Salt Spring Island has a huge piece of my heart. It’s where Kyla grew up, and the first time I visited I got to meet her family AND their new baby goats. We ate homemade goat cheese, fresh eggs laid by their chickens, and veggies from their substantial garden. I’ve been back over a dozen times since, and every time, I feel like we do something that’s Uniquely Salt Spring(TM).
On the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland, it doesn’t really matter if you know a local or not. Whether you’re there for the day or staying for a while, you’re almost guaranteed to have a genuine Gulf Island experience on the island home of hippies, farmers, artists and artisans (and summer vacationers).
If you’ve heard of Salt Spring, you probably know about the famous Saturday market; many tourists love it; many locals – understandably – don’t: it clogs up ferries and roads, and brings hordes of people to the island. I personally LOVE the Saturday market: you can sample and buy anything from kale chips to cider, check out local artisan products, and then hang out in the park watching (or joining) free spirits drum and dance. If you’re lucky, you might get to meet Raffi– yes, Raffi, the singer of your childhood faves like Baby Beluga and Down By the Bay! He lives on the island, and he’s often there selling CDs. The market may be on your West Coast bucket list, and in many ways it’s worth the hype!
HOWEVER, I’m here to argue that you can have an incredible time on Salt Spring without seeing the market. If you go on a summer Saturday, you’ll encounter massive crowds, potentially extra sailing waits for the ferry, tricky parking, and you may miss the bulk of what the island has to offer.
No matter what, aim to see MORE than the market. Here are some things to do, see, eat and drink around this magical island:
Around the Island (Food and Drink)
If you’re coming from Victoria, you’ll arrive in Fulford Harbour. It’s a great place for a short stop on your way in, or even better, while you’re killing time waiting for a ferry home. Check out:
- Rock Salt: A perfect spot while waiting for a ferry! Great coffee and baked goods, and a friendly atmosphere. They have a take-away area, as well as a sit down restaurant with a great view of the water, if you have a little more time.
- Salt Spring Mercantile Grocery: the place to stock up on a few groceries and booze (lots of variety) if you’re heading to Ruckle. They also have a bakery onsite, with some delicious-smelling breads and meals. Plus, they serve hot drinks, have a couple of tables out front, and a small selection of SSI souvenirs.
- The Wardrobe: a funky little purple store full of an eclectic mix of stuff: think colourful clothes, hats, hippy stuff, Nepalese prayer flags, silver rings, leather bags… worth a walk through!
In Ganges, Saltspring’s ‘downtown’ area with plenty of shops, restaurants (and the market) check out:
- Tree house Cafe: this restaurant is built around a tree! There’s a patio, but even if you eat indoors, you’ll basically be outside! (So ask for a blanket on a chilly day)! Great food.
- Old Salty: If you’re looking for Salt Spring souvenirs that aren’t food or drink, Old Salty’s is a good place for both nice and tacky souvenirs 😉
- Black Sheep Books: this bookstore just feels cool – previously-owned books in a locally-owned store; I naturally gravitate towards the travel-y shelves upstairs, but they have lots of great sections, like ‘worth it for the cover’.
- TJ Beans Coffee Shop: a friendly cafe with tasty treats and coffee, a wraparound deck, and best of all, it’s owned by a gay couple!
- Salt Spring Books: another great bookstore – this one has new books, and it’s a good stop after the cafe!
- Take the waterfront boardwalk behind Centennial Park, and then clamber over a few rocks to find a great (rocky) spot to sit in the sun and watch boats and float planes go by.
Pride is a great time to come to Salt Spring. Yes, the market’s still on, but it’s after the busiest part of the season. Salt Spring Pride is the ‘coziest’ one I’ve been to! Everyone in town seems to join in the non-motorized parade, which loops a couple of times around market square, and finally filters into Centennial Park. There are a couple of events in the evenings leading up to the parade, like open mics, live music, and community meals and discussions. We went to the dance at Fulford Community Hall, where they had some great, local to BC performers (e.g. Ange Hehr, the Bratpack, Queer as Funk), fun music, a crafty area, comfy mats in a chill corner for resting/drinking your smuggled alcohol, and a silent auction. If you prefer a great party/club scene, SS may not be your top pick. But for a nice queer family/community feel, it’s a great opportunity to combine a unique Pride experience with a visit to a magical island.
Around the Island
Skipping the market ups your incentive to visit a lot of the beautiful properties where businesses are located. Plus, not all of these places have stalls at the market, and wouldn’t it suck to miss out?! Stop wherever your vehicle/bike/extended thumb leads you, but here are a few ideas:
Salt Spring Wild Cider: I’ve never been to another cidery with 14-cider flights! With flavours ranging from plain old pear to maple bourbon apricot to burnt apple tequila, you really can’t go wrong. Try to snag a picnic table outside, and get some tapas with your drinks: delicious vegan cheeseboard? Delicious carnivore and dairyvore cheeseboard? Got em both!
Salt Spring Island Ales: this might be my favourite brewery anywhere! Their motto is ‘drink beer with nature’; their tasting room is a tiny loft amongst the tall trees… need I say more? No I need not.
Wineries: there are a couple of great wineries along the road between Fulford and Ganges; I’ve only been to Salt Spring Vineyards, and it was lovely! Beautiful property, cool mermaid lady logo, great blackberry port, lots to love!
Salt Spring Bread/The Bread Lady: OMG. Delicious bread, from a wood-fired oven by a house on a cliff looking out over the ocean, surrounded by lavender or whatever’s in bloom… yes a thousand times yes. Unless you can’t have gluten. Then maybe a thousand times no! Located near the cheese place.
Salt Spring Island Cheese: Ok, I’m spoiled. I get my Salt Spring Island cheese from Kyla’s mom, direct from goats on their property who I’ve had the pleasure of milking (twice – all of the cheese none of the work! :D), but I still appreciate visiting and purchasing SSIC! You can do a short self-guided tour, walking around the farm, peeking in the windows to see various stages of cheese production. Of course, there are goats on site! Sample a variety of cheeses in the shop and pick your favourites! As a lover of spice and garlic (anything overwhelmingly flavourful, really :P), I always go for the chili or garlic chevre, but there are loads of flavours and styles! They also have a cafe – eat in their garden! And treat yourself to some rich, creamy ice cream.
Sacred Mountain Lavender: when lavender is in bloom (July and August on SS), check out this farm and shop. We actually went when it wasn’t in bloom, and were all alone for a quiet and romantic walk around the property. We met a horse, imagined what the plants would look like in purple, and checked out everything lavender-scented and flavoured in the shop!
Roadside farm stalls: these are EVERYWHERE on Salt Spring! Whether you want fresh cut flowers, eggs, berries or other produce, you are almost guaranteed to find it on the island!
Hikes and Walks
Besides being a great place to eat and drink, Salt Spring is BEAUTIFUL, and has a good mix of easy and strenuous hikes, most of which offer stunning views or perfect picnic spots.
Ruckle Park: stop in for a casual hike along the coast, or stay the night at an ocean-side campsite. Camp sites are mostly first come, first served, and are a short walk (a couple minutes) from the parking lot. They have a few wheelbarrows to borrow to transport your stuff, but they’re often in use. There are about 100 sites in the park, including some for larger groups, and it can be very busy on long weekends. It costs $20 per group, and there are shared fire pits (only a few), water taps (no showers), and outhouses.
Mt. Maxwell: If you can get up to the top, the summit offers INCREDIBLE views! It can be tricky to drive up because it’s a gravel road with huge potholes – I wouldn’t recommend it in a rental. It looks like hiking trails along the back of the mountain are currently closed, so look into it ahead of time if you’re thinking of going.
Burgoyne Bay: this park offers a variety of hikes, including an easy loop out to a great picnic spot (#9 on this map).
Mt. Erskine: this can be a high intensity, super steep hike (trail 1) or a medium intensity, kinda steep hike (trail 2), but no matter which trail you choose, the view looking out towards Vancouver Island is a worthwhile reward! There are also a few fairy doors hidden along the trail at the base of the mountain.
Wander around and find hidden streams and waterfalls… there is so much to see on Salt Spring!
If you do stay over, Ruckle (above) is a good option for camping, and there are lots of Airbnbs that sound like they’d provide a Uniquely Salt Spring experience. (I mean… you can just tell: ‘oceanfront treehouse’, ‘seaside room on organic farm’, ‘deep forest retreat’… I want to stay at all of them!)
If You DO Go To the Market…
If you go, prepare for large crowds, plan to get to the ferry very early (like right after the ferry before leaves), or be flexible about the possibility of having to wait one sailing. If possible, use alternative transportation, like the island bus (sometimes it fills up), bicycling (hilly!), or hitchiking (use common sense and be safe, but this is fairly common on SSI), and go near the beginning or end of the season. Avoid long weekends!
If you do take the bus, embrace that as its own adventure! I once overheard a driver on SS tell some folks at a stop that he had a full bus, but if they stuck out their thumbs, another transit employee would be by soon in her car, and would probably pick them up!
Have you been to Salt Spring? What did you love about it?