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Canadian San Juans

Gulf Islands offer B.C. scenery at its best


While many Northwest residents are familiar with the San Juan Islands, there is an equally attractive set of islands just to the north of the San Juans that offer their own charm and gorgeous island scenery. The Gulf Islands, in fact, are often called the Canadian San Juans.

This group of islands is a true paradise for visitors who are looking for quaint island towns in scenic settings with picture-postcard views in every direction. It's a more relaxed pace on these islands and the small towns here each have interesting shops, family-owned restaurants and cozy accommodations that will make your vacation or weekend getaway memorable.

Like the San Juans, the Gulf Islands often have rocky, cragged shorelines but also enough pristine beaches to last for several outings without going to the same beach twice. But while the scenery is similar to the San Juans, the Canadian culture is just a little different – perhaps slightly more formal and proper – and just as friendly as you can imagine. Yes, they take Canadian money in the Gulf Islands and the beers and libations will be just a little different from the U.S. But the subtle differences provide for a rich vacation experience and the feeling that you've been even a little farther away from home than the distance you traveled.

Visiting the Gulf Islands will require a little bit more effort to get there. The islands don't have direct ferry service from the U.S. so, instead, you'll board a ferry in Vancouver B.C., or you can take a ferry from the U.S. over to Vancouver Island and then hop a short ferry ride to the Gulf Islands.

So, which island to visit? Here are your options:

Salt Spring Island

This is the largest of the Gulf Islands and, consequently, it will be the busiest. It will also have the most accommodations to choose from and generally just has more things going on. Visit on a weekend and you can take in a huge farmer's market that includes 150 vendors and a lot of colorful entertainment. The island is a haven for artists and you could spend your entire vacation visiting artists' studios and touring the island's picturesque country roads. Be sure and visit Ganges, one of the 100 best small art towns in America.

Mayne Island

A lot of the “civilization” on this remote island is at Miners Bay, where you'll find a farmers mark, general stores, a bakery-café, bookshop and other services. Then from here you can explore other parts of the island which offers scenic roads as well as great places to stop like Campbel or Pigott Bay or the Georgina Point Lighthouse. Bird-watching is big around here and you'll have plenty of viewpoints to spot killer whales in the waters between the Gulf Islands.

Saturna Island

Only 350 people live on this island, but they'll share the island's natural beauty with anyone who comes to visit. Campers will delight in the options available here and there also is plenty of kayaking and canoeing – and most any other nature activity you can think of. Don't expect a lot of infrastructure with just a handful of residents, but there are enough fine accommodations and restaurants on the island to be somewhat surprising.

Gabriola Island

If you're coming from Nanaimo, this is only a 20-minute ferry ride and, when you step off, you'll find yet another artists' colony and a fun place to soak up that Gulf Island charm. With 4500 residents, there are more services and activities available here as well as a host of beaches and other locations to take those unforgettable vacation pictures. A number of parks and the Gabriola Museum are located on this island and you'll want to be sure and check out the Saturday market.

Galiano Island

This is a quick hop from Vancouver B.C. and, since it's the first stop for the ferry, it's just an hour or so from the Big City. Yet Galiano is very quiet indeed with only 1150 residents. The island has spectacular oceanfront, interesting hikes and great places to stay and eat, so it has just about anything an island visitor would want. Check out Dionisio Point Provincial Park or Bellhouse Park or go take in the views of the water at Active Pass. The opportunities on this island seem endless.

Pender Island

Gorgeous views, trails, beaches, terrific accommodations, artists' studios – is all of this starting to sound a little familiar? Well Pender Island boasts all of the above and is an especially good choice for overnight accommodations. There is everything from a five-star resort to several bed-and-breakfast inns – or camp at one of the Pender parks if you prefer. It has just 2,250 residents, but only Salt Spring has more services and attractions among the southern Gulf Islands. Only Saturna Island has more parkland.

For more information on the Gulf Islands, phone Tourism Vancouver Island at 250.754.3500 or visit

Photos, from top: Gulf Islands are ideal for boating; Georgina Lighthouse on Mayne Island; cover photo features snorkeling in Ganges Harbour

Photos by Boomer Jerritt and Landon Sveinson Photography

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on Northwest zoos, Northwest water vacations, Port Townsend and Seattle attractions.

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