Ask somebody if they know of the Gulf Islands, and chances are they don't. Nestled in the southwest corner of British Columbia, just outside of Vancouver, this exquisite archipelago is the unsung vacation hero of Canada (and maybe even North America!). It is, hands down, my favorite place to spend a summer. And I don't say that lightly: having lived, worked and traveled in 15 countries on 4 continents, this place still takes the cake. Perhaps it's because I came here as a child, spending endless hours building sand castles to the sound of eagle calls and running with wild deer through the islands' untouched coastal forests. You never forget things like that.
One of the reasons I love leading the Backroads Vancouver & Gulf Islands Bike Tour is that we visit many of the same places I remember from my childhood. This area has so much to discover, and I am convinced that it delivers a little bit of magic to everyone who visits.
The Gulf Islands and nearby city of Victoria share an underlying vibe of hippie-like counterculture. Since early settlement days, the islands have attracted--and been a sort of safe haven for--a collection of rebels, artists, outcasts and dreamers. That legacy is evident in the myriad of studios and artisan boutiques that populate the area. Strike up a conversation with a local, and you're sure to hear a unique story about what brought them to the area. The islands also carry a rich aboriginal history that feels surprisingly present through Coast Salish legends, colorful totem poles and the incomparable taste of smoked salmon.
If I had to describe the Gulf Islands in one word, it would be "life." Their unique terroir produces abundant harvests from both land and sea. I'm particularly proud of how our Backroads trip showcases this bounty: whether it's the exquisite seafood on offer every night, visiting an artisan goat cheese producer or sipping award-winning local wines, there seems to be an endless supply of island delights. My single favorite event is our bespoke catered lunch at Cherry Point Estate Winery, prepared by Brad, a renowned butcher in the Cowichan Valley. We dine alfresco to a soundtrack of subtle birdcalls dancing through the vineyards, followed by a private tasting with winery owners, Javier and Maria. Finally, I must admit that I have a soft spot for the wild blackberries, apples and plums that can be found throughout the area--I can eat them until my stomach nearly bursts!
I love cycling around the Gulf Islands. The winding seaside roads provide endless interesting and beautiful views, while towering cedar and arbutus trees offer welcome shade from the warm sun. Many years ago, residents of Salt Spring Island vetoed expansion plans to create large multi-lane roads; because of this, we enjoy a quiet countryside feel that is so sought after by cyclists. Though you won't see any century rides on our itinerary, the undulating elevation profiles can challenge even the most avid cyclists. I love a good workout and I can always find a commensurate road in the Gulf Islands.
Having grown up on the Pacific Coast, I've always been drawn to the ocean, so the afternoon of kayaking on our Backroads trip is always a highlight for me. There's no better way to experience and feel a part of the incredible ocean ecosystem. We have the luck of being guided by Chessi, an infinitely knowledgeable native of Galiano Island, who speaks of the salmon and sea stars as if they're old friends. He's always the first to notice a baby seal hauled up on the rocks, waiting for its mother to come home from fishing.
If you didn't think the Gulf Islands could get any closer to paradise, think again: despite the rainy stigma surrounding the Pacific Northwest, the region is situated in a unique rain shadow that delivers warm, consistently sunny days, as well as low humidity. Couple that with a refreshing ocean breeze that seems to follow you wherever you go, and voilà! Ideal weather for cycling, kayaking or relaxing with a beverage in a big wooden deck chair. In other words, the perfect summer vacation.
From the diverse ecosystems, abundance of fresh local food, recreation opportunities and great people, visiting the Gulf Islands is an unwaveringly invigorating experience. Every year when I return, I can't help but feel alive. I know when you visit, you will too.