A Trip to the Gulf Islands, the San Juans’ Canadian Cousins

A Gulf Islands trip delivers a calming adventure with thrills of a different kind

By Hilary Meyerson July 31, 2018


This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

This article is part of the cover story for the August 2018 issue. Find more from the story hereClick here to subscribe.

Paddling a kayak is a form of meditation: The rhythmic dipping of the paddle is hypnotic, and the magic of quietly gliding as you propel yourself across the water is an intensely satisfying experience. For those looking for an adrenaline rush, head for white water. For a truly serene experience in the great outdoors, kayak with a friend through pristine waters, like those of the Southern Gulf Islands.

The Gulf Islands are the Canadian cousins of our San Juan Islands, located in the waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia and separated from the San Juans by the arbitrary zigzagging line of national boundaries. Like the San Juans, each of the main Gulf Islands (there are more than 200, but the southern ones of Salt Spring, Galiano, Pender and Mayne are the most visited) has its own unique personality and is worth exploring. They are all easy ferry hops from Victoria or Vancouver, and even faster by seaplane.

For our kayak adventure, my friend and I chose Pender Island—actually two islands, North Pender and South Pender, connected by a small bridge. It’s the perfect blend of charming coastal towns, forested hills, open farmland and, of course, miles of Instagram-worthy beaches. Covering about 13 square miles and home to a few more than 2,000 permanent residents, it’s a perfect place to spend a few days exploring. Though the island is small, visitors enjoy exploring its art galleries, farmers market and the multitude of outdoor activities, from golf to cycling to scuba diving. There are numerous restaurants, a mustn’t-miss winery and several spas to indulge in—in short, a lovely destination for some R & R.

For kayaking relaxation, a Gulf Island trip is unmatched: The waters around the islands are unique for their calm. That was perfect for this trip because I was traveling with a friend who was a kayaking novice. We were looking for relaxation and breathtaking scenery, not a battle with rough seas and choppy waters.

We chose a guided tour for our three-hour adventure. While the waters are calm, changing currents and tides create risk, and putting yourself in the hands of a guide is always a good idea. We left from Port Browning Marina, where owner of Pender Island Kayak Adventures, Jay Raichura, met us with his friendly dog. He quickly got us outfitted and gave us a dryland paddle demonstration and safety talk before leading us down to the dock to launch. We opted for single kayaks, which I think gives a better experience of maneuverability and fun, though doubles are great when one person might be less experienced or looking for a less rigorous outing. Jay’s dog was sad to be left behind and barked his disapproval as we glided away. Our guide quickly adjusted to our pace and alternated between sharing facts and history of the area and letting us enjoy the quiet beauty of the harbor.

Photograph Courtsey of Twin Island Cider; Heirloom varieties of apples and pears found on Pender Island are used to make Twin Island Cider which has a tasting room on Pender.

With glassy water making the way easy, we were free to look around. Vertical striations in the massive rocks on shore give a hint to the original formation of the islands: These were once the ocean floor, but have been pushed up by the pressures of tectonic plates. We also passed a beach that was the site of a former First Nations site midden, a place where piles of leftovers from decades of harvests had been left.

However, the real stars were the marine life. The water here is crystal clear—it’s no wonder the area is a big draw for scuba divers. Our kayaks nimbly navigated the numerous coves and tidal zones with minimal effort. Jay pulled a massive bull kelp out to reveal shield back kelp crabs clinging to it far down its stalk. We let them slip back down as we continued on our way. Sea stars and sea urchins were colorful and abundant, and our kayaks let us cruise over them in shallow water.  We saw several seals and even glimpsed a river otter. Jay pointed out nests of eagles, ospreys and herons in tall trees perched on rocky hillsides overlooking the water.

Photograph by Chris Istace; Stop at Browning Maria Pub for tasty seafood.

As we paddled back toward the marina, Jay gave us time to chat and discover new sights on our own. Then we fell silent, lost for a few minutes in our paddling meditation and the quiet sounds of the harbor.  Stroke, glide, stroke, glide. Watching the kayak skim through the water with barely a ripple, I felt the magic of the tranquility of Pender Island. When we reached the dock, a happy dog was barking a welcome home.

Getting There
Pender Island is a two-hour ferry ride from Vancouver’s Tsawwassen terminal, which is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle. Or, visitors can take the car ferry from Anacortes to Victoria (about two hours) and drive from there to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, which will take you right to Pender (another one and a half hours). You can also take a seaplane from Vancouver to Pender.

If You Go

Where to Stay: Poets Cove Resort and Spa. The resort offers luxury accommodations with rooms, cottages and villas, and a full-service marina. Rooms range between $500 and $600. South Pender Island, 9801 Spalding Road; 250.629.2100.

Where to Eat:
Port Browning Marina Pub. Don’t miss the local mussels and score a spot on the deck, which overlooks the harbor (and the disc golf course). North Pender Island, 4605 Oak Road; 250.629.3493.

Syrens Bistro and Lounge. This lively pub in the Poets Cove Resort has great local fare and a view of the marina. South Pender Island, 9801 Spalding Road; 250.629.2100.

What to Do:
Pender Island Kayak Adventures. A variety of kayak tours are available, ranging in length from two hours to multiday kayak camping trips. North Pender Island, 4605 Oak Road; 250.629.6939. 

Sea Star Estate Farm and Vineyards. This is one of the most beautiful vineyards in British Columbia, with 26 acres terraced up a hillside and cascading down to the ocean. Visit the tasting room and sample Sea Star’s famous Blanc de Noir rosé and stay for live music or to watch the adorable sheep that mow the vineyard’s lawn. North Pender Island, 6621 Harbour Hill Drive; 250.629.6960. 

Twin Island Cider. This farm-based cidery, which also has a charming tasting room, specializes in natural fermentation, using heirloom varieties of apples and pears that are hand-picked or shaken out of the many tall, old fruit trees growing around Pender Island. North Pender Island, 5601 Lupin Road.

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