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I Road-Tripped (and Ferried) My Way Around 6 British Columbia Islands

Wood-fired saunas, beach picnics, and cold plunges.

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Courtesy
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Courtesy

Everyone knows that person who spends weeks sniffing around travel blogs, going deep into Tripadvisor rabbit holes, collecting Google docs from friends of friends, and creating A Beautiful Mind–style spreadsheets to come up with the best vacations/itineraries possible. In this recurring series, we find those people who’ve done all the work for you and have them walk us through a particularly wonderful, especially well-thought-out vacation they took that you can actually steal.

During the pandemic, while international travel was off the table, the ceramicist Rachel Saunders decided to reacquaint herself with the islands in her “own backyard” — as in the peaceful, woodsy Gulf Islands clustered along the coast of British Columbia. Saunders lives in Victoria, Vancouver Island, but was born on Salt Spring Island and has traveled to various others throughout different points in her life. “They’re all very serene, a little hippie, and a bit magical, because they require either one to two ferryboat rides to get there,” she says.

Saunders planned each of her recent island visits around one specific landing place, like a cedar-shingled cottage with a wood sauna or a special-occasion dinner on one otherwise sleepy island. She takes the ferry from Vancouver Island, but for those coming from farther away, most of these islands can be reached by ferry or a short flight from the city of Vancouver, where you can also rent a car and camping equipment. (This region experienced catastrophic flooding in November “as a symptom of the current human-made climate crisis we face,” Saunders says. “In order to preserve the beauty and magic of British Columbia’s land, water, and communities, action is imperative.” For resources, Saunders recommends the organizations Indigenous Climate Action, the Last Stand, and Stand.) Once you’re on one Gulf Island, you can hop to another; here, Saunders shares how she’d string a few of them together, as well as the earth house, sheep farm, and kelp-and-lichen tasting menu to look for along the way.

Day 1

9 a.m.: Pick up local goat cheese

There’s a good chance that you see orca whales on the ferry ride from Victoria to Salt Spring Island (which is the unceded traditional territory of the Hul’q’umi’num’). To us islanders, it’s a monotonous commute. But if you hit it at sunset, during golden hour, it really is a phenomenal experience. That said, I usually try to go around 9 a.m. on a Saturday so I can coincide my arrival with a trip to the Salt Spring Saturday Market and pick up some provisions for the Airbnb. Salt Spring doesn’t have a ton of good restaurants, so when I go there, I’m generally wanting to make my own food. The island is famous for its goat cheese, and at the market, some of the cheese is made with gorgeous edible flowers on top. Salt Spring has a lot of sheep, so the market also sells these beautiful sheepskins, plus local vegetables and funny little handmade things. There’s usually some sort of pan-flute performance. It’s a hippie island.

10 a.m.: And coffee and a sesame loaf

There’s also a really incredible bakery called Francis Bread (125 Churchill Rd.). It recently had to close its café because of zoning issues — it was getting in trouble because of how popular it was — so right now, you have to order ahead and pick up on Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. I would definitely get a sesame loaf and an almond croissant. This is where I would pick up coffee, too. It’s locally roasted. For anything else, there’s a little health-food market called Natureworks (116 Lower Ganges Rd.) that’s a two-minute walk away.

3 p.m.: Check into your cedar-shingled Airbnb

Check-in for Airbnbs is usually at 3 p.m. This one is really amazing in how simple and private it is. It’s a tiny two-room shack with cedar shingles, which is such a beautiful West Coast look, and a wood-fired sauna, an outdoor shower, and an outdoor bathtub. My whole stay revolved around this amazing sauna. You just walk across the field from the house in a towel and get it going with the wood that’s provided. I would do it once in the morning and then once in the evening before bed. It has this bubble window you can sort of sit in, like a little perch to watch the stars.

Editor’s note: This Airbnb is not currently taking reservations, but this cabin (and this cabin) are open for booking.

7 p.m.: Make veggie tacos for dinner

A fun meal I’ve picked up for traveling is making fresh-pressed tortillas. You just buy a bag of masa (from the health food store in this case) and it’s a handy little trick so you don’t have to rely on fresh bread for every meal. I fried up some vegetables to go with the tortillas, and made a little bit of queso and some pickled onions. It made for a beautiful little tortilla-taco-thing.

Day 2

8 a.m.: Hike Mount Maxwell

In the morning, I’ll usually have yogurt, fresh berries, and granola for breakfast. Or, since I have the sesame loaf from Francis, I’ll have a slice with scrambled eggs from the market. Then I’d get out and go for a hike at Mount Maxwell. It’s a bumpy dirt road going up and definitely a 4x4 drive. You can stop wherever you want to get out, so it could be an hour-long hike or a 15-minute walk — choose your own adventure. Closer to the top, you get out, and it’s amazing raw, forested land everywhere around you, and a full view of the peninsula and the ocean and even Vancouver. I really like to take my time and do some forest bathing, get grounded. Usually I end up sitting and meditating in a patch of sun — whatever feels natural and easy to do.

2 p.m.: Take a quick cold plunge

After being up on the mountain, I’d make a point to go down to a point of water. Usually when I’m on these trips, it’s in pursuit of a body-mind reset, so I’ll find a spot for a cold plunge or a skinny-dip in a lake. Cusheon Lake is really beautiful. You can find some more private entry points if you just drive around and go beyond the public dock. Saint Mary Lake is nice for actual swimming.

6 p.m.: Have a pre-dinner beach picnic

In the evening, I’d go down to a beach with a bottle of wine and a picnic. I like Beddis Beach, and would bring a little thing of the locally made goat cheese, some olives, and some bread. Another good snack to have on hand is onigiri from Roly Poly Rice Ball. It’s a really sweet, tiny one-person business that does takeout on Fridays and Saturdays. As for wine, A Sunday in August is a favorite label of mine, and it just moved to Salt Spring. It’s pretty new, so you wouldn’t go visit or shop there yet, but the local BC Liquor Stores carry its stuff.

For dinner after the picnic, I’d keep it simple and use up the produce and vegetables from the farmers’ market, since tomorrow, it’s time to head to a new island.

Day 3

9 a.m.: Take the ferry to Galiano Island 

Get back on the ferry and head to Galiano Island. One of the top restaurants in Canada is here. It’s called Pilgrimme (2806 Montague Rd.), and I’ve really only gone to Galiano to eat there, because Galiano is very small otherwise. Ideally, I would have made a reservation well in advance so I can dine in, but if I didn’t, it also offers amazing wood-fired pizza to go.

11 a.m.: Set up camp

Once I arrive on the island, I’ll head to Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park to pitch a tent. From what I understand, Airbnb and lodging options are sparse on Galiano, and this is how I usually travel anyway: with a tent, sleeping bag, mat, and pillow in the back of my car. It’s a gorgeous campsite, all white because it’s covered with seashells. I’d get in, get settled, then drive around the island for a bit. I usually make a playlist before my trips of island-y songs to match the mood. These islands feel like a time capsule, and the people living on them could be draft dodgers, or some revolutionary off-the-grid types who built their homes in the 1960s and 1970s. That naturally coincides with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, maybe some George Harrison.

6 p.m.: Eat a prix-fixe meal in your camping clothes

I’ve been to dine at Pilgrimme three times. You’re in this cedar-shingle house, in the middle of the forest, being fed a ten-course tasting-menu affair with kelp that’s literally from the nearby beach or sea asparagus from right down the road. One time, I ate this incredible dehydrated lichen dish from moss on a tree. Any meat they serve is raised right down the road. They make an amazing sourdough, and the most incredible broths. But it’s not at all stuffy. It’s a fine-dining experience, but you can go in your camping clothes. I’ve worked with Pilgrimme in the past on some custom décor and plateware. The owner and chef Jesse has created something so special. They really suffered through the pandemic, dealing with cancellations and power outages, but they just keep going, keep feeding people. It’s a showstopper for sure.

Day 4

9 a.m.: Head to Mayne Island

Wake up and make some coffee with my camping equipment. Then I check the ferry schedule diligently because these smaller islands have fewer times, and there’s possibly only one boat for the day. (I’ve been taking the ferry since I was a baby, and to this day I will get it wrong.) Then I’d go to Mayne Island.

3 p.m.: Check into your earth house

I wanted to go to Mayne because of Cob Cottage, an earth house that’s usually booked up a year in advance. Randomly, during the pandemic, I was able to make a booking. It was my dream to experience an earth house, and the one I stayed in was so infused with love and it just mirrored it back to you. It’s like you’re in this living, breathing entity. There are these inlaid alcoves everywhere, and a gorgeous shower inlaid with beach rocks. As someone who works with the earth and with clay, it’s my ultimate goal and dream to make one of these myself. It’s very unique for us humans to be in a space that’s curved and soft and rounded. These houses aren’t conventional structured cornered boxes, and I think being in that environment softens you.

So this was my destination. It’s a beautiful cottage down a long road on a sheep farm. I was lucky to go in the spring when the sheep were lambs, and they were everywhere. Every morning I’d wake up to the lambs at the glass door, wanting attention and to be fed, and it was like a fairy tale. There was also a llama who has unfortunately since passed. But he had a large presence at the time. There’s a family who lives in a house on the property; they’re super-lovely and very hands-off hosts. And the cottage is secluded, so you feel like you’re in your own world.

7 p.m.: Make fresh pita and Greek salads for dinner

I have this Greek cookbook that I love to look at, called Vefa’s Kitchen, and I brought it with me on this trip. This night I decided to cook from it, because there was a wood-fired oven that was available. I made a simple dough to make pita bread. Then a Greek salad, some roasted potatoes, super-lemony, and some tzatziki, and then wrapped it all up. Mayne has a really cute little grocery store, Farm Gate Store (568 Fernhill Rd.), which is where I’d pick up all my produce and ingredients.

Day 5

11 a.m.: Walk the land, read, nap, microdose

Made a fire in the morning, which was nice. Made some coffee, meditated. There’s nothing else to do here, so it’s just about enjoying the home. There’s a ton of amazing books around, a lot of which are about natural building techniques. There’s definitely a nap in my day. On these trips, I usually try to do some writing and some reflective work. Besides that, I’d go for a walk to see the island. Lay down the blanket outside. Take some photos. I love getting to a place where you can take in every minute, work a little slower, and just enjoy the time to languish. I also find it’s a good place to take some mushrooms, whether it’s a microdose or macrodose. If you’re coming to Mayne — or any of these islands — from the city, you will not be used to this level of quiet, where you can hear frogs or crickets. It slows you down. I was talking to the host of Cob Cottage recently, and she said she still gets emails from people saying that their stay there changed their life, or they decided to go in a new direction in life afterwards.

Day 6

9 a.m.: Start the journey to Hollyhock

The last leg of the journey requires some more intensive travel: You have to take the ferry back to Victoria, then drive north up the island for about four or five hours, and then take two ferries, one to Quadra Island and then one to Cortes Island (which is the unceded traditional territories of the Homalco, Tla’amin, and Klahoose First Nations) to get to Hollyhock.

I had wanted to go to Hollyhock for quite a few years. It’s like Esalen in Big Sur, where I’ve visited and volunteered before. It’s a health and wellness institute, but it also offers stays, so you can just go and pay for your accommodation. That includes three meals a day that are prepared for you from its garden. It’s like the most incredible all-inclusive hippie resort experience, where you stay in a little cottage or cabin in the woods, and you’re fed three amazing full meals a day.

Day 7

8 a.m.: Sip chilled ginger tea

I’d start in the mornings around 8 a.m. at the coffee and tea bar. They had his cold ginger tea on tap that I loved. Every day is a different meal, so it might be pancakes with fruit compote, or scrambled eggs with herbs from the garden. Then lunch is vegan pizza (it’s all vegan, actually) and salad, or a Greek meal. Every plate comes with a beautiful flower from the garden on it. They have two kinds of famous cookbooks, so they’re definitely known for their food.

11 a.m.: Sign up for yoga or mushroom-hunting courses — or don’t  

Other than that, it’s all about going to a yoga class, or going to the clothing-optional beach, or reading in the library, or walking the grounds. There are no rules or signs anywhere saying “don’t touch this.” It’s an educational center, so they have different courses — like Paul Stamets, he does a famous course there in the fall where you go and look for mushrooms, and it always sells out in seconds. I didn’t partake in any of this on this trip; I just wanted to be.

One of the big pillars of these trips is nature and rest, which I think are the birthright of everyone and very important right now. There was another earth structure there built in the 1980s called the sanctuary, where you can go in for a silent self-guided meditation. I spent plenty of time there. It’s in the middle of an orchard, and in the middle of summer, there’s fresh fruit dropping from the trees and sunflowers the size of dinner plates. I booked my stay for four nights, but then extended for another night because I couldn’t bear to leave.

Rachel’s British Columbia Islands Packing List

A pair of thick, cozy socks

A must for chilly island nights. Bonus points when worn with sandals. This tie-dyed pair of Maggie’s Organics always seem to come along with me.

A dry brush

Going on a little local retreat is largely about resetting and usually revolves around water — either an outdoor tub or shower, or the ocean or lakes. I like to slow down and get back into the self-care habits I abandon in my busy daily life, and dry-brushing before a dip to support my lymphatic system is one of those practices I take extra time for when I’m away.

Incense

To cleanse and make any environment immediately feel like home. This gorgeous woody blend is a perfect match to a cabin in the woods.

An incense holder

I always pack one in my bag to follow me to the bath and to the bedside. I also started a ritual of leaving a ceramic piece behind at the places I stay at for the next guests to use, and this is a good one for that.

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The COVID-19 situation there: Canada is open to fully vaccinated travelers from the United States. Anyone who has traveled to a select group of other countries within 14 days of entering Canada may be subject to quarantine upon arrival. The situation is changing frequently, so we recommend keeping an eye on the Government of Canada’s travel guidelines.
I Road-Tripped My Way Around 6 British Columbia Islands