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destinations-canada-best_of_bc-largeThe Gulf Islands of British Columbia envelop a beautifully diverse cruising ground – an alluring and accessible pocket of paradise. Boaters will be charmed by each island's distinctive character and lured by clean sandy beaches, sheltered bays, hideaway anchorages, spectacular sunsets and abundant wildlife. In addition, the area's marine parks are unique to British Columbia's coast and are often only accessible by water.

The popular cruising months usually fall between May and October when more favourable weather conditions prevail. Fuel, water and fresh produce are available at most major provisioning stops and many islands offer well maintained moorage facilities.

Finally, once on your cruise, the way to really appreciate the splendour and serenity of the Gulf Islands is to ease back the throttle, slow down your pace and fall into the easy rhythm of leisurely island life.

For visiting boaters, the Town of Sidney provides a wonderfully central area to charter a boat, meet up with family and friends and provision within walking distance of the marina. It is close to Victoria International Airport and is the terminus for the Swartz Bay ferry and the Washington State ferry.

Sidney & Port Sidney Marina

Hanging baskets bursting with summer flowers and bustling dock attendants are waiting to welcome you to Port Sidney Marina which also offers a complimentary bus service to downtown Victoria and the spectacular Butchart Gardens.

At the Sidney Pier Hotel and Spa you can find relaxed waterfront dining, a heated outdoor terrace, a comfortable lounge, and a bustling café all under one roof. Spectacular food, warm, friendly service and seaside vistas – they do casual elegance well. A world-class aquarium, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, is located in the Sidney Pier building and is a delight for the whole family.

The busy main street of Beacon Avenue has a fine selection of shops, supermarkets, lively coffee bars and diverse bookstores, as well as a bakery, liquor store and post office. For a taste of local history, visit the Sidney Museum on Beacon Avenue. On Sunday afternoons in the summer months, live bands perform at the bandstand located next to the museum.

With provisioning completed and the boat shipshape, it's time to hop onboard for the start of your Gulf Islands cruise. The passage northeast is well marked and will keep you clear of the ferry traffic entering and exiting the Swartz Bay Terminal. The first few stops will allow you to anchor, stretch your legs and become acquainted with two of British Columbia's well-preserved marine parks; both offer sheltered overnight anchorage.

Princess Island Marine Park, Portland Island

Charming Portland Island with its intriguing Kanaka (Hawaiian) history is perfect for a leisurely circumnavigation on foot. The two primary anchorages are Princess Bay in the south and Royal Cove in the north. There are good, well-marked hiking trails that take you around the densely wooded island and through the grassy meadow and historic fruit orchards.

Russell Island Marine Park

Just 2 miles from Fulford Harbour on Saltspring Island, petite Russell Island offers good protection from summer winds. Beach your dinghy on the brilliant, white shell isthmus that forms between the island and a rocky outcrop at its western end and take a leisurely stroll along the loop trail through shady old-growth forest and twisted arbutus to pocket shell beaches with crystal clear water and smooth bathing rocks.

A sturdy wooden boardwalk leads to the century-old, saltbox-style homestead with its rambling orchard and garden. Apples from the 120-year-old orchards are delicious and visitors are encouraged to taste the fruit and visit the homestead to learn more about the little-known history of the island's owner Maria (Ma-rye-ah) Mahoi who lived on the Island from 1902 until her death in 1936. Here she created a refuge for her husband and 13 children and a centre of community for neighbouring families who were, as she was, of mixed Hawaiian and Aboriginal descent. If you wish to spend the night in a marina, pop over to Fulford Harbour.

Fulford Harbour & Village, Saltspring Island

Despite having the busiest ferry terminal on Saltspring Island, Fulford Harbour and Village is peacefully laid back. Fulford Harbour Marina provides day and transient moorage and has well-ordered amenities, including a designated visitor dock, a lookout gazebo and onshore BBQ facilities.

The village has a colourful assortment of enterprises: the historic Fulford Inn and Pub serves traditional, hearty pub grub while the Rock Salt Restaurant offers tasty and imaginative dishes using local and organic produce. The Morningside Organic Bakery and Café produces excellent breads, pastries, toasted sandwiches, fair trade coffee and speciality teas.

Don't forget a visit to the tiny Saint Paul's Catholic Church built in 1885 using local, Cowichan Valley stone. The adjoining graveyard has an expansive view towards Isabella Point and the gravestones from the many Kanaka (Hawaiian) family members are decorated with freshly picked flowers and garlands of seashells.

Following the southeast coastline, you'll pass Ruckle Provincial Park and Beaver Point before turning into Captain Passage and heading northwest into Ganges Harbour. In the busy summer months a steady stream of vessels and floatplanes file in and out of the harbour and the anchorage is filled with a colourful array of visiting and local boats.

Ganges Harbour, Saltspring Island

Located in the heart of the Gulf Islands, downtown Ganges is a fun stop with ample moorage at the two marinas and public wharf. Although the village has become an urban centre with full provisioning facilities, it presents itself to the visitor as a pedestrian seaside village. It has great shopping, galleries and a large selection of places to buy and eat good food.

Enjoy a promenade from Lower Ganges to kid-friendly Moby's Oyster Bar & Marine Grill at the head of Saltspring Marina – alternatively hop aboard the electric powered Queen of De Nile with its charming fringed canopy. Here you will find Harbour's End Marine and Equipment, car, scooter and electric-assisted bike rentals, and the delights of Hastings House's restaurant and gardens overlooking the harbour. The aroma of fresh baking will lead you to the Rendezvous, a very French patisserie, while a short walk up the road leads to the elegant tasting room of Mistaken Identity Vineyards.

Centennial Park hosts the popular Saturday Market, where local arts, crafts and organic produce, rustic breads and farm cheeses go hand in hand. This vibrant and busy event is a must for boat provisioning. Continue your shopping spree through the downtown core; pick up a Saltspring map which lists retail shops and island events. Don't miss Volume II Bookstore, Salt Spring Books and Black Sheep Books, which incorporates Nick Bantock's gallery "The Griffin Room."

Thrifty Foods will deliver to the marinas and Mouat's Mall, the landmark green-and-white building, provides an eclectic purchasing experience. The Fishery, open seasonally, is owned and operated by commercial fishers and is a must for local Dungeness crab, smoked salmon and the catch of the day. Treat yourself to Harlans Chocolates, handmade on Saltspring.

Ganges has a wonderful selection of restaurants and cafés to choose from including the Treehouse Café (live music), Oystercatcher Seafood Bar & Grill, Shipstones Tap Room & Lounge (harbour promenade), Auntie Pestos (on the waterfront), Market Place Café (excellent French cuisine), Bruce's Kitchen (farm to table) and Barb's Bakery & Bistro (fresh and friendly). The Local Liquor Store offers one-stop shopping with a good selection of wine and beer and a sociable waterfront patio.

From Ganges Harbour head northeast into the southern reaches of Trincomali Channel, between Saltspring and Prevost Island; enter Plumper Sound via Navy Passage (often great sailing), and anchor of Saturna Beach for a spot of wine tasting and lunch el fresco.

Saturna Beach, Saturna Island

Surprise Thomson Park is tucked in behind Saturna Beach. With its open meadow and leafy trees, it's the perfect day stop for walking, picnicking or just lazing on the grass. A couple of wooden benches provide the visitor with a pleasant view over Plumper Sound. Saturna Island Vineyards is a stone's throw from the park and their wine shop and bistro, serving excellent casual lunches, are housed in a beautiful post-and-beam barn with a patio overlooking the waters of Boundary Pass and the San Juan Islands beyond.

A short hop west will take you to the recently upgraded Port Browning Marina on North Pender Island, the perfect spot to tie up for the night and enjoy a meal and something cool on the pub patio.

In an upcoming issue, we'll highlight a few more stops from Port Browning to Sidney Spit Marine Park.