Get a taste of British Columbia’s idyllic, eccentric Salt Spring Island

There’s a popular, unconfirmed rumor on Salt Spring Island that the Dalai Lama flew overhead in a plane and pointed it out as a spiritual site. The truth is anyone’s guess. “I’ve heard that story about a lot of people,” says Matthew Coleman, coordinator of the island’s famously colorful Salt Spring Saturday Market. “Not just the Dalai Lama, but also about His Holiness Karmapa, who escaped from Tibet several years ago, and the Maharishi (Mahesh Yogi), who does transcendental meditation.”

As eccentric as all this might sound, it’s standard gossip here, where massage is considered serious medicine, local drivers still stop to pick up hitchhikers, and supporting organic farmers is a way of life.

It’s not hard to understand why the Dalai Lama could have been drawn to this place. The largest of British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands, Salt Spring is a rugged 70-square-mile landscape strewn with crystal blue lakes and dark peaks. A journey to the hilly north feels like an adventure, with many of the island’s famous art studios hidden away on the narrow, winding roads (you can visit most of them on a self-guided Studio Tour). To the south is the Fulford Valley―dotted with farms and capped by the island’s largest peak, 2,300-foot-tall Mt. Bruce―as well as Ruckle Park, where under July’s clear blue skies, visitors hike the scenic, rocky shoreline. In the center of the island, a hike up Mt. Maxwell affords views of nearby Vancouver Island and sailboats drifting on the cobalt waters of Burgoyne Bay. Anchoring these various parts is Ganges, a picturesque waterside village. 

An Island of Artists

As gorgeous as the scenery is, the best place to get a sense of the island is at the Saturday Market. This institution draws more than 150 local artisans and organic farmers―and scads of visitors―to Ganges’ waterfront Centennial Park. It’s in the still-cool early morning when Doug Hall usually arrives to set up his booth. The island’s self-described Masala Wallah―Hindi terms roughly translated as “spice-mixture purveyor”―Hall is one of the owners of Monsoon Coast Spices.

“The first thing I do while my partner’s doing prep is go down the farmers’ alley and buy fresh bread and all my vegetables for the week,” says Hall. With the shopping done, he sets about introducing visitors to his unique spice blends while doling out a stew flavored with Moroccan La Kama spice or cups of Railway Chai.

For all the food and the artwork, though, the market is more than a place to shop—it’s a community forum. You’re as likely to see people doing communal Tai Chi, mounting a peace protest, or passing environmental petitions as shopping for produce. Hall enjoys it all the more for its eccentric nature. “What you get around the market and the park on a Saturday is a distillation of Salt Spring,” says Hall. “It’s wonderful.”

After the market, everyone disappears into the island’s nooks and crannies, and it’s worth going to seek out the artists and growers where they live and work. Enter local Wendy Hartnett, owner of Island Gourmet Safaris, a tour company that leads visitors to restaurants, galleries, and wineries, with tastings of remarkable food along the way. “The year before I started my business, I went to Cannon Beach, Oregon, and I thought, Wow,” says Hartnett. “There are signs, it’s well organized, and it’s made for visitors. To me, Salt Spring Island isn’t like that.”

Yet the island’s disorganization and unmarked roads are also part of its charm. “Getting to know it is like opening a tightly wrapped present,” Hartnett says. On her tours, the joy of discovery comes in delicious forms: smoked salmon-topped wood-fired pizzas at the out-of-the-way Raven Street Market-Café; chocolate ice-wine truffles at Harlan’s Chocolates; and an afternoon wine- and cheese-tasting at Salt Spring Vineyards, which has sweeping views of the Fulford Valley. 

A Delicate Balance

For all of this island’s idyllic qualities, it has its fair share of growing pains too. “It’s hard to balance the demands of the tourists and the local community,” says farmer and author Michael Ableman, who moved to the island from California six years ago to start Madrona Valley Farm, an organic farm and bed-and-breakfast that he owns with his wife, Jeanne-Marie Herman. The quandary is one of development: concern that new vacation homes standing empty for most of the year detract from the sense of community and that looming resort development will test the island’s already-stretched water resources.

Yet despite the challenges, both Ableman and Hartnett are optimistic about the future. “It’s an unusually committed group of people on this island, and most of them share a very strong belief in protecting their natural environment,” says Ableman. “There’s an enormously high level of civic involvement.”

Artists Paul Burke and Anna Gustafson, the couple who own the Blue Horse Folk Art Gallery, do their part to tread lightly on the land. Next to the hillside gallery, which is filled with Burke’s acclaimed wooden sculptures and Gustafson’s raku-fired ceramics, their home is built over a 39,000-gallon cistern because water is scarce on their drought-prone part of the island. “There are lots of people on the side of conservation on Salt Spring,” says Gustafson. “We all rally together to protect the land.”

Musing on how she and Burke decided to settle here after five years of searching for a place to put down roots, Gustafson says, “There is truly something amazing about Salt Spring. Most people who come here and stay feel like this is the home they’ve been waiting to go to all their lives.”

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