For many a visitor, the San Juan Islands are paradise enough. The archipelago off the Northwestern United States has plenty to offer anyone wanting to retreat into craggy coves and pebbled beaches, or relish seeing wildlife on open water.
Yet not so far from the famed destinations of San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw is another set of isles that promise wonders. These are Canada’s Gulf Islands, just northwest of the San Juans. They’re near enough to explore if you’re in the area for an extended stay – and you can easily find a boat charter company, like Schooners North, to take you there.
“Gulf” Islands, but not really
Despite their name, the Gulf Islands are not in a gulf; they’re in the Strait of Georgia, which separates Vancouver Island from British Columbia. The strait is still part of the Salish Sea, the home of the San Juans.
Why, then, do the Gulf Islands carry their name? The 18th-century British explorer, George Vancouver, is partly to blame. He thought the Strait of Georgia was a gulf. By the time people realized it was not, the name had already stuck – and, perhaps, to poetic resonance. As Travel + Leisure magazine says:
“[N]o one had any interest in changing the name. Even now, the islands have the air of a semi-forgotten place… Which is more or less the point.”
But as with the San Juans, some parts of this charmingly far-flung archipelago are less isolated than others.
Salt Spring in the summery south
The Gulf Islands are divided into the Northern Gulf Islands, rugged and remote, and the Southern: a cradle of summer retreats because of its near-Mediterranean climate. These southern isles are sprinkled with havens for tourists, artists, boaters, and winemakers.
Of these islands, Salt Spring is the largest and most popular. It’s the first place in the archipelago that was settled in by people other than the native First Nations. Once you visit, you’ll easily see the richness of its mixed cultures. You’ll have plenty to do in Ganges – the main village that’s essentially the Gulf’s equivalent to San Juan’s Friday Harbor. There you will find numerous shops, restaurants, artists’ studios, and farmers’ markets amidst stunning scenery.
From there, you can sail to many other southern destinations. Here are two of the best.
Long and narrow Galiano Island lies east of Salt Spring and is distinguished by its sandstone formations. Its other main natural attraction is a beach made of shells instead of sand (named – what else? – Shell Beach). Boaters frequently moor at Montague Harbor, which becomes crowded in the summer, but could easily welcome your boat charter any time of the year.
Though popular, Galiano is less busy than Salt Spring, and its waters are a great spot for relishing artfully formed coastlines and the sight of everything from orcas to cormorants.
For more undisturbed views of wildlife, you can head over to Saturna – the easternmost, least developed, and most remote of the Gulf Islands. Killer whales from the famed J, K, and L pods that swim through the San Juan Islands pass by Saturna daily in the summer, and other transient orcas can be spotted year-round.
Saturna has only about 300 permanent residents. Its major industry is winemaking, driven largely by the Saturna estate on the island’s south side. If you have time to drop anchor, make sure to trek over for a complimentary tasting.
There are many other destinations within the southern Gulf, including the Pender islands, Mayne, Gabriola, and, of course, Vancouver Island. The northern reaches also offer their fair share of adventure. But all that is a story – and boat charter – for another day.
Seven Days in Canada’s Gulf Islands, TravelAndLeisure.com
8 Must-See Gulf Islands Boating Spots, NWExplorations.com
Gulf Islands, HelloBC.com