Nearly everyone in the U.S. is familiar with the San Juan Islands. Even if people don’t know them by name they’ve likely seen pictures and know that somewhere off the coast of Washington there are some beautiful islands.
But they aren’t the other vacation-worthy islands in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, there is a group of equally stunning islands that lie straight north: the Canadian San Juans.
Or, as to avoid getting beat up by those vicious Canadians, I’ll call them by their actual name, The Gulf Islands.
The Gulf Islands are similar to the San Juans in many ways. They have craggy rocky shorelines, tons of pristine beaches, and dozens of quaint little towns.
In many ways, the Gulf Islands feel like an extension of the San Juans albeit with the slightly more formal and proper culture commonly found in British Columbia.
There are several different islands in the Gulf Island chain and each one of them has its own unique charm that makes it worth visiting.
However, since you probably can’t visit all of them you’ll have to prioritize. If I were to visit the Gulf Islands today with a limited amount of time to spend (maybe a week) then these are the islands I would hit and the things that I would do there.
The 6 Best Gulf Islands To Visit (and what to do there)
In all, there are more than 200 Gulf Islands lying in the Straight of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland.
However, only 12 of them are inhabited and even fewer of them are (in my opinion) unusual or interested enough to warrant a visit. While I’m sure there is something great about the islands I don’t list here (I haven’t been to any of them), I’ve loved the time I’ve spent on the following six.
1. Salt Spring Island
Salt Spring is the largest (and most populated) of the Gulf Islands so it follows that it is also the biggest. If you’re looking to visit the islands to enjoy the beach but don’t want to give up the chance for great food and a stay at a nice resort, this will be your place.
However, it’s not just accommodations that the island has going for it. Salt Spring Island is a haven for artists of all types and you could spend several days of your stay just wandering around the artist’s studios and emptying your wallet.
If you visit the island on a weekend, you’ll be able to enjoy the local farmer’s market. Apparently, the farmers on Salt Spring are much different than the farmers I know because they sell a heck of a lot more than zucchini and honey.
There are arts, crafts, snacks, bread, and just about anything you can imagine available from over 150 vendors on most weekends.
While most people choose to bring a cover over when they visit, there is bus service on the island so you don’t absolutely need to drive over.
For most people, 3-5 days on the island is time well spent. If you’re looking for a “home base” on the island, stay in Ganges and branch out from there. Any more time and you’ll want to branch out to experience a few other places.
Things To Do
- Go for a hike. There are many hiking trails on Salt Spring Island varying from very easy to mildly easy. However, the two most iconic trails are actually quite rough. If you are up for it, take the trail to either Bruce Peak (2,326 ft) or Mount Tuam (1,975 feet). For a shorter hike, make the 1.2-mile loop to the lower Mount Erskine.
- Visit Ruckle & Mount Maxwell Provincial Parks. Both of which are great retreats that offer stunning beaches, views, and ocean life.
- Visit the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company. If you want to enjoy some small batch cheese sampling (and watch it be made) then this is an interesting stop. They make both sheep and goat cheese which you can get on some sort of artisan pizza. My advice, however, is to avoid buying the cheese here as you can get it much cheaper at a store in Ganges.
2. Mayne Island
Mayne Island is a bit more rustic (or maybe just less populated) than Salt Spring but it has a ton of unique attractions that make it worth a visit.
Mayne Island has an incredibly long and well-documented history starting with the Tsartlip First Nation. Since then it has been surveyed or explored many times by notable individuals such as George Vancouver in 1794 and George Richards in 1857.
Most of the population and non-outdoor attractions on the island can be found at Miner’s Bay, the last gathering point for miners during the Fraser Gold Rush before they crossed the Georgia Straight.
In Miner’s Bay, you’ll find a farmers market, bakery, stores, a bookshop, and other general services. From there you can strike out towards the rise of the island enjoy its scenic roads, and plentiful birds, and even have the chance to spot Orcas.
Birdwatching is one of the big “events” on the island so, if that’s something you’re into, you’ll want to time your visit right and spend a week or so watching your winged friends.
Things To Do
- Visit the Active Pass Lighthouse. This 45′ tall lighthouse is a great stop on your scenic tour of the island. Also, stop by Campble or Pigott Bay for a complete experience.
- Charter a local tour. There are several local tours that leave Miner’s Bay. Chartering a half-day boat tour will ensure you learn more about the island and see more wildlife than you will on the balance of your trip.
- Visit the Japanese Garden. Tucked away in a corner of Dinner Bay Park you’ll find a beautiful garden that will teach you a dark but mostly forgotten history lesson about the Japanese who settled and worked on the island between 1900 and 1942. The garden is also lit up around Christmas time if you’re visiting in December.
3. Saturna Island
Saturna Island might seem out of place on this list. Located on the very southern end of the Gulf Island, Saturna is small, isolated, and sparsely populated.
But it’s still worth a stop.
The 350 full-time residents of Saturna Island are only too happy to share with anyone who visits the natural beauty of their island. As most of the “civilization” is concentrated in Lyall Harbor and Boot Cove it leaves the remaining nearly 12 square miles to be dominated by wildlife and nature. In fact, more than half of the island is part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and is protected land.
The majority of activities to be found here are of the outdoor variety and most visitors enjoy nature hikes, kayaking, beach combing, fishing, swimming, cycling, bird watching, etc.
Don’t expect fine dining or much infrastructure but, if you’re after an escape, this island is well worth the trials to get there. The most direct route is to snag a direct ferry from Swartz Bay in Victoria.
I should also note that you’ll want to get accommodations well before arriving on the island. Camping is not allowed and there are a limited number of accommodations available in town.
Things To Do
- Whale Watching at East Point. There are three pods of orcas that pass through here in the summer months as well as passing pods of transient whales. This is the place the first orca ever taken alive for public display was harpooned in 1964. Learn more about her sad story here at the small museum located in the old fog alarm building.
- Geocaching. There are more than 60 locations with caches on Saturna Island. If this hobby interests you this is a beautiful place to do it!
- Annual Lamb BBQ. The biggest event on Saturna is the annual Lamb BBQ which takes place on July 1st (Canada Day). You can enjoy lamb roasted over a fire, beer, crafts, darts, bingo, and more!
- Beaches. There are around a dozen places on Saturna Island that are open for public beach access. While there are several good options, we enjoyed the sandy beach at Thompson Park for several hours.
4. Gabriola Island
If you’re looking for a day trip or short stay in the Gulf Islands, Gabriola Island is a great stop. The island is accessed by a quick 20-minute ferry ride starting just east of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
Once on the island, you’ll be treated to the typical offering of small restaurants, art studios, and beautiful scenery. However, the “typical” art scene here is much, much bigger than on the other islands. So many of the island’s 4,000 residents are, in fact, working artists that the island has earned the name Isle of the Arts and you’ll find several art festivals here throughout the year.
In addition to arts, you’ll find a smattering of other cultural offerings from hotels and stores in towns and a heaping serving of outdoor activities.
Things To Do
- Visit the Provincial Parks. Gabriola has several easily accessible parks to enjoy including Drumbeg and Gabriola Sands.
- Charter a fishing trip. Most of the Gulf Islands have outfits where you can charter tours and fishing trips but, in my opinion, Gabriola is the best base. You’re close to Victoria, have more infrastructure on the island, and there are more charter companies to choose from.
- Stop at the Gabriola Visitor’s Center & Museum. The Gabriola Museum is an excellent stop to learn more about the thousand of First Nation people that lived here before the Spanish made contact (and named the island) in 1791. There is a ton of ancient history to learn about and appreciate in the Gulf Island (and B.C. in general).
5. Galiano Island
If you’re willing to go a little farther than Gabriola island you can take the 40-minute ferry ride to Galiano Island.
Even though it’s less than an hour here from Vancouver, Galiano is a fairly quiet island with fewer than 1200 residents.
However, there is a spectacular oceanfront littered with resorts, tons of interesting hikes, and typical Gulf Island places to eat.
The main draw to Galiano Island is a large number of parks here. In addition to the famous Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park, there are almost a dozen other parks on the island that are worth a visit.
Camping is a big draw on the island but it’s a rather rustic experience that is detracted from by the resident raccoon population. Take my advice and stay somewhere like the Galiano Oceanfront Inn & Spa.
Things To Do
- Hit the green. Galiano Golf Course is a challenging 9-hole course for when you need a break from your vacation.
- Eat at pilgrimme. pligrimme is a luxury farm-to-table restaurant where you can enjoy seasonal (and ever-changing) fare from around the Gulf Islands. While it’s not cheap (around $100/person) it’s an experience as much as it is a dining option and well worth it.
- Visit Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park. This is a must-do-stop if you’re on the island as it’s probably the best and most well-known park on the Gulf Island. Of particular interest here is Shell Beach where, instead of sand, you’ll find a beach totally covered in worn and broken shells. You can also sail here but, if you visit during the peak summer months, expect the harbor and public dock to be crowded with all sorts of yachts and sailboats.
6. Pender Island
Gorgeous views, trails, beaches, terrific accommodations, artists’ studios – is all of this starting to sound a little familiar? Well, Pender Island boasts all of the above and is an especially good choice for overnight accommodations. There is everything from a five-star resort to several bed-and-breakfast inns – or camp at one of the Pender parks if you prefer. It has just 2,250 residents, but only Salt Spring has more services and attractions among the southern Gulf Islands. Only Saturna Island has more parkland.
Things To Do
- Get tipsy at Sea Star Vineyard and Winery. Sea Star Vineyard and Winery is a highly regarded experience on Pender Island and you owe it to yourself to go here for a tasting.
- Book a kayaking adventure. Kayaking anywhere in the PNW is a relaxing and enjoyable experience that is made more exciting by the possibility of seeing Orcas or other large marine life. We booked through Pender Island Kayak Adventures and highly recommended them.
- Stop and see the Kwatna. The Kwatna is a small tugboat that was built in 1937 and used for nearly 80 years before sinking and being abandoned in Gerrans Bay (actually on close-by Dusenbury Island). There are plans to remove it but, as of our last visit, it’s still there in all of its ghostly polluting glory.
Getting To The Gulf Islands
If you’re planning your trip to the Gulf Island, don’t just fly by the seat of your pants. Places to stay can be limited and hard to reserve so be sure to map out all of your plans well beforehand.
This also applies to your inter-island travel.
All of the major islands are accessible by ferry service but the ferry you’ll want and where it leaves from will depend on where you’re going. For the country-blind among us, I’ll also mention that you cannot access any of the islands directly from a U.S.-based ferry. Instead, you’ll need to get to Vancouver Island and process to the Gulf Island of your choice from there.
Whatever ferry you decide to take I would recommend taking your car and planning your trip in such a way that each island you visit will have a convenient ferry service to the next so you’ll limit the amount of backtracking/ferry-hopping that you’ll have to do.
Although there are obvious differences, the Gulf Islands share many similarities with the San Juans that many of us know and love. They both sport rocky, craggy shorelines which are softened by an incredible number of picturesque and pristine beaches.
So trade your currency for some Canadian dollars and head north young man!
The rich vacation experience that awaits you on the Gulf Islands will be an unforgettable few days during your visit to the Pacific Northwest.