Welcome to Ferry Land: The Southern Gulf Islands

2014-08-26 19.20.40_2PigWar-boundariesMore and more people are discovering Canada’s best kept secret: the jewels that are the Gulf Islands.

If you look at a map of the Pacific Northwest, you will see lots of small islands off the coast of the mainland, both in the US and in Canada.

In the mid 1800’s, a pig caused the border between the two countries to become well defined because neighbors were tired of one farmer’s pigs rooting up their gardens. A clear boundary was drawn which established the San Juan and Gulf Islands. The San Juan’s are the American islands, including Orcas Island, San Juan Island and Lopez Island: http://www.visitsanjuans.com

See also our earlier blog: https://globetrottinggrandparents.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/seven-days-usas-pacific-northwest/

In Canada the island group is called the Gulf Islands and is separated into southern and northern Gulf Islands. They include islands such as Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne and many more.

IMG_8376Travel between the islands in Canada is made possible by BC Ferries. Even though the ferry is an extension of our highway system, you have to pay dearly to make use of the ferries to reach the islands. But it is worth it. The islands are a truly unique part of Canada, with a feeling more European than North American. There are no straight roads, not even any traffic lights. Patios and funky pubs line the picturesque harbours. You can buy produce from farm stands. Some islands have almost no facilities while others offer a wide range of services, so it pays to do your homework and book ahead.

A BC Experience Card is available to help reduce ferry costs, although many restrictions reply: http://www.bcferries.com/experience_and_coast_card/what_it_is/

The card is only valid for ferry travel between small islands and Vancouver Island, not from or to the mainland, so it is mostly used by those living on the islands. It is used like a kind of debit card by uploading money. It may reduce your fare by some 15%.

You can make reservations on some routes but not on all. On busy summer weekends it pays to have a reservation instead of waiting for 1 or 2 sailings. You can even make reservations if you walk on, without a car.

IMG_8358From the mainland, you travel from Tsawwassen to the Gulf Islands or to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. If you travel via Swartz Bay to one of the smaller islands, you pay a through fare but you do need to tell them your destination. Returning, the same thing goes but it is tricky because you don’t pay for, or even buy, a ticket when you leave a smaller island (you paid a return fare when you came). This means that when you leave i.e. Salt Spring for the mainland via Swartz Bay, you have to buy a ticket from the machine on the boat to prove, once you get to Swartz Bay, that you came from Salt Spring. There you pay the remainder of your fare to the mainland, which is almost half the price of a ticket not originating on Salt Spring.


Trust me, it is very confusing and nowhere on the BC Ferries website is this explained.

But the Southern Gulf Islands are a wonderful place to spend a holiday, whether it is a long weekend, a week or more.

Pender, Galiano, Mayne and Saturna are the smaller, less developed islands where hiking and camping are great activities. There are wineries and coffee shops but not the many services offered as on Salt Spring, the largest Gulf island with wineries, a cidery, many restaurants, patios, and over 30 art studios.

You can learn details about Salt Spring Island’s favourite spots to visit here:




P7180025-1024x768We live on Salt Spring at the edge of Ganges, the main town. We actually run a booklovers’ B & B here called Between The Covers, so you can come and stay with us: www.betweenthecoversbandb.com or chose from many other B & B’s, 3 small hotels and several cottage resorts or campgrounds.

IMG_8048The islands are often promoted as ‘ideal for cyclists’. I beg to differ. The islands are very hilly with narrow, winding roads and do not offer much of a shoulder. I would rather hike than bike here. There are many good hiking trails all over the islands, with incredible views – close to towns or out in the bush. There is a public transit bus that meets each ferry and can get you around the island. Hitchhiking is also very common and generally safe, on the islands.

Another option to ferries is to come by floatplane. This is a fabulous way to see the Salish Sea. A plane ride from Vancouver Airport (South terminal) is 20 minutes – way too short and oh so gorgeous and convenient. Check out: http://saltspringair.com


In our next blog, we’ll share our adventures on some of the northern Gulf Islands.

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