Exploring Canada’s Gulf Islands

By Peter Schroeder
Photos by Risa Schroeder

The crew aboard a little boat with a big itinerary searches for top vineyards, gourmet food, and a whole bunch of fun!

Crocker Point dock on Saturna IslandBoaters reach Saturna Island Winery via a 15-minute walk from Crocker Point dock on Saturna Island’s southwest coast.

There’s a bumper sticker popular in wine country — “I Brake for Wine” — to which my wife, Risa, and I can relate. We have our own version of it for Freelance, our 21-foot Monaro cuddy cabin: “We ANCHOR for Wine!” I’m a life-long boater and enjoy seafaring. Risa, a food-and-wine writer, is drawn to sampling local produce and vintages. With more than a dozen easily reached vineyards as well as 200 islands offering charming anchorages, breaching orcas, jabbering sea lions, and playful river otters, Canada’s Gulf Islands perfectly combines our interests.

Meandering Up To Canada

Last summer, Risa and I headed north on Puget Sound from our home in Seattle, passed through the San Juan Islands within a few hours, then puttered across Boundary Pass into Canadian waters, making landfall at Poet’s Cove on South Pender Island. There, we cleared customs and entered another world. The front door of Poet’s Cove Resort & Spa may have welcomed the well-dressed tourists who arrived in limousines, town cars, and taxis. But the back door faces the marina and greeted those of us in T-shirts and shorts who sleep aboard our boats. No matter how we all entered, everyone met halfway in the resort restaurants to enjoy local fare paired with island wines.

Sunset across the marina on South Pender IslandSunset views across Poet’s Cove Marina on South Pender Island.

In the Gulf Islands, vineyard owners, winemakers, and even grapes must all adapt to challenging growing conditions that include short summers and a rainy marine environment. You think that vinyl cushions mildew fast? Imagine what dampness inflicts on a thin-skinned grape! Some varieties that manage to thrive here originated in cooler climes, such France’s Loire Valley, Austria, and Germany.

North Pender Island

Wanting to “meet” the grapes in their natural habitat, the next morning, after a peaceful night on the hook, the moonlit waves gently rocking us to sleep, Risa and I cruised to Port Browning on North Pender Island, an 20-minute hop in protected waters. There we caught an island taxi to Sea Star Vineyards, on the island’s southeastern corner. At this winery with a seaside view, we visited owner David Goudge and winemaker Ian Baker, who produced their first wines in 2013 to much acclaim, winning gold and silver medals at the Northwest Wine Competition.

“I named our winery Sea Star, because you always see sea stars in these waters,” said Goudge. “They typify summer in the Salish Sea.” Sea Star produces several reds: Pinot Noir and Maréchal Foch, an Alsatian grape, as well as a Meritage produced with grapes sourced from British Columbia. Farm-grown crabapples, blackberries, and raspberries go into their dessert wines. Located in an old-growth forest, the winery’s sleek tasting room, a favorite with local boaters, opens onto an outdoor patio surrounded by gardens. Throughout the summer the winery features weekend live music.

One test of good wines is how well they pair with food, a research project that Risa and I willingly undertake, knowing that it’s a tough job that someone’s got to do. That evening, Sea Star wines aced their exam during a delicious dinner at Café at Hope Bay, set on the eastern coast of North Pender Island. Highlighting local ingredients, chef Amanda Maclean and manager Rob Landa serve an eclectic menu that globetrots from Hawaii to India to Morocco.

With Freelance secure on her mooring buoy in Plumper Sound, in a protected lee at the mouth of Hope Bay, we fell asleep surrounded by a cloudless, windless night. Scattered islets provided protection from every quarter, except the southeast. Around 0300, the gentle rocking escalated to wild pitching as winds filled in from, where else, the southeast. Wide-eyed for the rest of the night, we were reminded never to take benign weather for granted.

Salt Spring Island

Intending to gunkhole around a few of the smaller islets scattered throughout the Gulf Islands, we set out for a relaxing cruise to Salt Spring Island, but then noticed several large vessels making rapid beelines to the north. Twenty years of cruising on the Salish Sea has taught us that you don’t watch for whales; you watch for whale-watching boats like these. We followed. Ten minutes later, we saw a pod of adult orcas cavorting north to the mouth of the Fraser River to feed on salmon. One newborn stayed close to its mother while making a commendable effort to keep up with the elders. The youngsters are called “flying pickles” because of their leaps. After following these magnificent creatures at a safe distance for 20 minutes, we threaded our way west among the islets of Trincomali Channel, finally arriving at Ganges, the main harbor at Salt Spring.

Canadian Gulf Coast Islands map

With three wineries on Salt Spring located in the interior, Western Splendour Tours & Charters shuttled us from the marina so we could check them out. We boaters tend to know about reefs and rocks along a coastline, but we can sometimes overlook the soul of an island. So it’s fortunate that Ryan, our guide, filled us in on the island’s culture and history. Among other tidbits, we learned that in the 1930s, 700 African-American families from California moved here when British Columbia offered full citizenship to anyone willing to farm the land. Today, the island’s population is composed of artists, retirees, farmers, and escapees from the urban lifestyle. The mantra for Salt Spring Island is perhaps best summed up by a bumper sticker we saw here: “Relax — This Ain’t the Mainland.” Indeed.

The region’s only certified organic winery, Mistaken Identity, grows 10 grape varieties on seven and a half acres. Winemaker and vineyard manager Jesse Cooper and his wife, Melanie Casler, who tends the tasting room, supplement their estate wines with grapes brought in from Vancouver Island and interior British Columbia. They also produce heritage apple and blackberry dessert wines as well as a sparkling blush. Organic farming is difficult under the best of circumstances, the couple told us. But here in a marine environment, more challenges abound, including erratic weather and the need to truck in water for irrigation. But on this warm summer day, these hurdles were far from mind as we basked on the patio sampling wines and tasty cheeses. The live music is a Saturday staple throughout the summer.

Salt Spring Winery gardensAt Salt Spring Winery, guests relax in the vineyard among gardens, a quaint pond, and meandering pathways to enjoy live music on summer Sunday afternoons.

Next stop was the seven-acre Salt Spring Winery, where we chatted with winemaker Joanne McIntyre and her husband, Dev, who oversees the vineyard. Dev successfully experimented with innovative cold-climate plants that ripen sooner and are disease resistant — such stars as Evolution White, Evolution Red, and Petite Milo. Around us were pretty gardens, a picturesque pond, a quaint gazebo, and cozy seating areas connected by meandering pathways. Boaters often congregate here for a Wine-Down TGIF party on Friday afternoons and for music in the vineyard on Sunday afternoons. The McIntyres also operate a bed and breakfast offering two rooms for guests who want to sleep surrounded by vineyards. We stayed overnight.

Small in dimensions, huge in charm and culinary savvy — that describes House Piccolo, our choice for dinner that evening in Ganges. “What’s that?” I asked, my head swiveling to admire an intricately garnished bowl carried by a server to a neighboring table. It was summer squash soup, stunningly inlaid with concentric swirls of crème fraîche and lingonberry purée.

The next morning, the local bus delivered us back to Freelance, and we navigated around the north of Salt Spring and down the west side to Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park. We tied up at the dock, then hiked 20 minutes along a heavily canopied lane to Fulford-Ganges Road. Half a mile beyond was Garry Oaks Winery, named for the Garry Oak trees that once covered this valley. In 1999, winemaker Elaine Kozak and vineyard manager Marcel Mercier acquired the terraced, south-facing slope that was once a sheep farm. They planted vines, built a 10-acre winery and tasting room, and today produce award-winning wines. We fell in love with their Zweigelt, full of black cherry and raspberry flavors, and purchased several bottles on the spot.

Galiano, Mayne, and Saturna

Located to the east, on the edge of Georgia Strait, Galiano Island is home to two notable restaurants serving island wines and coastal cuisine. A short walk from popular Montague Harbour and its Marine Provincial Park, Pilgrimme restaurant hunkers under the Douglas firs and western red cedars, looking like the Northwest version of a hobbit house. Opened in 2014, the restaurant has been creating buzz among boaters, thanks to the culinary creativity of chef/owner Jesse McCleery, who worked at Noma in Copenhagen, often cited as, seriously, the best restaurant in the world. To garnish dishes, McCleery and his team forage ingredients from forest and shore, bringing home sea lettuce, spruce tips, wild mushrooms, and miner’s lettuce.

Pilgrimme Restaurant signA short walk from Montague Harbour on Galiano Island, Pilgrimme Restaurant showcases ingredients foraged from shore and forest.

Set on the north side of Active Pass at Sturdies Bay, by the ferry landing, Galiano Inn welcomes boaters to tie up at the floating dock. At the inn’s Atrevida restaurant, we looked out through ceiling-to-floor windows to magnificent views of the narrow passage where ferries shuttled between Vancouver and the Gulf Islands. The menu highlighted fresh fish, such as Arctic char, accompanied by cilantro chimichurri and black rice and a fine selection of island wines.

The next day took us to the southeast side of Mayne Island, where boaters need to pay strict attention to the charts that show a maze of islets, shoals, and reefs. After tying up at Mayne Island Resort’s dock that evening, we feasted at Bennett Bay Bistro while seated on a sweeping deck overlooking the namesake waters.

Peter Schroeder aboard his boatAuthor Peter Schroeder aboard Freelance, his Canadian-built Monaro 21 cuddy cruiser.

To round out our explorations, we headed south along Plumper Channel to Saturna Island, easternmost of the Gulf Islands. At Crocker Point, on the southwest coast, we tied up at a rickety dock in a sheltered cove to check out Saturna Island Winery, a sweeping 60-acre site encompassing four vineyards. Although the growing season is short, the south-facing slopes are sheltered by 1,600-foot-high cliffs that block cold northern winds and reflect the sun’s heat onto the vines below. The tasting room and beautiful café terrace face south across Boundary Pass.

We docked at Saturna Lighthouse Pub, with a sunny seafront deck at the ferry dock at Lyall Harbour. Although we don’t usually indulge at lunch, we ordered two glasses of Saturna Island Pinot Gris to go with our fish and chips. Feeling fortunate for all we’d seen on our journey, we also felt melancholy. It was time to turn Freelance for home. Risa and I clinked a toast to the hardy wine pioneers of these islands, who are confronted with arguably the most demanding growing conditions imaginable — a short growing season, limited sunshine, a marine environment, the threat of frost, and the legendary Northwest rain. But despite the inherent challenges, they produce award-winning wines, an ample selection of which we’d stored safely aboard Freelance to enjoy in the months ahead. 

Peter Schroeder is a Seattle-based freelance marine writer and photographer. He and his wife Risa Wyatt, a freelance food-and-wine writer, have a five-acre Syrah vineyard in Sonoma, California.