Life is a little softer on the Gulf Islands. Time moves slower, smiles come easier. So if you’re planning a mid-week escape, it makes sense that the journey there should be a little softer too.
You can get to Salt Spring Island from both Victoria and Vancouver using BC Ferries, but you’ll be one or two storeys above the salty brine of the ocean, slightly removed from the sea life and a little too connected to modern stresses. Why not take a smaller skiff, and make a few pitstops along the way to commune with seals and seabirds?
That was the inspiration for the new Taste of Salt Spring Island tour from Sidney Whale Watching, which combines a wildlife boat tour with a guided land tour of the island’s finest artisanal food and drinks.
“We know there is so much to offer on both land and sea and we wanted to create a tour where our guests could have both experiences in one day,” says Megan Leblanc from Sidney Whale Watching.
Captain Cal shepherds us gently through the sailboats and yachts anchored at Port Sidney Marina before bringing the 12-passenger aluminum boat up to cruising speed. The wind whips our hair, and we leave the busy city mentality in our wake. I’d forgotten how thrilling a little boat can be, even an extremely stable one outfitted with all the safety gear to meet Transport Canada wildlife viewing standards. I’m also glad I brought a jacket, even though it’s a warm summer day.
We whiz past the sprawling sand of Sidney Spit at low tide and check in on the largest seabird colony in the Strait of Georgia, roosting on the cliffs of Mandarte Island. A few islands over, families of seals are sunning on the rocks with their pups. Orcas and humpbacks are often passing through these waters so I keep my eyes peeled, but no such luck on this day.
At Salt Spring’s Fulford Harbour we’re welcomed by Jason Griffin, owner and operator of Tour Salt Spring, who ushers us up the dock to his ‘only on Salt Spring’ tour van. The first thing I notice is the rustic wooden bumper and other hand-made details and Jason explains that the van is powered by used vegetable oil from a local restaurant, meaning that our tour is officially carbon neutral.
It’s a short drive to Salt Spring Island Cheese, where founder David Wood has been crafting quality goat cheese since 1996. After establishing a gourmet food store in Toronto, Wood sought a change-of-pace on Salt Spring and soon made a name for himself again with “simply the best tasting and looking cheese you will find, from one of the most beautiful islands in the world,” according to their website.
The shop is well designed for visitors, with windows into every stage of the cheesemaking process, complimentary tastings and a summer café. My favourite was chilli feta with apricot and chilli spread, but it’s impossible to go wrong. It was a little early for ice cream on our visit, but a reporter’s duty never sleeps and the chocolate goat milk gelato was smooth, sweet and betrayed no hint of farm flavour.
Through the island’s commercial centre in Ganges (don’t worry, there’s no traffic) is our next stop, Salt Spring Wild, which uses the island’s historic and diverse apple trees to make a wide variety of traditional and modern ciders. Salt Spring Island was once the province’s hub for apple orchards and still boasts more than 450 varieties, celebrated every fall at the Salt Spring Island Apple Festival.
Founded in 2015, Salt Spring Wild opened with a clear vision, well executed. Apples are gathered from properties all over the island — helping locals manage the harvest from heritage trees and giving tree owners a financial boost. An old barn has been renovated into a chic tasting room, a covered patio offers full-service dining, and picnic tables a few steps further mean there are options for more relaxed dining as well.
Sometimes Gulf Islands can be so laid back that service suffers, but at Salt Spring Wild you’ll find the perfect balance of earthy authenticity and polished hospitality.
Between stops, Jason points out local landmarks and shares some of the island’s history — first settled by the Saanich, Cowichan and Chemainus First Nations, it also welcomed African American, Japanese and Hawaiian settlers who first arrived in the late 1800s.
In recent decades Salt Spring Island has attracted a different kind of immigrant — Canadians moving from other parts of the country, bringing with them exceptional artistic and dining-related talents. Cordon Bleu Chefs and former restaurant owners Michael and Rie Papp are two examples, moving to the island and soon starting the artisanal distillery Salt Spring Shine. It’s a small shop on a quiet, rural property, but it’s rich with their own creative projects and features work from other artists as well. We listen to the record player and take in the vibrant paintings of Sandra Albo while sipping on moonshine, gin and vodka made from local honey.
Our tour ambles along, never hurried and never dull. We pass tourists exploring the island by e-bike and locals relaxing next to the lake. At Garry Oaks Estate Winery we take a short stroll through the vineyard rows and soak in the mountain views before tasting a surprising variety of award-winning reds and whites grown on the modest estate. The pinot noir is a favourite, based on the purchases of our tour group at least.
Tucked into a healthy cedar and fir forest next to a natural spring is our last stop, Salt Spring Brewing Co. After 24 years in business it’s no spring chicken on the B.C. craft beer scene, and carries a nice balance of ground-breakers and beers that go down easy. Don’t leave without tasting the Heather Ale, brewed from an ancient recipe, using heather flowers from Victoria’s Butchart Gardens.
Jason from Tour Salt Spring leaves us at Fulford Harbour with half an hour to spare — enough time for a relaxing walk through the shops or a peaceful rest in the sun, listening to the waves lapping at the dock. Captain Cal shows up right on time, carrying us gently back to reality in time for dinner.
Sidney Whale Watching’s Taste of Salt Spring Tour runs through October 2022, and is also available as a private charter.
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