SALT SPRING ISLAND, B.C. — As soon as I step foot onto the ferry at Vancouver’s largest terminal, Tsawwassen, I begin to feel more relaxed. I grab a seat on one of the outdoor decks and watch the graceful arc of a whale’s fin slash the water. A lone sea kayaker moves swiftly along the rocky outcroppings of an island that’s slowly disrobing the shroud of an early morning fog.
Whenever I mention to locals in Vancouver that I’m headed to Salt Spring Island, the response is “You’re in for a treat” or “That’s my favorite island.”
Salt Spring has a rustic appeal, comparable to a Maine island like Vinalhaven. At 70 square miles, it is the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands. Its yearly population of 11,000 swells to three times that amount in summer, attracting organic farmers, fishermen, chefs, writers, retirees, and a multitude of artists.
“We have more artists per capita than any other locale in Canada,” says Julie MacKinnon, a skilled ceramic artist displaying her stylish teapots, vases, and fish print plates at the weekly Saturday Market. “You can spend a week here and not see everyone’s studio,” she adds.
All of the 140 artisans and food producers congregate on Centennial Park in the main village of Ganges on Saturdays during summer. Cheesemakers, bakers, and artists descend on the harbor to showcase their latest work. It’s a vibrant scene, with the purveyor of Salt Spring Sprouts and Exotic Mushrooms selling locally grown yellow oyster and pearl oyster mushrooms next to Gail Coney, a potter and glass artist known for her colorful bowls and salad dressing bottles.
The market’s only rule is that vendors must “make it, bake it, or grow it.” Donald Allen takes the ferry from Vancouver Island to sell his unique manila rope doormats made from one piece of thick rope. “My fingers are pretty tired from twisting the rope all week,” says Allen.
Diane Perry lives right down the road, offering her version of the Ugly Doll, cute three-eyed creations under the title of her business, Monster Lab. At another stall, Salt Spring Soapworks showcases its soaps and lotions, made on island since 1979.
On weekdays, the island returns to a far more placid state. I take a short drive southeast of Ganges to Ruckle Provincial Park. On the way, I pass a dozen farm stands selling bags of small Italian plums, peas, lavender, and other wildflowers. They run on the honor system. Simply pull off the road, pay the asking price in a small bin, and leave with your bag of plums.
At Ruckle, I stroll north along the shoreline through an emerald forest of moss-covered roots, tall cedars, and the scaly bark of the madrone tree, which is prevalent in the Gulf Islands. Eventually, the trees lead to a rocky promontory, with views of the cargo ships, sailboats, and ferries making their way through the channel. I find a large piece of driftwood, the perfect natural bench, and look out at neighboring Pender and Prevost islands.
On the way back to town, I stop at Salt Spring Island Bread Company and Salt Spring Island Cheese. Heather Campbell makes focaccia, rye breads, and blackberry pies in her wood-fired oven perched on a hill with a glorious vista of the water and shoreline. Every boulangerie needs a fromagerie, and the creamy Blue Juliette cheese or an herb and garlic “What’s It” goat cheese are the perfect accompaniment to the fresh bread.
That afternoon, I venture out on the water on a guided sea kayaking jaunt led by a local outfitter, Island Escapades. We leave from a spit of sand in Ganges where swans and their cygnets are feeding on the algae. Paddling past the docks, we spot a mother and baby harbor seal gnawing on a tire buoy and a large bald eagle flying overhead.
We skirt around the sailing club and make our way across the vast channel, eventually arriving at the pearly white sands of Chocolate Beach on Third Sister Island. The island is named for the chocolate lilies that grow here in the spring. On the return trip, we pass a tall fir covered with a web of lichen, which our guide, Hal, calls an “Old Man’s Beard.” He picks up a purple starfish, which they call sea stars in these parts, and passes the specimen around. As we close in on Salt Spring, it’s a good chance to see the topography of the island, with its rolling meadows and short summits.
With such variety of local produce, you would expect the Salt Spring dining scene to thrive, and it does. Hastings House is a Relais & Chateaux property whose manicured grounds and organic garden overlook the boats bobbing in Ganges harbor. Walk inside and the country manor has a Provencal feel with yellow walls and a low-ribbed, post-and-beam ceiling.
Acclaimed chef Marcel Kauer offers a prix fixe menu that relies heavily on the regional bounty. I start with a salad of string beans and red and purple beets, all grown on site. The sockeye salmon gravlax arrives with a mustard aioli that’s ideal for dipping. For an entree, the grilled Salt Spring Island lamb comes with a side of garlic potatoes, and the waiter recommends a pinot noir from the island’s Gary Oaks Winery. Dessert is a chocolate torte topped with fresh raspberries and strawberries, just picked from the garden.
If you prefer to dine in a more casual setting, walk across the street to the Harbour House Hotel, which like the Hastings House takes full advantage of its 3-acre farm in the back. For breakfast, I order a dish I can only dream about back home. Called Sunrise Salad, two perfectly rendered poached eggs sit inside a phyllo dough bread bowl, surrounded by organic lettuce, guacamole, blackberries, and linden berries.
One sublime bite and I’m feeling melancholy that I have to leave this Eden-like outpost. Vancouverites have it right.
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.ActiveTravels.com.