22 acres beside Ganges Harbour. It’s the island’s top overnight address, and the on-site restaurant also wins international acclaim. In Ganges itself, the Salt Spring Inn is a remodelled, no-fuss motel within minutes of everything the town has to offer.

Bars and Restaurants
Barb’s Buns and Salt Spring Coffee are excellent places to pick up pastries, soups and sandwiches, but for something with a little more bite, try a Salt Spring Whale Tail Ale or BC Lone Tree Cider at Moby’s Marine Pub or dinner at the funky Tree House Café. Outside Ganges, you’ll find a decent selection of local beer and wine at Fulford Inn and killer local beer-braised rubs with espresso-barbecue sauce at the nearby Rock Salt. Local oysters, salmon and fish and chips star on the menu at Vesuvius’s historic Seaside Restaurant.