When Helen (my sister, for those not in the know) first booked her trip to Canada, she had a list of ‘Canadian’ things she wanted to tick off while she was here. The list included swimming in a lake, staying in a cabin, hiking in forests and eating lots of pancakes. I also wanted to go somewhere new, and the islands off the coast of Vancouver looked very nice, and like they would enable us to tick off quite a few things from Helen’s list, so basically just picked one and went with it. It turned out to be a good choice. Salt Spring Island is known for it’s hippy, artisan feel, and is home to lots of tiny galleries and studios of the hundreds of artists who live on the island, as well as being a big producer of food (cheese, jam, oils, etc.), but with plenty to do outdoors too.
We managed to formulate the perfect trip, just by following a few simple steps…
Step 1. Order perfect weather
We were insanely lucky to have pretty much perfect weather for the entire 3 days we spent on Salt Spring Island – blue skies and temperatures around 20-24 degrees. I’m sure we would’ve still had a great time had it rained the whole time, but hiking and swimming in lakes is a lot less enjoyable in the rain, and I’m pretty sure that the constant sunshine had a lot to do with us having the best time ever.
Step 2. Find an excellent AirBnb
Our first choice AirBnb got snapped up before we had a chance to book it, so instead of a remote, rustic cabin with ocean views we ended up with a quaint looking country cottage close to the main town, Ganges. I’ll be honest, the main draw was the numerous reviews of the host’s homemade granola and baked treats – she did not disappoint – but it ended up being the best of all worlds as we could walk into town for dinner, but it was nice and quiet. The place itself (and the hosts) did conjure up memories of a stay with the grandparents, but it was so sweet (and the freshly baked bread was so good) we couldn’t fault it.
Step 3. Hike all morning
Due to the aforementioned good weather, we spent most mornings exploring some of the trails on the island. We managed about 6km along the coast in Ruckle Provincial Park, a beautiful rugged forest trail with mostly fairly gentle ups and downs, but when the round trip option including a potentially strenuous climb and I’d already been freaked out by a snake spotting, an out and back suited us just fine.
The best hike was to the top of Mount Erskine – the trail was only about 1.5km each way, but it was quiet and had incredible views to the north of the island from the top. We also drove to the top of Mount Maxwell along a very dusty road full of pot holes, where the viewpoints looked out to the south over the San Juan islands in the US. We also had an encounter with a couple of hikers who for a moment we thought were dead…they were in fact just enjoying a post-hike afternoon snooze until we freaked out and yelled at them. Sorry again to those poor, poor, people.
Step 4. Swim all afternoon
After all that walking, we enjoyed a little dip most afternoons – the most lake swimming I think I’ve ever done. There are several lakes on the island of varying sizes, and it’s a bit of an adventure finding the swimming spot at each one. None of them have much a of beach to speak of, and the maps of the island aren’t totally clear on where the best place to stop is, so we spent quite a lot of time driving slowly along the edge of the lakes, watching to spot a tiny strip of sand and a tell tale strip of cars parked on the road, then mastering a tricky parking manoeuvre (often involving a blind bend) before changing into our swimming things between the car doors or under our towels – memories of childhood beach days coming back to haunt us.
Cusheon Lake won the top prize for best lake, largely because there was a decent amount of space to park and there was a reasonably clean portaloo to change in, but also because you could walk onto the dock from the beach. We also swam in St. Mary’s Lake (the biggest, with the largest ‘beach’ too, but very busy as it was a Sunday when we visited) and had a quick dip in Stowell Lake (the smallest lake and closest to the road) but someone saw a snake in the grass there too, so I wasn’t keen to hang around for too long.
Step 5. Eat excellent food, drink excellent drinks
As mentioned in Step 2 our AirBnb host supplied us with a huge array of homemade breakfast treats, and even made a special trip to the farmers market to top up our supplies for the last morning, so we ate breakfast in the garden every morning. We stretched it out to lunch a couple of times too, keeping the backpacking dream alive. I had my first experience with a Weber one evening, which was thankfully uneventful, but we tried a couple of places in Ganges for food too, including the Tree House Cafe, which was like the Garden Cafe in Frome on steroids. Salt Spring has a reputation of being a bit of a hippy hotspot, but this was crazy. A folk group called Adam, Gwen & Friends was playing, and I’ve never seen so many people with long, grey, wavy hair and kaftans in one place before. After we managed to avoid being sat at a table right in front of the live music, we did have some really good food and an incredible sunset topped off the night nicely.
I’ll also mention Salt Spring Island Ales as it was really good, and in a lovely little forest lined spot in the middle of nowhere.
Step 6. Order a pod of orcas to spot on the ferry home
The ferry across to the the Southern Gulf Islands is notoriously beautiful, especially on a clear, sunny day, and spotting whales is something that people often talk about but it seems like it’s quite rare that it actually happens… We were about 10 minutes from docking back in Vancouver, and the captain announced that we should go back to our cars, oh and that there was a pod of orcas on the starboard side of the boat. Cue lots of very excited people trying to work out which side of the boat is starboard…luckily someone (not us) figured out it was the right hand side, so we walked casually (read: skipped so excitedly we almost tripped over) so see what was going on – it was pretty darned cool.
And that just about rounded off a perfect little Canadian trip. Apart from we got stuck in terrible traffic on the way back from the ferry which made me quite ragey. Sorry again about that Helen.