The Gulf Islands were named one of the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2018. To anyone who has ever been to Pender Island, it’s no surprise why. Once a haven for American draft dodgers and hippies, Pender is one of the most chilled and ruggedly beautiful of British Columbia’s Southern Gulf islands.
In reality, Pender is two islands that were joined together in 1955 by a picturesque one-lane bridge. As peaceful and carefree as this bucolic destination is, it doesn’t lack for things to do. Here, I found wines that stand with some of the Okanagan’s offerings, jaw-dropping scenery that rivals anywhere in the province, an inlet with a resort that had me completely smitten, and eager chefs creating culinary buzz. Then, throw in sightings of eagles, osprey, and sea lions for added thrills.
Built on an ancient Indigenous village site, Poets Cove Resort and Spa opened in 2004 with an 85-slip marina, restaurant, spa, marine and commercial centre, cottages and hotel rooms.
With commanding views of Bidwell Harbour, I instantly fell for the resort’s locale. My home for the weekend was a spacious two-bedroom cottage with hot tub on the private, seaside balcony. With knockout ocean views, I could already picture myself curled up on the recliner sipping good wine while capturing the last remnants of the sunset. The scene played out with Sea Star’s Encore, a smooth blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
In a relatively short time, Sea Star Estate Farm & Vineyards has amassed a number of awards. Although the winery was closed during my visit, Sea Star owner David Goudge kindly agreed to give me a tour of the rolling mountainside and ocean-view vineyards. It’s a postcard-worthy scene that seizes the spectacular beauty of Pender Island. The wines have also captured the attention of some of Vancouver’s most notable restaurants (Blue Water Café, Hawksworth and Reflections in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia all carry Sea Star wines). Goudge told me that come warmer weather, guests can sit on the licensed garden patio and nosh on west coast-inspired fare from their food truck, Island Time.
The wonder here was relentless. The next morning, I awoke to nothing but blue skies beaming down over cobalt-blue waters. Down at the marina, I met with the owner of Pender Island Kayak Adventures, Jay Raichura, for a two-hour guided kayaking adventure. We navigated sheltered waters catching sight of sea lions frolicking in the waters, while sea lions appear to look at you with complete, could it be, disdain, as they sunned themselves on a rock?
Enjoying Pender Island meant hitting the trails. With kilometre upon kilometre of rocky rainforest beauty all around, I laced up my hiking boots and drove to Mount Norman. The trek was an exhilarating, heart-pumping one that had me, at times, thinking of the notorious Grouse Grind in North Vancouver. The vistas from the summit were jaw-dropping; featuring panoramic bird’s-eye views of the Gulf Islands and surrounding ocean channels.
Another day, I discovered Prior Centennial Park, a part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Stretched out like an undulated patchwork quilt of ferns, cedar, fir, maple and alder trees, this park’s striking features worth getting lost in, which is what I did — not once but twice. Later, I stumbled upon the Pender Island Disc Park, where grown men, and a few women, were gleefully shouting as they raced down a hilly slope throwing what looked to me like Frisbees. I soon learned this park was meant to mimic a golf course — a rugged one at that — where players use discs that look very similar to Frisbees. Not only is this pastime a growing phenomenon here, it has gained momentum all over the world.
Pender Island’s Cuisine Shines
When only a heaping plateful of comfort fare at breakfast will do, locals head to Jo’s Place, named for its owner, the affable Jo Down. The queue forms early and the food is worth the wait. With its funky décor and killer menu, Jo’s friendly down home-style lured me in.
Wherever I travel, I look for eateries offering tacos. I’m not alone — the popularity of these handheld delights means there is no shortage of places to find truly memorable tacos. Thankfully, Pender is no exception. El Faro Taqueria, which recently moved to a larger location in the Pender Island Golf and Country Club, has mastered the art of unique tacos. Gluten-free and bursting with flavour, I had a Greek chicken and its bliss steak taco.
A favourite spot for boaters to anchor, the only thing that competed with my deliciously messy fish tacos were Port Browning Marina Pub views. With expansive scenery featuring the ocean and mountains, Port Browning serves organic, sustainable pub fare.
At Poets Cove, the waterfront patio at Syrens Bistro & Lounge offers island-style comfort dishes. The deliciously spicy “KFC” (Korean-fried cauliflower) and szechuan-shredded chicken is a highlight. At night, Poet’s Cove’s fine-dining restaurant, Aurora, is the spot to visit for upscale farm-to-table cuisine along with good regional wines.
Another way I blissfully succumbed to the easy-going island vibe was to indulge in a massage at the resort’s Sussurus Spa. Aptly dubbed Triple Treat, it was a 90-minute package consisting of a facial, a massage followed by a much-needed foot reflexology. As the scent of eucalyptus infused my nasal passages, my massage evoked pure relaxation, while the facial imbued my skin with organic products meant to drench my skin in natural goodness. The ideal way to wind down my weekend getaway.
MORE ABOUT VISITING PENDER ISLAND
Getting There: Travellers can reach Pender Island via a BC Ferries sailing from Vancouver or Vancouver Island. Search for fares and schedules for Southern Gulf Islands on the BC Ferries website.