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.

Seven Days: USA’s Pacific Northwest

Salt Spring to San Juan to Oregon and back.

We were ready for a break from weeding, chores and cleaning rooms.

So off we went to Oregon, hoping to explore backroads and places in between we had not yet seen.
We made reservations on the Washington State Ferry from Sidney, BC to Anacortes, WA. Since we had to take the Fulford ferry to get there, we were hours too early. But it was nice to suddenly sit in the sun and read a book. We both felt too tired to do much else. I guess once you stop working, it hits you.
It is interesting to note how different Washington State ferries are from BC ones: no fancy gift shops, no wifi, no luxurious buffets. Fare is cheaper: 107 Canadian versus 61 US from Vancouver Island to the main land. As we have been telling BC Ferries: you are not a cruise ship but a link in our highway system….

We chose to spend the first night in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We had stopped there several times before but never stayed to explore the island. Now we were there by 1 PM and spent the afternoon driving around the entire island. San Juan seems very similar in size and landscape to Salt Spring – but not nearly as artsy. My favorite stop: Snug Harbor’s marina and coffee shop.

I had booked a hotel online. I am still not sure if the choice was right or wrong. I had only been able to find very expensive places until I came across The Orca Inn on the edge of town. Booked a room for 68.- It was certainly the most affordable price. And the room was very clean, and it was very quiet at night. But the room was only 2 steps wider than the queensize bed. It felt a bit like sleeping in a drawer. The hotel was comprised of 9 double wide mobile home type building, each with 12 rooms cramped into them. Tiny but clean and it had a clean bathroom and shower. Really it was all we needed to sleep there, which was good ‘cause there isn’t even a chair to sit on.
We walked around town, up and down hill. Enjoyed the shops and cafe’s. Had a nice happy hour on the patio of Friday Harbor House – great drinks and a perfect spot to sit. But the servers were snooty and were not impressed that we only drank and didn’t eat dinner there.
We stopped in The Backdoor Kitchen restaurant because the ads for it were attractive. But a main course was USD 30 and up. We left and found a cozy place called The Rumour Mill, with decent food at almost half the price.
The Bean Cafe served good coffee and breakfast complete with fast wifi. We walked by several nice shops and cafe’s but Salt Spring wins, hands down, as far as galleries and funky shops are concerned.
What always amazes me if the number of cyclists on these islands. Tourist organizations seem to promote the Gulf and San Juan Islands as bicycle heaven. And they could be. But, in my eyes, they are a far cry from the ideal place to cycle. The roads are hilly and windy with almost non existent bicycle paths or even shoulders. Plenty of traffic makes it less than safe. Yet bicycles come off the ferries by the dozens. The islands truly should look at finding a way to create a safe infra structure for these cyclists who bring buckets of money on their 10 speeds.

Anacortes to Newport

And then we steamed out of town on our way to Anacortes. No orcas or whales but the ferry did have to slow down for a deer swimming off the bow…
From Anacortes we drove south to the Port Towsend ferry – a crossing of 20 minutes.
From there is was south and west across the Olympic Peninsula, with views of Mt Olympus, Mt Baker and Mt Rainier most of the day. Gorgeous time to drive here as the fields are green and the abundant rhododendrons are still blooming.
Having lived here, the US always feels like a comfortable, old pair of shoes we slip on again. But the differences with Canada are always apparent to us. The people so jovial and kind – yet everywhere are signed for guns for sale. One store boasted a huge sign: “Guns for sale, new and used, the tools of freedom”.
I notice many more drive-by coffee shops. It’s nice to have dinner, in a typical American diner, for under 35.- including wine and beer for two. And I love being able to pick up a bottle of wine in Safeway. Bought a bottle of Barefoot Moscato for 4.- today!
We drove many backroads south through Washington, ending up at the 6 KM long (!) Astoria bridge. Can’t help wonder what Lewis and Clark would think if they saw this amazing structure connecting the north and south shores of the Columbia River at its mouth just before the Pacific Ocean.
Sauntering (can you ‘saunter’ in a car?) through small villages along Oregon’s Highway 101, we past the Haystack Rocks at Cannon Beach, the picture perfect beach of Manzanita and the green pastures around Tillamook. Here you can travel on a steam train, visit the cheese factory and an aviation museum.
We continued to Depoe Bay, which seems to have changed its slogan from ‘world’s smallest harbour’ to ‘whale watching capital of the world’. The latter does seem more attractive, even if it may be debatable. We always stop into The Leather Store, here or in Newport. Leather briefcases, belts and much more at low prices.
Three miles north of Newport we finally reached our destination for the next few days: Moolack Shores Motel. For many years we drove by this place and often said that “one day we should stay there!” Today we finally did. And it beat my high expectations.
We have a corner room with large windows looking out over the Pacific Ocean. The motel is directly over the beach, with a private balcony. We have a lovely room with a small kitchen and bathroom. I’d like to pack up all the Hawaiian yard sale junk that decorates the room and take it to the nearest thrift store: there are parrots dangling over the bed, pineapple shaped lamps and mirrors and gawdy lamps made from shells. But the location and view make up for the decor.
Unfortunately, the next two days turned cold and rainy. We enjoyed sitting on our private deck for the first afternoon but after that it was cold, wet and miserable. You just never know on the Oregon coast. But how nice to have a (fake) fireplace, wine and a laptop to get some work done.
We had dinner at the best steak house in town: Szabos looks like an old wild west saloon, inside and out. But they serve the best darn steak dinners for under 14.- Highly recommended.

Driving from Newport to Eugene, Oregon

There are different ways to get from Newport on the coast, to Eugene in the Willamette Valley.
Our favorite way is to drive south along the 101, along the cute little town of Yachats, by the Sealion Caves, past Cape Perpetua, with its gorgeous tidal pools and visitor’s centre.
But this time it was raining, a miserable cold drizzle and fog. So we opted for Hwy 34 along the Alsea River.
This is a drive through a rhapsody of green: tall woods, moss covered branches, towering ferns. You end up in Corvallis, a small town with a university and funky stores and pubs. We had lunch at New Morning Bakery, did some chores, some shopping and then drove along backroads, through impeccable Mennonite farm country to Eugene.

In all the 40+ years we’ve been coming here, we have almost always either lived here or stayed with friends.
This time we booked a B & B right next to the campus. It exceeded all of our expectations: The Secret Garden is a huge heritage house surrounded by greenery. We are kiddy corner to the campus and love roaming the paths that we walked here when Kees was a student.
Many of the restaurants and shops remain unchanged.

We have been having Italian dinners at Mazzi’s for over 40 years. Smith Family Bookstore, Prince Puckler’s icecream, and many other places have been here forever it seems.
Our room in the B & B is lovely, with a large private bathroom. Breakfast is served in a beautiful parlor with flowered porcelain dishes. We highly recommend this place if you ever want to stay in Eugene – same cost as an impersonal hotel room but with lots of character and charm.
We spent time at both locations of Smith Family Bookstore today, browsing the endless piles of books scattered everywhere. This is book heaven. And they have most titles that you might be looking for. It’s amazing they can even find them among the teetering stacks of books. I was delighted to finds two of Patrick Taylor’s Irish Country Doctor titles. And Kees found some nice travel titles.
We had dinner at one of our old favorites: the Oregon Electric Station. The pub has comfy chairs and nice food.
Tomorrow we’ll be homeward bound.

A Historic Mill and Backroads to Buckley

Our last stop in Oregon was at one of our favorite places: Thompsons Mills State Heritage Site.
We lived here for several years when Kees worked with Oregon State Parks and when the state had newly acquired this historic property. The mill was one of the first industries in the state of Oregon, build in the mid 1800’s and has a rich history of grinding and storing grains for farmers of the area. The 2 storey mill building was constructed with wooden pegs, impressive silo’s held the grains and, inside, an amazing system of pulleys and ladders is powered by the water of the Calapooia River. Once the mills start grinding, the entire building comes to live. It is a sight, and sound, to behold.
If it was once lovingly built, it has now been just as lovingly restored to its old glory. Park rangers and hosts made it possible for the mill to operate, and demonstrate, again.
I had the privilege of helping to restore the millkeeper’s Queen Anne house, built around 1900, to the proud home it once was, boasting electricity as one of the first homes in the state.
When we moved in, windows were broken, blackberries had worked their way in through the walls and rats infested the walls. It took years to restore the original wainscoting, the ceiling trim and corner pieces. To get the transom windows to work again and to figure out what color paint and wallpaper might once have been on the parlor walls. I cooked on the wood stove in the kitchen and we had new pillars turned to support the porches. It was an exciting time to live in Shedd, Oregon.
Now you can visit here, too, and see how the mill operates. Plan on spending several hours walking around outside and in the visitors’ centre, playing with several hands-on displays. And then treat yourself to lunch in the newly refurbished Shedd Cafe! A great menu at – almost – prehistoric prices…
Check out these videos of the Mill:


After our visit, we had to head north again. But instead of driving the I-5, which have done hundreds of times, we opted for back roads. I love finding a way on the map, through tiny towns, to make it to our destination without hitting major roads. We drove through towns we’d never even heard of.
At the foot of the Cascades we are now winding our way back to the Canadian border. We had dinner in a fantastic, brand new restaurant: Giorgio’s on Main in the town of Buckley, WA.
Modern and stylish with great staff, best pizza ever, decent lobster ravioli and great tiramisu. Check them out if you are in the greater Seattle area and looking for a day trip with dinner: https://www.facebook.com/georgiositaliankitchen?fref=ts