There’s just something about BC’s Gulf Islands that’s hard to explain – a certain laid-back vibe of their relatively few but passionate residents, an untamed, yet contained wildness, a slight slowing of time… if you’ve ever spent time on any of them, you’ll know what I mean. The closest to Vancouver of the southern group of Gulf Islands, and perhaps one of the most untamed due to its geography (read: rocky) and history (once much of its land was used as a tree farm by the lumber industry; now much of it is protected from development, thanks to community initiatives) is Galiano Island. I hadn’t visited since childhood, so had managed to forget just how special of a place it really is. Luckily, a recent weekend trip was all it took to remind me.
We caught the last BC Ferry out from Tsawassen on Friday after work, so spent our first evening relaxing on the deck at our lovely borrowed home for the weekend, Arrow’s Run Cottage. But Saturday morning we were up bright and early to start exploring the sunny, heavily forested 28 kilometre (17 mile)-long island, armed with an impressively informative map created by the friendly and knowledgeable owners of Arrow’s Run, Rocky and Ralph.
Our first order of business? Finding the closest beach for a morning stroll. One thing I love about Galiano is that on top of the larger, more obvious beaches, there are dozens of smaller beach access points around the island, which have all been very handily numbered. We strolled down the road to beach access #55 on the eastern shores of the island and found a gorgeous, tree-lined sandstone beach, which looked back towards the mainland. The morning clouds were just burning off, which made for dramatic skies.
Next up was exploring the south end of the island (which is where most of Galiano’s 1,200 full-time residents and the island’s amenities call home). And what better way to do it than by moped? We picked up our rides for the afternoon in Montague Harbour Marina, and we were off, cruising along tree-lined, hilly roads, with most other traffic in the form of the island’s deer population.
Our first stop was Bellhouse Provincial Park, on the southern tip of the island. With a view out over Active Pass, this is prime whale watching territory (it’s common to spot them passing by right from the shore). Also, a pretty great spot for a picnic.
After exploring Bellhouse, we hopped back on our mopeds and headed towards a visitors’ favourite: Bluffs Park, or simply, “the Bluffs”. Established in the 1940s, The Bluffs is a 120-hectare park that provides some incredible views of Active Pass and the other Gulf Islands. It’s easily accessible by vehicle, or via a moderate 8 kilometre (5 mile) trail. But no matter how you get up there, I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy the payoff:
The Bluffs would make for another fantastic picnic spot (in fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of a spot we visited that I wouldn’t want to park for the afternoon with a basket full of food and cold beer). Note: if you’re looking for a more challenging hike with a potentially even better view, you can climb nearby Mount Galiano in about an hour (you can read about that hike here).
Heading back towards Montague Harbour, we took a little detour to the Galiano Cemetery – not specifically to see the cemetery (although it was interesting to see where some of Galiano’s original pioneers were laid to rest), but because it’s the access point for Collison Reef. A short walk through the cemetery takes you down to the water, where you can see a daily congregation of excitable sea lions (they spend high tide out hunting and then return to this same rock in the bay to sun themselves as the tide lowers). We arrived just after the tide began to recede, so there were only a few of them hanging on the rock so far – but we saw (or should I say heard?) more arriving every minute we watched.
Speaking of cold beer – after all that exploring, it was what was required. And we found plenty of that, plus some of the best pizza I’ve had in a long time at the Galiano Island Inn & Spa. Between the inn and the waterfront, they have an adorable outdoor pizza patio, complete with wood fired pizza oven and beer and wine on tap. I would highly recommend stopping in for a slice while you take in yet another awesome seaside view. Oh, and did I mention that the Inn is also a spa, which includes hot tubs sharing that same view? Yes. Please.
Our final must-do for the south island on day one was a bit of an unusual one: a ride aboard the Hummingbird Pub Bus. Every hour starting at 5pm, the island’s favourite watering hole sends an old school bus down to Montague Harbour Marina to pick up Gulf Island locals (many of who come in on their boats for dinner) and tourists alike to take them to the pub (and back again). But what’s so great about this isn’t the fact that they do it, it’s who’s doing it. Bus driver (/author and motivational speaker) Tommy Transit is a local legend – as soon as we saw the full set of cymbals mounted above the driver’s seat and the drumsticks on the dashboard, we could see why; his energy was totally infectious. I won’t spoil too much of the experience, but if you’re going to check out the Hummingbird (which you should), this is the way to get there – just look for the crowd forming on the road leading to the marina at the top of each hour.
On day two, we headed north (this time via car) to explore the much wilder northern half of the island. But first, a stop to see the white shell beaches at Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park was in order.
Montague Harbour was designated the first marine park in British Columbia in 1959, but the Coast Salish peoples had inhabited the area for thousands of years before that. The unique white shell beaches are a result of centuries of their discarded clam, oyster and abalone shells – over the years, storms have eroded the beach and crushed and bleached the shells, which now cover the sand. Would have loved to spend a day here (there were plenty of campers in the park heading to the beach for the day as the sun came out), but we had more exploring to do!
Back on the road, we continued our northward journey along the main drag, Porlier Pass Road, with a quick stop at Ganner Drive; the intersection is home to three local artists’ studios. The pottery by Sandra Dolph at Cedar Grove Gallery was particularly stunning (and how awesome is the little building nestled amongst the trees?)
Just a couple of kilometres up the road lies Retreat Cove. As our ever-informative map told us, “the western shore of Galiano Island is predominantly steep bluffs, which are breached in only a few places. Retreat Cove is one of those places.” But besides the sea access, what makes Retreat Cove really cool is the small sandstone caves that have been carved out of the shoreline. They’re fairly easy to explore (just a short trail from Retreat Cove Road), but note that they’re on private property so be sure to tread lightly.
Our final destination on the north end of the island, near the well-known Bodega Ridge Resort, was Stoneworld – which is just as unusual as it sounds. Founded by local artist Steve Ocsko (who has since passed away) Stoneworld is where he completed much of his beautiful and intricate stone carving work. When developing the property, he excavated giant slabs of rock, some weighing as much as four tonnes; and rather than paying to have the incredibly heavy stones shipped away, he arranged them around the property in a Stonehenge-like manner (and the result is quite impressive). His partner Barbara Gearey still lives and works on the property (along with a friendly flock of sheep); she was in the studio when we arrived so we were lucky enough to get a tour and hear some of Steve’s story directly from her. Her photography, which is displayed onsite, is also stunning.
(I’ve hardly done the property credit, so if you’re curious, check out this video for more:)
Although we didn’t quite make it all the way to the northern tip (also known as Dionisio Point Provincial Park, a hike-in or marine-access only park), our second and final day on Galiano was pretty successful when it came to exploring. We had also planned to make a stop at Lovers’ Leap viewpoint on our way south, which we heard provides a stunning/nerve-wracking view straight down off the aforementioned steep bluffs, but unfortunately our ferry reservation beckoned and we had to skip it. We did, however, have just enough time to grab a couple of scoops from the aptly-named Scoops back at the south end of the island in Sturdies Bay before our trip home.
Armed with our ice cream, we boarded the ferry for the scenic 45-minute ride back to the mainland, which I would argue is the perfect way to ease your way out of those Gulf Island vibes and back into real life. It’s pretty hard to beat a ferry ride on a sunny day in Active Pass. Already thinking about our next trip back – perhaps a hike-camp trip into Dionisio Park? For a 28 kilometre (17 mile)-long island, there are a lot of possibilities.
Galiano Island, BC