The Pleasures of Pender Harbour, British Columbia



canada-pender_harbour-largeAt 8.15 am, on a rain-washed Vancouver morning, I found myself neatly buckled into the front seat of a well-seasoned ‘Beaver’ floatplane. With latte in hand and ears well plugged, my trusty pilot and I were headed for Pender Harbour, where I was about to discover the delights of the ‘Venice of the Sunshine Coast’ by boat. My husband Laurence and our faithful 36′ sloop ‘Dreamspeaker’ were eagerly awaiting my arrival, having braved a southeasterly gale and huge seas off Cockburn Point to make our scheduled meeting on time.

Rain splattered the windscreen during our thirty-five minute flight, but as the plane banked around mighty Mt. Daniel, the skies cleared, and below us lay a spectacular maze of coves, bays and islands just waiting to be explored. The flight path was unobstructed as ‘Corilair’s pilot swooped down to make a smooth landing outside Welbourn Cove; in a matter of seconds he had me and my luggage safely deposited on the Madeira Park public dock.

The joys of cruising are many, and one of our favourites is to arrive in a new destination with time to discover just what the local community has to offer. Laurence was in need of a good shower, our grocery list was growing and we were both looking forward to a hearty breakfast – time to take a stroll into town.

At the head of the public dock lies the neatly laid out new ‘Seafarer Millennium Park’ with a landscaped boardwalk, turreted look-out point and umbrella covered picnic tables dotted around the lawn – the perfect spot for a leisurely lunch or sunset picnic. The dock office is run by a team of friendly staff who take pride in their new facilities and the shower facilities deliver both quality and quantity. A short walk along Madeira Park Road takes you past the historic music school and library complex that also houses a small art gallery and pre-school. A little further on you’ll discover a cozy coffee shop and gallery that serves delicious sandwiches, baked goods and speciality ice cream – and the gallery walls are filled with local art.

The heart of Madeira Park Centre encompasses a variety of shops and services including a B.C. Liquor Store and a large supermarket, well stocked with fresh produce and essential basics. They also sell a selection of hardware, magazines, books and local cruising guides and will loan you one of their trolleys to transport your provisions right to the dock. Don’t miss a visit to Gord Wenman’s studio located just off Madeira Park Road – here you will find the local artist at work creating an excellent selection of stained glass work. “The most reputed burgers and chips in Pender Harbour” are served from the colourful ‘Hamburger Stand’ beside the Community Hall.

We decided to stay the night at the friendly public dock which has become a favourite rendezvous spot for visiting boats and a great place to catch up on local and cruising news; if the local fish boats are in with their catch-of-the-day, they will often sell freshly caught tuna or halibut straight off the dock.

Our arrival at Hospital Bay public dock the following morning was well-timed. The official ‘Hospital Bay Days’, an event held each August to celebrate the community’s historical heritage, was in full swing with a craft fair, dingy boat races and guided hikes by the Francis Point Marine Park Group, to name a few. As luck would have it we were also able to squeeze into a vacant spot beside the majestic ‘SS Master’, which was having an ‘open day’ for local visitors. This treasured piece of history is the oldest operating steam tug on the B.C. coast and is crewed by a team of devoted and hard working volunteers who welcomed us aboard to inspect the inner workings of this beautifully designed vessel.

‘The Community of Garden Bay’ includes Hospital Bay, Sinclair Bay, Duncan Cove and Garden Bay Lake, but the best way to orient yourself with the ‘downtown core’ is to take yourself on a circular tour from the public dock, beginning with the landmark Sundowner Inn (under renovation) and originally the St. Mary’s Hospital and Chapel. The Columbia Coast Mission as a community hospital constructed this historic building in 1930 and both the hospital and chapel are fondly remembered by many of the local residents who were born in its maternity ward or baptized or married in its chapel.

A stroll along Lyons Road takes you to The Garden Bay hotel, which is not a hotel at all, but a cheerful pub and restaurant (smoke-free) with a wide selection of dishes and a menu ‘just for kids’. Although there are no actual rooms to rent, they offer overnight moorage, friendly service and a great view to Mt. Daniel.

A goat’s trail leads form the back of the hotel along the forested shoreline of Garden Bay to the entrance of the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club outstation. If this is not your final destination, continue around the lagoon and you will find yourself at ‘John Henry’s General Store’ and post office, a popular rendezvous spot owned and run with gusto by Wayne and Lucy. They display an amusing sign that reads, “Please don’t ask for anything specific – this is a general store!” One of the stores highlights for cruising boaters, whose timetables are often ruled by wind and weather, is that their liquor store outlet is open on Sundays and holidays. Cocktails aside, they also carry a good selection of fresh produce, basic provisions, specialty items (I picked up an interesting bottle of home-made pickled garlic) marine supplies, books, cruising guides and charts. Their fuel dock is busy, friendly and well run.

Fisherman’s Resort and Marina is a neat, well laid out complex efficiently run by owners Wally and Susan. Hanging baskets overflowing with flowers line the docks and the well laid out lawns and shaded picnic tables are inviting. The resort provides shower and laundry facilities and also offers waterfront cottages and RV sites.

On day three we decided to explore the popular Garden Bay Marine Park located on the north shore of Pender Harbour. There is ample anchorage off the park shoreline, which sometimes gets a little tight in the busy summer months and anchors have been known to drag in the well used soft mud. We anchored south of the park and rowed ‘Tink’, our bright yellow tender to the small dingy dock. Easy access to the park is available from here, so we both took a long overdue run around the .5 km circular trail. The popular Mt. Daniel trail can be accessed from the north via Garden Bay Road. A ten-minute walk from the park will take you to Garden Bay Lake and some delightful fresh water swimming – no shampoo please as the lake provides the community water supply; a second trail leads west from here to Hotel Lake.

By early afternoon a fresh southeast breeze had sprung up and we took the opportunity to get to know our neighbours by sailing ‘Tink’ around the boats at anchor. Soon a steady stream of boaters began to fill up the anchorage in Garden Bay and as the tide was up, Laurence and I decided to move on and investigate the pastoral tranquility in the lower reaches of Gunboat Bay. This is a wonderfully peaceful place and the perfect spot for an undisturbed cup of tea while observing nature at its finest. We could have stayed the night, but to avoid being ruled by the tides and tidal rapids in Gunboat Pass, we opted to spend the evening at anchor in Gerrans Bay. This would give us easy access to the Whiskey Slough public dock the following day as we were planning to spend time enjoying beautiful Francis Point – “a rare and pristine example of one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems”.

This coastal treasure has now become Francis Point Marine Park, a natural playground for all to share, encouraging cruising boaters and kayakers to ‘stay awhile’ and explore the harbours 103 miles of shoreline and enjoy its welcoming facilities. Francis Point’s forested uplands feature heritage old-growth Douglas fir and Western red cedar and are ideal for hiking, picnicking, camping and viewing wildlife. Bold rocky headlands offer breathtaking vistas from one end of Georgia Strait to the other. The 3 kilometres of wave-swept oceanfront are indented with cosy bays suitable for kayaking, swimming and beach combing. Boaters in need of protected overnight anchorage while visiting the park can drop their hook in Bargain Bay and Gerrans Bay or tie up at the Whiskey Slough public dock.

Our time in friendly Pender Harbour was almost up. The following day we were off to explore Sechelt Inlet and its hidden treasures. A return visit to this easy going, ‘Venice of the north’ is certainly in our future cruising plans. We found the local community friendly and helpful to visiting boaters – a community eager to move on from their mainstay of fishing and logging and welcome the eco-tourism and hospitality industry with open arms.

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