The barnacled docks at Tsawwassen, south of the city of Vancouver, fade into the distance as the ferry begins to thread its way through the emerald Gulf Islands dotting the Strait of Georgia. Salt breezes brush your hair under skies so blue that they look transparent. The sounds and smells of urban America are blown away with one cool, cleansing breath as wide bands of kelp stream--ribbon-like--behind the ferry.
Dinner awaits in the Gulf Islands, which can be reached by ferry across waters where pods of whales sometimes surface and whistling eagles carve graceful arcs.
Take your car on the ferry or leave it behind in Vancouver. Six incredibly beautiful islands are waiting with inns and restaurants offering lovely food as a delicious lure. Take seven days and do all six or select just one. Or visit several and spend a few days at each, relaxing in the welcoming arms of the inns.
It's possible to spend a week or a lifetime exploring the Gulf Islands: 200 tiny jewels southwest of the city of Vancouver. Mild enough to grow both cactus and kiwi, some islands are a bit pastoral, others are still forested and a bit wild. Locals can point out the sheltered, beachy coves where a picnic is shared with only tiny crabs and perhaps a sandpiper.
Fishing and sailing charters can be booked at many of the major marinas. Scuba diving is exquisite in countless sheltered bays where, if the diver is lucky, swimming companions will be playful seals.
A summertime Gulf Islands adventure could be orchestrated as follows:
From Tsawwassen, take the ferry 50 minutes west to Woodstone Inn on Galiano Island. Woodstone sits amid nine acres of forest laced with walking trails. The innkeepers even provide gumboots for tramping through the woods on self-guided nature walks--a perfect way to work up an appetite for the inn's northwest cuisine, which celebrates seafood and other local ingredients.
Chef Dean Mollon uses as many locally grown foods as possible in his dishes; even the eggs are from the inn's own farm. Breakfast is served only to guests. It may be poached eggs with local smoked salmon in a bath of bearnaise, or a steaming stack of orange-laced buckwheat pancakes with island-made herb sausages.
The 12 rooms--named Sweet Pea, Buttercup, Hawthorn and the like, after flowers growing nearby--make a perfect base from which to explore the rest of the 22-mile-long island.
After golfing, hiking, sailing, kayaking and eating, it may be time to hop on a late-morning ferry for the 20-minute trip to Mayne Island. Mayne is "not a place to do, but a place to be," according to Mary Crumblehume of Fernhill Lodge and Herbfarm on Mayne Island.
Crumblehume and her husband, Brian, have been providing authentic "historical" dinners for nearly four years. From Roman to Renaissance, the Crumblehumes create historically accurate dishes such as oysters swimming in a cumin sauce or flowers folded into cheesecake. The acres of garden are filled to bursting with more than 150 varieties of herbs.
A dozen strains of mint, a half-dozen of oregano, a multitude of sages, lemon verbena, lovage and basil all provide inspiration for what the Crumblehumes call their "farmhouse menu." Depending on the season, it's possible to dine on zucchini with herbs and pimento, saffron pasta with pesto and minted fresh strawberries.
Visit the Active Pass Lightstation (circa 1884), which is open to the public from 1 to 3 p.m. daily. Lightkeeper Don De Roussie sometimes can be persuaded to take a visitor to the top.
Like the other Gulf Islands, tiny Mayne is an artist's haven. The Artery (landscapes/pottery), The House of Taylor (weaving/island crafts) and Charter House (weaving/hand-spun wool) are three small galleries that represent the local art scene.
Oceanwood Country Inn, which has a fabulous view overlooking Navy Channel, specializes in local seafood. Among the treasures are such dishes as juicy scallops and shrimp in a fresh basil sauce over herb pasta or thyme-and-fennel-spiked tomato sauce with chunks of perfect Pacific snapper.
In season, there may be a British Columbia wild mushroom salad. Northwest wines are offered by the glass so that it's possible to sample a range of vintages. The small dining room is open to the public for dinners and Sunday brunches. The innkeepers, Jonathan and Marilyn Chilvers, provide bicycles for guests who choose not to lounge by the hot pool or take a sauna in the garden.
Next sail to North Pender Island for the Saturday market of vegetables, bakery, vinegars and all sorts of crafts at Driftwood Centre. The ferry docks at Otter Bay Terminal.
There the hungry traveler will find Cliffside Inn-on-the-Sea: a romantic getaway two miles from the Otter Bay Terminal. For an energetic workout, rent a bike at the Otter Bay Marina and pedal up to the small inn that sits on the lip of the cliff overlooking Mt. Baker. Hikers may enjoy navigating a stairway that plummets down to water's edge. Owner Penny Tomlin harvests her garden daily to present the freshest food to her guests. Note: Only registered guests may dine.
Chilled fruit and tomato soups highlight the summer menu, while Penny's hearty black bean soup, a pot of bubbling cheddary dip and some crusty bread warm the souls of winter storm watchers.
In addition to a great little nine-hole golf course, North Pender has among the best beaches of any of the Gulf Islands. And fishermen can catch perch all day long off the Port Browning Marina dock and then, at 4 p.m., as is the custom, feed the fish to waiting eagles. There's a restaurant called the Port Browning Marina at the marina that locals claim has the best hamburgers and freshest fish and chips in the Pacific Northwest.
Don't miss Malcolm and Marie Armstrong's Marine and Wild Bird Art Gallery near the Port Washington Dock, which is surrounded by Marie's 80 bird feeders.
Summer theater, an excellent bakery called Campbell's (try the eccles cakes--flaky Scottish pastry stuffed with currants), fishing charters, miles of cycling trails, even an archeological dig, are all part of Pender's bounty. But for those who can pull themselves away, there is reward waiting 45 minutes away at Saltspring Island.
Roads lined with holly, fields with grazing lambs, and a funky Saturday market complete with crystal and incense vendors in the town of Ganges are all part of life on this, the largest and most developed of the Gulf Islands.
Buy picnic ingredients at the market--sourdough rye with caraway, fresh fruit and a small bottle of opal basil or tarragon vinegar to anoint the thinly sliced Ganges smoked salmon. A wine store is around the corner, and the Mobile Market sells organic veggies.
Also on Saltspring Island, at least one meal should be taken at Hastings House, one of British Columbia's finest inns. On the menu: rack of Saltspring Island lamb with pear chutney, wild salmon pouch filled with sea scallops, shrimp with a maple butter sauce, warm pear and rhubarb charlotte with vanilla ice cream, and organically grown British Columbia blueberries with Sambuca ice cream.
To leave Saltspring and travel north on the Crofton Ferry to Vancouver Island, park the car in line and spend the waiting period resting on the porch of the Vesuvius Pub. The old log structure has long been a landmark and, while the driver drinks coffee, passengers can sample a whole range of great brews. The pub can provide a hearty lunch of locally made bratwurst with Vancouver Island beer before the 20-minute ferry ride is launched to Vancouver Island.
After landing, take Highway 1 north. At Campbell River, it will be time to stop for outstanding fresh salmon sushi at Koto, a small Japanese cafe downtown. Then board the ferry for a 15-minute ride to Quadra Island and April Point Lodge. It's a true family operation.
Phyllis Peterson, who founded the lodge with her husband in the 1940s, is now over 80 years old and still in the kitchen baking cinnamon buns. And there are few better places to learn how to fish for salmon. Should a trophy finally be landed, the fisherman can have it preserved with a print of the fish, using Japanese ink on rice paper or fabric. The fish is then carefully cleansed so that it can be pan-fried or given a swim in a boozy marinade before being grilled over alder branches.
For the grand total of $1,275, Eric Peterson can arrange the picnic of a lifetime for four: a helicopter ride to Friendly Cove at Nootka Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island, where Captain Cook is said to have landed.
In this idyllic, isolated place, accessible only by boat and chopper, the hungry visitor can spread a blanket among the Indian paintbrush weeds, crack open steamed Dungeness crab while the guide grills fresh prawns and oysters over a beach-side fire. Chilled wine, lodge-baked bread and carefully packed salads emerge from the picnic basket.
For a bit of exercise, visit the little chapel with its magnificent stained-glass windows nestled between the cove and the Pacific Ocean, pick a handful of wild blackberries that have now entangled the old town site, then return to the blanket for a sliver of Phyllis Peterson's legendary apple pie.
Back on Quadra, cycle or drive from April Point to the exceptional Kwakiutl Museum, which is full of potlatch memorabilia and artwork both on display and for sale. Petroglyphs are visible in the museum parking lot and along the high tide line at Wakie Beach and Francisco Point.
Spring and autumn cooking extravaganzas are held at April Point. Star Northwest chefs lecture and demonstrate. But for the adventurous, late September also brings a chance to swim with the spawning salmon down one of British Columbia's icy rivers.
A limited number of guests are supplied with wet suits and flippers before they are pushed gently into the current. They swoop over rocky shallows and deep pools where the fish are spawning. At the river's mouth, a van from April Point will be waiting to return the swimmers to the lodges' warming fires . . . and perhaps a hot toddy or two.
GUIDEBOOK: Ferryboats to B.C. Food
Ferry service: Ferry reservations for cars are required to many of the Gulf Islands. Prices range from $5-$20, including car: 1112 Fort Street, Victoria, B.C. V8V 4V2. Call 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, (604) 386-3431.
Where to dine and stay: Reservations for dinner and lodging are essential at most inns. Woodstone Country Inn, R.R. 1, Georgeson Bay Road, Galiano Island, B.C. VON 1P0, (604) 539-2022 (dinner for two, about $36). Fernhill Lodge and Herb Farm, Fernhill Road, Box 140, Mayne Island, B.C. VON 2J0, (604) 539-2544 (dinner for two, about $45). Oceanwood Country Inn, 640 Dinner Bay Road, Mayne Island, B.C. VON 2J0, (604) 539-5074 (dinner for two, about $45). Cliffside Inn-On-The-Sea, Armadale Road, North Pender Island, B.C. VON 2M0, (604) 629-6691 (dinner for two, about $50-60). Hastings House, 160 Upper Ganges Road, Ganges, Salt Spring Island, B.C. VOS 1E0, (800) 661-9255 or (604) 537-2362 (dinner for two, about $80). Vesuvius Pub, at the Crofton ferry dock, (604) 537-2312 (dinner for two, about $13). Koto Japanese Restaurant, No. 80 10th Ave., Campbell River, (604) 286-1422 (dinner for two, about $35-40). April Point Lodge, Box 1, Campbell River, B.C. V9W 4Z9, (604) 285-2222 (dinner for two, about $50-$60, closed November through late April.)
For more information: Contact the Tourism Assn. of Vancouver Island, 302-45 Bastion Square, Victoria, B.C. V8V 1J1, (604) 382-3551. Or Tourism British Columbia at (800) 663-6000. Ask for the latest accommodations list, a map of the Gulf Islands and guidebook.