Normally this time of year finds us on the deck of a B&B on heavenly Saltspring Island, sipping wine and watching the sunset over Vesuvius Bay, a mere 20-minute ferry ride from Vancouver Island. Regrettably, we had to forgo our annual jaunt this summer for many reasons, the biggest one being that we need to save vacation days for Bali (three weeks!) in the fall. C’est la vie. Summer in the city ain’t so bad.
Saltspring is artist’s haven nestled within the southern Gulf Islands, about halfway between Nanaimo and Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia (and our home). As noted on the official Saltspring website,”there are over ten thousand human residents on Salt Spring Island, several thousand sheep and a sizeable deer population.” That pretty much sums it up.
With its close proximity to Victoria, Saltspring makes a great scenic getaway. (A perfect little day trip, too, if you’re so inclined.) We’ve been going there together for years, starting with the summer we got engaged on the island’s ocean-side campground (more about that shortly).
So, I’m going to tell you about some of the Saltspring things we’ll be missing this year, including the brilliant weirdness it has to offer.
1. Ruckle Park
The camping here is breathtaking. Picture a wide-open field perched on top of a cliff, where you can sit back and watch the sailboats, ferries, and big ships go by. Walk along the rocky beach below, feeling the hot stones on your feet as you explore the tidal pools teeming with starfish and crab. The first time I camped here, I fell in love with it. The next time was with my true love, complete with a proposal setting of sea, stars, and a bottle of Wolf Blass Black Label.
2. Saturday Hippie Market
Famous for its patchouli-scented weirdness, this weekly seasonal market offers everything from dog treats to homemade jams and jellies, colourful pottery, hemp clothing, jewlery, and, uh, ‘rarities’ like utensil wind chimes. You can sample local island delicacies such as chocolate and goat cheeses, all while perusing fresh local produce and to-die-for-breads. Watch for six-year-olds playing the violin – or autoharp, or recorder, or whatever – right in the middle of it all.
There are several wineries on the island, our faves being Garry Oaks and a relatively new one called Mistaken Identity. Garry Oaks is known for its Fetish, a tasty blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Take a stroll through the lush vineyards at either one – you can practically pluck the grapes off the vine yourself. But don’t – think of the wine!
4. A Mix of Hippie Cool and Upscale Eateries. And Just Plain, Good-old Seaside Eats.
I can’t say enough about SSI’s choice of resos. It’s got upscale European, such as the English tudor-style Hastings House and House Piccolo, tried-and-true Moby’s Pub overlooking the marina, and the local favourite Seaside Kitchen. On the latter, you almost have to be local to find the entrance and the washrooms (watch out that someone from the kitchen doesn’t walk in on you!). It’s also got the best view of ferry-watching that side of the island.
Hands-down, our casual fave is the Tree House Cafe – a funky, outdoor establishment framed by – you guessed it – trees. It’s kinda like dining à la Swiss Family Robinson. This gem of a place offers big and bold breakfasts complete with thick multigrain toast and homemade berry jam. It’s the perfect setting for a hangover-style brunch, or for evening drinks with live folk music as accompaniment. Also a prime spot for people watching: one time we witnessed a guy getting pooped on by the many little birdies inhabiting the trees.
5. Hidden Watering Holes
It seems there’s one around every corner of the island. Whenever we camped on Ruckle, we would stop by a particular one en route to the Fulford ferry terminal to cool off (it’s always sunny on Saltspring – I think it’s almost an island “rule”). Locals and tourists alike swarm this tiny beach, stretching their towels on every bit of available sand. The lake is not too cold, not too deep – just right with a small dock that’s perfect for sunbathing when you just can’t stand the dogs anymore. As long as you don’t mind the kids diving off and splashing everywhere about every five minutes, that is.
One early trip we stumbled upon what we fondly nicknamed “Bits and Bites Bongo Beach” – a long, narrow, tree-lined path opened up to reveal dreadlocked bongo players and, well, hirsute women. Did I mentioned they’re naked?
Above all though, the warmest swimming beach on the island is Vesuvius Bay. I swear we see the same old leathery guy swimming laps in the ocean back and forth every time we stay there.
6. Pixie Pies – and Other Random Roadside Stands
Dotted all over the island are roadside stands with a variety of offerings via the honour system: produce, flowers, lemonade, jams, cookies, and pies. The first time I saw this little cupboard containing the mini-est of pies, I was charmed – but I didn’t have any change. Every time I’ve gone back – armed with coins – the box has been empty. Those pixies are a fickle lot. So, while I’ve thus far never got to try a Pixie Pie, this image will stay with me forever.
7. Long & Winding Roads…
And lots of hills. Saltspring is a perfect setting to learn how to drive a standard (I just had to sneak a pic of the car in there). Imagine the bottom of a very steep hill, my foot on the gas and popping the clutch. A squeal of tires and I was off. We laughed until we cried (and I tried not to wet myself in the process).
8. Famous Local Residents
Saltspring is a home to such celebs as BTO’s Randy Bachman and the artist Robert Bateman, both of whom have residences there. I’ve never seen either of them – then again, that may be the point.
9. The Seafood and the Sea
You can’t beat prawns caught fresh off the boat. Or smoked salmon and crab cakes from a funny little fisherman’s hut called The Fishery, just north of the main town, Ganges. All amazing paired with a glass of cold Pinot Gris on the deck overlooking Ganges Harbour, or the wide-open ocean off Ruckle Park, Fernwood, or Vesuvius Bay.
10. That Laid-back, Small Town Feel
What I love most about Saltspring, though, is the people. They all seem to support each other: such as the local cheese factory displaying their culinary delights on another local artist’s ceramic dish. Best of all, even as a tourist, they remember you (hard not to when we keep coming back every year, I suppose). Case in point: every time we go to market, we stop by our favourite pottery stand to say hi to Annie. One time we picked out some dishes and then shopped around while she wrapped it up. It was only when we got back to Victoria and unwrapped the goods did we notice that she snuck in an extra little nut bowl with a note saying “Happy 4th Anniversary.” Then there was the time when Dan, our B&B host and a captain on the ferry that runs from Vesuvius to Crofton, greeted us over the boat’s loudspeaker with “Welcome back, Cam and Shari” while we were sunning on the B&B deck. Now that’s what I call the personal touch.