Photograph by Catherine Karnow
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A girl checks out the wares in a Gulf Islands shop.
Photograph by Catherine Karnow

Gulf and Bowen Islands

"If you were dropped by helicopter into the Gulf Islands, you'd never think you were in Canada," says Jesse Keefer, a longtime Galiano Island resident. "I have fig trees, grapes, kiwi fruit, and alligator lizards on my property, and we're surrounded by manzanita bushes that look like they belong in a much warmer place."

No wonder. The Gulf Islands, scattered throughout western Canada's Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, lie in the protected rain shadow on the leeward side of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Mountain range. This buffer means the islands are blessed with more sun than anywhere else on Canada's "Wet Coast." The balmy weather invites plenty of kayaking, hiking, and playing outside. It also helps create the islands' "laid-back vibe," Keefer says, adding that "the southern Gulf Islands really have more in common with the Mediterranean and California than the rest of Canada."

When to Go: The southern Gulf Islands are a year-round destination, though June through early October is the dry, warm season. Noteworthy events include Salt Spring Island's Saturday Market from April through October, where local artists and farmers sell organic food, fine woodwork, pottery, crafts, and jewelry; August's Galiano Wine Festival; and on the third weekend of September, the classic Salt Spring Annual Fall Fair, which has celebrated the harvest since 1896 with traditional favorites like fresh-pressed apple juice, livestock competitions, and an apple-tasting contest.

How to Get Around: Take a BC Ferry from Vancouver Island or the mainland to bigger islands (Galiano, Mayne, Pender, Salt Spring, and Saturna), and a private boat or floatplane to smaller islands. Though not technically a Gulf Island (it sits in Howe Sound), Bowen Island is close enough to Vancouver that many residents commute downtown via ferry. On the smaller Gulf Islands, it's easy to walk or bike wherever you want to go. On Salt Spring, the largest and most visited of the southern Gulf Islands, rent a car or use public transit.

Where to Stay: Accommodations on Salt Spring range from the Relais & Chateaux luxury of Hastings House, an elegant, 22-acre, waterfront estate, to the rustic charms of 120-acre Foxglove Farm, where guests can prepare meals in their cottage or cabin using the organic farm's fruits, vegetables, and eggs. On Galiano, book a cabin on the island's quiet north end at Bodega Ridge. On Bowen Island, rent a cottage in Snug Cove so you can easily walk to the marina, restaurants, and shops.

Where to Eat or Drink: Pack a locally sourced lunch of Sturdies Bay Bakery organic spelt bread, Moonstruck Organic Cheese, and Laughing Apple Farm seasonal fruits and apple juice to picnic at Galiano's waterfront Bellhouse Provincial Park. On Salt Spring, family-run Auntie Pesto's serves up house-made ravioli, rice pasta topped with slow-cooked tomato sauce, and, of course, pesto, made from local organic basil, pine nuts, and garlic.

What to Read Before You Go: Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life (Greystone Books, 2009) is Brian Brett's award-winning narrative that uses a day on his Salt Spring Island farm to talk about our relationship with the rural world. Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea: The Southern Gulf Islands (Heritage House, 2012) contains detailed profiles of 93 beaches in the southern Gulf Islands, including descriptions and histories, hand-drawn maps, illustrations, and photos.

What to Buy: Shop Blue Horse Folk Art Gallery (open March-December, closed Sundays year-round) for original folk art animal sculptures, raku ceramics, and encaustic, or wax, paintings by Salt Spring artists Paul Burke and Anna Gustafson. At Galiano Island Soap Works on Trincomali Farms, stock up on artisan vegetable soaps made with island-grown ingredients like lavender and sea buckthorn.

Fun Fact: Hawaiian fur traders first settled Russell Island in the late 1800s. You can kayak or canoe there from Fulford Harbour in Salt Spring and visit the homestead where settler Maria Mahoi raised her 13 children. In July and August, you can chat with some of her direct descendants.

Masa Takei writes for several publications, including Canadian Geographic, Explore, and the Globe and Mail. Most recently he filmed a yearlong series of video diaries while building an off-grid cabin on Haida Gwaii.