A holiday season scene in downtown Ganges on Saltspring Island. Photo by Bob Rogers/Saltspring Photography Club

Tess van Straaten: Getting away to the Gulf Islands

Escaping the hustle and bustle of the holidays is within reach for you

Tess van Straaten

Monday Magazine columnist

As soon as I drive off the ferry and onto Gabriola Island, I feel like I’m a million miles away. The stunning scenery, laid-back pace and multitude of adventures awaiting us make the stress of a busy week melt away. I’m on ‘island time’ now, as I squeeze in a much-needed Gulf Islands getaway to re-charge my batteries for the holiday season.

Monday Magazine columnist Tess van Straaten

“My favourite thing is being able to relax, breathe and take time for yourself,” says Jayne Lloyd-Jones of Spectacular Ink, who lives on Salt Spring and does PR for the Southern Gulf Islands. “You leave the stress of your daily life at home and immerse yourself in a gentler, slower pace.”

Our first stop is Descanso Bay, which literally means ‘Bay of Rest’ in Spanish. Just a short jaunt from the ferry terminal, we’re immersed in nature and walking out onto the sandstone that forms the shoreline Gabriola’s famous for.

Here, and at the spectacular Malaspina Galleries sandstone cavern that’s our next stop, I can’t help but think this is what the surface of the moon must be like. Even my 12-year-old son, Tate, is impressed by the raw, untouched beauty of the landscape as we carefully make our way over the slippery rocks at low tide.

Venturing into the forest, we explore amazing hiking trails all over the small island – including the towering trees of Elder Cedar Nature Reserve that are hundreds of years old. But surprisingly, despite it being the weekend, we seem to have most of the trails and provincial and regional parks to ourselves.

“The Southern Gulf Islands are great places to visit off-season because there are fewer visitors, so locals have time to chat and offer local insights, and you can find space and time for yourself,” explains Lloyd-Jones.

As the largest island, and one with a thriving arts and culinary scene, Salt Spring is the most popular weekend escape and it’s easy to see why.

“The top three things to do would be a hike up high to see the views of the surrounding islands from Mount Maxwell or Mount Erskine, grabbing a coffee and some locally-made baked goods at a favourite spot in Ganges, Fernwood or Fulford and wandering to the closest beach, and going gallery-hopping in Ganges and beyond to soak up the local art scene,” says Lloyd-Jones.

We decide to do all three and it’s hard to pick a favourite. After an exhilarating hike, the view from Mount Maxwell makes us feel like we’re on top of the world. Then, after grabbing some yummy treats at the Fernwood Road Café, we walk across the street and down the bright red Fernwood dock (a popular local crabbing spot) before beachcombing at low tide. Energized from all the fresh air and healing power of nature, it’s time for some retail therapy at some of the unique and eclectic artists’ studios and galleries.

With late-night shopping, Christmas markets and special evening events, locals say December is one of the best times of the year to visit. It’s also when most of us probably need a relaxing getaway the most.

“You’ll slow right down, you’ll breathe easier and you’ll find time to re-arrange your priorities,” Lloyd-Jones says.

And that’s the best holiday gift I could give myself and my children.

Tess van Straatentravel

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The sandstone rocks lining the beaches on Gabriola Island make for an interesting attraction for visitors. Tess van Straaten/Monday Magazine

A visitor to the beach at Gabriola Island sits surrounded by eroding sandstone rocks. Photo by Tess van Straaten

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