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Canada's Salt Spring Island, despite its proximity to Victoria and Vancouver and its somewhat intense summer crowds, retains the warm-hearted personality and snail's pace one might have encountered in British Columbia a century ago.
It's part of the Gulf Islands, Canada's counterpart to the similar-sized and nearby San Juan Islands in the state of Washington. And the island has a strong gay following, especially among women. Throughout this wooded, hilly island of roughly 10,000 residents, you'll find artists' studios, several fine beaches, hiking and biking terrain, and many fishing and sea-kayaking opportunities.

Visitors come primarily to relax, and to appreciate the serenity and remarkable natural beauty. The wilds of Salt Spring Island have long been a haven of artists, feminists, New Agers, and other rugged individualists.

Ganges Village, close to the geographic centre of the island, holds the community together, with most of the shops and services locals rely upon (including several ATM machines, which are comparatively rare in the Gulf Islands) - not to mention a couple of espresso bars and a wealth of art galleries. Everything in town is set along a cluster of streets, all within easy walking distance. The town's backdrop is a pine-studded mountain ridge, so you never feel far from nature. Centennial Park anchors the village of Ganges, overlooking the harbour. It's a good place to watch the diverse parade of locals, from kids throwing a ball around to New Agers practicing yoga.

Your hope of meeting locals or visitors is greatly enhanced by attending the Saturday Market in Centennial Park, held every Saturday morning throughout the spring and summer. It's a great place to buy crafts, crystals, and bric-a-brac, or stock up on organic produce and meats. And cruisy as can be.

Dozens of fine art and arts-and-crafts studios dot the island, which has long had a reputation for one-of-a-kind shopping. On Sunday afternoons from May through October, dozens of the island's potters, sculptors, glass-blowers, woodworkers, weavers, painters, jewellers, and other artisans open their studios (which are generally in their homes) to the public for browsing. You can pick up a detailed tour map from the chamber of commerce. Fulford, at the southern end of the island, and Vesuvius, to the northwest, are the only other small villages - and you'll find only a handful of basic eateries and businesses in each. Both of these communities warrant a little exploration, however. Both are untouristy and friendly communities.

Salt Spring Island is shaped approximately like three oval lobes strung together width-wise. The southwestern lobe is the least developed, and is dominated by the peaks of several small mountains (some as tall as 650 feet), some of which you can hike. Hikes to Mt. Maxwell and the more challenging Mt. Tuam take the better part of an afternoon. Not far from here, you'll find hiking trails at Ruckle Provincial, the largest park on the island, which encloses an extant farm where sheep wander in great number.

Deer and other wildlife are abundant throughout the Gulf Islands - you're sure to see animals while hiking or cycling (and also while driving, so exercise caution). Years of coexistence with humans has rendered animals quite tame, which means you can sometimes come within a few yards of them (this does not mean you should actually make an effort to approach them).

For a small island, you'll find surprisingly sophisticated cuisine, mostly in Ganges Village, but also in Vesuvius and Fulford Harbour. House is one of the Gulf Islands' most celebrated restaurants, serving a blend of regional, Continental, and Scandinavian dishes. Start off with a dollop of Russian caviar, and move on to boneless breast of duck with a mandarin-orange napoleon and green-pepper jus. Fruit-print tablecloths and bright colours enliven the airy dining rooms at Al Fresco, but the best seating is out on the second-floor deck overlooking Ganges Harbour. Expect creative Italian-meets-Pacific Northwest fare. An ideal place to grab a table and people-watch, Moby's brewpub draws the full gamut of grungers, dykes, backpackers, and older couples. The two-level space has a soaring pitched roof with high windows looking back over the village and harbor; a fire roars in the fireplace. The pub food is decent and filling - try the crab quesadillas, the breaded halibut burger, or the rich seafood chowder.

Small, cheap, and sunny, the cafeteria-style Crescent Moon serves several vegetarian dishes, such as tofu in peanut curry, daily. Moka House is a hip little coffeehouse in the heart of Ganges Village, serving yummy hazelnut lattes, bagels, teas, and baked goods. The porch looks across the street toward the harbor. For bread, baked goods, organic coffee, and cheerful hellos, check out Barb's Buns. Ganges is getting more commercial, but there will probably never be much of a nightlife. Anytime you're among a crowd of people on Salt Spring Island, you're likely to be in the company of at least a few queers - odds are strong that they're women. Social opportunities consist mostly of dining out (try Moby's especially), grabbing a cup of java at a coffeehouse, mingling at the Saturday market, or chatting with folks coming over on the ferry.

Another possibility is mingling among your fellow guests at one of the island's several gay-popular accommodations. In addition to the inns listed below, the Salt Spring Centre, a conference facility set on 69 acres of rolling meadows and wooded forest, sponsors self-discovery workshops and other gatherings throughout the year, including yoga retreats that are open to both men and women.

Home to some of the friendliest dogs, ducks, goats, sheep, bunnies, and potbelly pigs in North America, the gay/lesbian-oriented Blue Ewe is run by two friendly humans (Bill and Lorcan). Their house is high on a forested hill overlooking the water; rooms are colourful and warm, with plenty of sunlight. There's ocean or lake swimming a half-mile away in either direction, and a Jacuzzi just outside. Right up the street from a picturesque egg farm and minutes from Vesuvius, Summerhill is a contemporary hilltop house with stunning views of Sansum Narrows. Rooms are bright and modern, with upscale furnishings. There's plenty of deck space, gardens, and shaded seating areas.

Set on a bluff over Fulford Harbour, the charming Eden Guest House consists of two art-filled suites (one with Jacuzzi), a small cottage with kitchenette, and an additional suite above the owners' crafts gallery. There's also a clothing-optional hot tub and sun deck, plus lush rhododendron gardens. As the name suggests, this place is paradise found. If you're on a budget, consider the no-frills Fulford Inn, a Tudor-style property near the Fulford Harbour ferry with modest, if musty rooms, a lively pub and restaurant, and a laid-back staff. Though it's not very gay, if you're looking for a motel-style accommodation, this is one of your least expensive options.

Salt Spring Island is home to one luxury property; in fact, Hastings House is one of the most exclusive small hotels in North America, with princely rates to prove it. The compound consists of five restored farm buildings (including an especially romantic barn), each containing from two to four suites. If you seek the best of the best, Hastings is for you.

Ferries And Seaplane Links To Ganges Are Available From Vancouver.
Check Bargain Flight Details At One Of Our Travel Partners :

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Al Fresco (Grace Point Sq., 250-537-5979).
Barb's Buns (121 McPhillips Ave., 250-537-4491).
Blue Ewe (1207 Beddis Rd., 250-537-9344) Website
Crescent Moon (Jackson and Hereford Aves., 250-537-1960).
Eden Guest House (127 Orchard Rd., 250-653-9962, or 800-774-4591) Website
Fulford Inn (2661 Fulford-Ganges Rd., 250-653-4432).
Hastings House (160 Upper Ganges Rd., 250-537-2362 or 800-661-9255) Website
House Piccolo (108 Hereford Ave., 250-537-1844).
Moby's (124 Upper Ganges Rd., 250-537-5559).
Moka House (110 Lower Ganges Rd., 250-537-1216).
Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce (250-537-5252) Website
Salt Spring Centre (355 Blackburn Rd., 250-537-2326) Website

Andrew Collins authored Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, the Connecticut Handbook, and six regional gay guides for Fodor's. He can be reached here at OutUK or direct at GayFodors@aol.com.

 

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