The Gulf Islands is an archipelago of hundreds of islands and islets in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Recently named one of the top travel destinations in the world by The New York Times, and with easy access from Vancouver and Victoria, the Gulf Islands are no longer a secret getaway. In spite of this growing awareness there is an undeniable feeling of remoteness and isolation that permeates the region in a visceral way. It’s reflected in the geography of the rocky shorelines and dense, untamed forests. It’s written plainly on the usually smiling faces of the locals. Most of all it’s there, confronting you, as soon as the journey begins on the slow plodding ferry that acts as the gateway to this world.
Living in Victoria we are used to “the ferry”. It’s our only affordable method of transportation to and from Vancouver Island and for many of us the romance of sea travel has faded long ago. Somehow the journey to Galiano Island immediately feels different. It’s a small boat, carrying twenty or so cars and maybe fifty passengers. The interior spaces are bright and open with a slightly outdated look. The ship’s staff move unhurriedly and seem to have an authentic rapport with each other. Outside on the passenger decks the wind blows your hair in every direction as unnamed and uninhabited islands drift by. It’s early afternoon and the light is harsh. As the boat docks at Sturdies Bay the trip seems to have gone by too quickly.
There is a small town center on Galiano with a bakery, a bookstore and a few other familiar businesses from another time. We stop at the market and are amazed at the the selection of DVDs for rent and quality of produce, leaving with peaches and fresh dates still on the branch. We’ve been coming to Galiano regularly for a couple of years now, but it still seems uncharted. We drive aimlessly, stopping when we want, eventually arriving at the crescent shaped, white-shell beach of Montague Harbour. It’s the most frequently recommended destination on the island, but we still have it to ourselves today. We’re treated to a private sunset painted in pink and turquoise jewel tones. We head back to the car and towards our dinner reservation at Pilgrimme where, for the third time, we eat the best meal of our lives.
We’re sleeping in the back of the Volvo on this trip. Galiano has ample and diverse accommodation options, but Rachel made me promise we would camp in the car at least once this summer. We pull over just off the road at a lookout called Lover’s Leap. There are no streetlights this far north on the island, but you can still see and hear the ocean below through the darkness. We fall asleep with red wine straight from the bottle and wake up with the sun.
Our morning destination is a series of sandstone caves carved out of the western coastline of the island, where we stop to breakfast on bread, fruit and cheese. Once again we are alone, watching the early morning sailboats and neighboring Salt Spring Island looming close in the background. For another hour or two we wander shaded paths lined with Arbutus trees shedding their red bark and revealing the fresh green of new growth beneath. Our ferry home is departing soon. We board the vessel, the Queen of Cumberland, and let her carry us gently back to reality.
When asked to describe Galiano the adjective you’ll most often hear is “magical”, which sounds a bit flowery and vague. But magic has always been used to describe things we can’t properly explain. Galiano and the other Gulf Islands just don’t make sense in so many ways. The logistics of life in these small communities seem nearly impossible to an outsider, the economics of it just don’t add up. How can a world class restaurant survive in a population of a thousand? How can artists thrive without an audience? How can somewhere so accessible transport you so far away? Of course the point isn’t to answer the questions, but rather to see there exists a different way of doing things.