You may be one of those people so familiar with Salt Spring Island – the largest and most popular of the Southern Gulf Islands – that you refer to it as Ol’ Salty. I’m not one of those people. I’ve barely set foot on the place, having mostly ignored the decades of hype, but the occasion recently presented itself for a family trip. We decided to taste for ourselves if Salt Spring is indeed the Garden of Eden so many of you converts say it is.
To get to Salt Spring Island on the most direct route possible outside of summer peak season, you must embark on a three-hour tour, leaving from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, then enduring what many locals refer to as “the milk run”: the ferry stops at three other gulf islands before eventually arriving at Salt Spring, the boat’s final destination. And while the journey is long, it’s worth the reminder that the rusty ol’ Queen of Nanaimo winds you through utterly spectacular oceanic scenery. Somehow, just because you’re on a BC Ferry, too many of us tend to take our world-class backdrop for granted.
Upon arrival, you get that heavenly, relaxing, stress-draining feeling of pulling off the ferry and driving up and onto an island of gently winding roads lined with lush foliage. Before you know it, you’re in Ganges, the hopping hub of Salt Spring, a village chock-a-block with a cross-section of the island’s 10,000-strong population: first-generation hippies-turned-eco seniors (I’d be willing to bet there are more grey pony tails on Salt Spring than anywhere else in Canada), real estate refugees from Vancouver’s housing wars, blue collar tradespeople, millennial-hippie buskers from the Maritimes, and maybe a sighting of one of the island’s growing collection of famous artists. Everyone from Robert Bateman to Raffi to my old CBC Radio late night hero David Wisdom call Salt Spring home.
We were staying at the southern end of the island, down in Fulford Harbour, an easy 20 minute drive from Ganges. On our utterly pleasant trip down island, past numerous honour-based farm stands offering everything from rhubarb stalks to fresh bacon, it struck us that Salt Spring is truly an isle of indulgence. There is a gloriously gluttonous, homemade supply of just about everything you can think of to make you feel temporarily awesome: wine, beer, cider, coffee, charcuterie, and baked goods abound.
Salt Spring Island has clearly become so renowned that the very name of the place is great branding. Case in point: there’s Salt Spring Cheese, Salt Spring Apples, and Salt Spring Soapworks. The popular Salt Spring Coffee is celebrating 20 years this year, and the extremely refreshing, locally-sourced Saltspring Island Ales rebranded themselves in 2009 from their previous Gulf Islands Brewery handle, and thus have significantly increased their marketability to the outside world.
The island isn’t just one long tasting trail. Siobhan Francis, who works at the busy Rock Salt restaurant in Fulford Harbour, arrived on Salt Spring on New Year’s Day 2014. She was booked to stay at a B’n’B for five days. Two and a half years later, she hasn’t left. “It’s the community that keeps me here”, she says emphatically. “I lived in Vancouver for 10 years, and the interactions and friendships I have here on Salt Spring are far deeper and richer. It’s a balanced place. And my story is not unique”.
After a few nights at our absolutely idyllic accommodation at Lydia’s Cottage, high up on a stunning farm, dotted with Syrian sheep, alpacas, and chickens, we had sunk deep into the Salt Spring state of mind. We get it now. Yes, the three-hour tour is worth it. We can’t wait to get back to Ol’ Salty.