This groovy Gulf Island was home to a sizeable hippie community in the ‘60s. While they might have all grown up, the island still offers a slice of chilled-out British Columbia at its best.
With its bluebird skies, white sandy stretches and painted wooden houses, Salt Spring Island’s aesthetic appeal is endless. There are wildflower-filled meadows and terraced vineyards; organic farms and first-rate hotels; secluded coves and brilliant boutiques – all squeezed between the mainland and Vancouver Island in the shimmering Pacific Ocean.
The island’s micro-climate means it sees more sunshine than most of British Columbia, too. Little wonder, then, that it is one of the most expensive places in Canada to buy property, despite being home to just 10,000 people. But you don’t need to be a big spender to enjoy the best of the island in 24 hours, thanks to a wide range of affordable accommodation, activities and restaurants.
Salt Spring Island has a long and storied history. First inhabited by the Salish peoples, the first ‘settlers’ arrived in the late 1850s. As well as gold-seeking Europeans and Americans, many of this new population were Black African-Americans fleeing racism. Unlike the United States, which denied their rights to citizenship, suffrage and land, in British Columbia, they found comparative freedom. They could vote, were entitled to land, and could join the local militia. For more than fifty years it was home to one of B.C.’s most important black communities.
Holidaymakers started arriving to Salt Spring in the early 1930s, and resorts and holiday cottages quickly sprang up across the island to welcome them. The hippies arrived in the 1960s and most never left. Today, Salt Spring is the most populous and most developed of the Southern Gulf Islands, beloved for its artistic spirit, artisanal approach to produce and spectacular scenery.
To reach the island, you’ll need to catch a plodding ferry from one of three ferry terminals. BC Ferries sails from Vancouver (Tsawwassen), Victoria (Swartz Bay) and Crofton. Or, for an infinitely more thrilling arrival, hop on a 35-minute seaplane from downtown Vancouver.
Things to do
If you’ve taken the ferry, you’ll likely arrive at Fulford Harbour. This lovely, laid-back village has a handful of funky shops, a grocery store and an organic bakery housed in painted, wooden one-storey buildings. Those in the market for ceramics should pop into The Pottery (2909 Fulford-Ganges Road), a charming pottery shop and studio selling crockery, jewellery, textiles, soaps and woodwork from over 50 local artists based in Salt Spring and Vancouver Island.
Ganges, Salt Spring’s largest and most developed town, is most people’s first port of call for supplies and provisions. Named after the British naval ship that first docked here, rather than India’s famous river, it’s a charming town spread across several clusters of shops, restaurants, bars and bakeries. It’s also home to ArtSpring (100 Jackson Avenue), the island’s largest live music, dance, theatre and exhibition space, which hosts an array of events every year, from concerts to lectures.
Beyond Ganges and Fulford Harbour, most of Salt Spring’s studios are dotted across the island in more isolated locations. The tourism board has helpfully provided a map and recommended tour route to encourage you to stop off at studios and watch artists while they work. For instance, The Glass Foundry (401 Upper Ganges Road), a three-minute drive from Ganges, was founded in 1996 by Mark. Every year, he transforms around 12,000 pounds of scrap glass into sculptures, plates, glasses, light fixtures and artwork.
Salt Spring Island is good hiking territory too. The moss-carpeted Mount Erksine National Park, just west of Ganges, offers 107 hectares of Douglas-fir forests, riparian wetlands and rocky outcrops and bluffs. Head for the heights of Mount Erksine’s summit for the best views over the island and out over the Pacific Ocean. There are several trails to choose from with a dozen “fairy doors” – tiny painted doors carved into the trees – to find along the way too.
Eat and drink
Salt Spring Island bills itself as the “Organic Gardening Capital of Canada” and there are now at least 240 farms sprinkled across the island. The best way to experience a slice of Southern Gulf Island life and its abundant produce is at Salt Spring Island Market (Oceanside at Centennial Park). Held every Saturday from the start of April until late October, around 120 farmers and food producers congregate in Ganges to sell everything from farm-fresh fruit and goat cheese, to pictures and pottery.
If the market whets your appetite for more of B.C.’s best produce, take a trip to one of the island’s many independent producers. Arguably the island’s best-known and best-loved product, Salt Spring Cheese, can be found at supermarkets like Planet Organic and Thrifty Foods across Vancouver, but nothing quite compares to sampling it at its source. At Salt Spring Island Cheese Farm Shop (285 Reynolds Road) visitors can wander around the farm, watch cheese being made through viewing windows and sample some of the farm’s blockbuster cheeses, like the Chèvre: a refined soft goat cheese available in flavours such as truffle, tapenade and lemon. A cafe and charming terrace are open for lunch in the summertime too.
B.C.’s thriving wine industry attracts talented winemakers from across the world, and as the warmest part of the region, Salt Spring Island has the ideal terroir for growing cool-climate grapes. There are a handful of vineyards, cideries and breweries on the island, but Salt Spring Vineyards (151 Lee Road) is one of the most atmospheric. Set against the backdrop of Mount Maxwell, this popular winery is renowned for dry and crisp wines, ranging from traditional champenoise-style bubble to whites, reds, pinks, and sweet dessert wines. Wines use 100% local island grapes, are hand-crafted and farmed sustainably, then harvested every October. You can book a wine tasting or enjoy the grounds with a picnic and a bottle or two.
Then, when you’ve tired of fresh cheeses, vegetables and wines, there’s Buzzy’s Luncheonette (149 Fulford-Ganges Road). This tiny deli boasts the best Montreal smoked meat west of Montreal. Cured for ten days, then smoked for eight hours and steamed for three hours, it bites like butter. “The Hungry Jew”, the deli’s showstopper sandwich, sees two thick slices of marble rye packed with juicy smoked meat, spritzed with homemade horseradish and topped with two crispy latkes.
Where to stay
Salt Spring Island has the full range of accommodation, from ritzy resorts to old worldly inns, and beachfront condos to log cabins. The island’s most impressive hotel, Hastings House Country House Hotel (160 Upper Ganges Road), was built by English Naval architect Warren Hastings in 1939, inspired by his 11th-century estate in Sussex. These days the 22-acre waterfront property offers luxurious suites and spacious rooms, sparkling service and meticulous attention to detail. Swiss chef Marcel Kauer serves up some of the finest dining on the island at the manor’s onsite restaurant.
Salt Spring Inn (132 Lower Ganges Road) is an excellent option for cash-strapped travellers. Built in the 1930s, this recently-restored inn offers seven well-appointed bedrooms, including three deluxe rooms featuring Queen-sized beds, fireplaces and sea views. All rooms boast a luxurious pillowtop bed and flat-screen TV too. Set in the heart of Ganges, it’s ideal for those travelling without a car, with most of the island’s offerings right on its doorstep.
For self-catered seaside and lakefront stays, there are hundreds of cabin rentals peppered across the island. Try Green Acres Lake (241 Langs Road), which offers spacious cabins for up to four guests on the north shores of crystal clear St. Mary Lake. Fill your lungs with cedar-scented air and explore the lake on one of the resort’s free canoes, kayaks and paddleboards. There’s also a beach volleyball and badminton court, outdoor table tennis table and children’s playground for those travelling with little ones.