Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 20, 2022
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BC’s idyllic and eccentric isle

On Salt Spring Island, daffodils and crocuses are out in February, and T-shirt weather in March isn't unheard of

In our increasingly interconnected culture, where retail and restaurant chains are blurring the individual identity of towns, islands are the last great hold outs. Being offshore isn't just a location, it's a state of mind. There's a slightly light-headed feeling about being on an island, as if everything has to stay buoyant to keep on top of the waves.

If there's an island I'd like to float away on, it would be British Columbia's Salt Spring Island. It's the largest of the 10 southern Gulf Islands that nestle in the Georgia Strait against Vancouver Island's inner flank. At only 36 kilometres from the city of Vancouver (20 minutes by float plane; considerably longer by ferry) and all of an hour by car and ferry from Victoria, Salt Spring has an enviable location.

Named for its briny springs, it has become famous for its setting, landscape and character. Only 29 kilometres long and 14 kilometres wide, it boasts 22 ocean beaches that range from rocky, tide-bound coves to long spits of wide-open sand.

Further inland, the rugged terrain offers views in every direction. Look one way and you'll find the verdant hills of Vancouver Island plunging into a channel dotted with sailboats; look the other and the earth curves as you take in the jigsaw puzzle of islands, the wide shimmering strait and the striking mountains on the BC mainland.

Salt Spring itself is endlessly topsy-turvy, full of roads that coil through tumbling forests of towering trees and then unknot in placid hidden valleys. In many places, the steep slopes are so tangled and lush that you could be staring at the jungles of Central America. Elsewhere, spacious meadows of gnarled Garry oak, one of the world's rarest trees, sweep out onto headlands, as sheep and llamas graze on idyllic farms within earshot of barking sea lions and the crashing sea. Unusually for an island, there are even eight fishable freshwater lakes, five of which have public beaches.

The island's population of 10,000 lives mainly on the southern tip around Fulford Harbour (the ferry terminus for Victoria and on to Vancouver), and north of the vineyard-filled Fulford Valley. Life revolves around two picturesque communities named after British ships that were stationed there in the 19th century.

Vesuvius is a small, sleepy village where roadside pottery studios line the way to another Vancouver Island ferry. Ganges is the island's hub -- and probably one of the few places in Canada that manages to be cosmopolitan with less than 5000 residents. At last count there were five bookstores and an assortment of galleries offering work by local artisans along with high quality aboriginal art. That's not counting the gelato ice-cream maker and chocolatier, numerous espresso joints and fine restaurants (including a wharfside oyster bar), as well as ArtSpring, a community arts hall that hosts name musicians and holds exhibitions.

Fairy Trails
If there's one thing that induces a sense of buoyancy in visitors, it's the mild local climate. After the fall rains and occasional winter frost, daffodils and crocuses are already out in February, and T-shirt weather isn't unheard of in March on the island's two nine-hole golf courses.

True summer begins in the last weeks of July, when lingering shreds of sea fog evaporate in heat; from then on, the sun can shine for as many as 80 days in a row.

Salt Spring is an island that easily bewitches outdoor enthusiasts. Sea kayaking is a great way to see the Gulf Island archipelago, either on day paddles or organized tours to visit the whales and birds of nearby Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. Rentals and lessons are easily available.

Cyclists and mountain bikers rave about the wandering roads and hurtling paths that pass through the forest undergrowth. Hiking trails traipse along beaches and tide pools, skirt pastures and cedar-shaded salmon streams or trudge over the mountainous heights where fields of foxglove wave at circling eagles and hidden cougars.

Ruckle Provincial Park, at the south end, is a prime spot for day hikes. Go left from the final parking lot through old-growth forest and you'll stumble over coves filled with driftwood, boulders and perfect sunbathing spots. Go right and you'll meander from a heritage farm onto open coast that rolls like a rug to beautiful camping spots at the edge of the sea.

If it's exercise you're after, hunt through the immense spruces and firs of remote Mount Tuam for the aptly named phantom orchid, or climb 709 metres to the island's highest point, the hang-gliding haven of Mount Bruce.

There's also dizzy Mount Maxwell and Mount Erskine, which shelters a bizarre woodland folly of miniature "fairy" windows and doors -- each about 30 centimetres high, lovingly made to open and close, and inserted with elfish dexterity into rock faces, trees and logs. Only on a thoroughly enchanted island would anyone bother, which is why Salt Spring has never had a problem in the character department.

The island has been the seasonal home to Coast Saalich people for centuries. In the last 140 years, it has seen the influx of former American slaves and ship-jumping Hawaiians escaping the fur trade. The 1970s and '80s brought many young urbanites to the islands looking for a counter-cultural alternative.

The teepees and treehouses have largely given way to retirees and glassed-in multimillion-dollar homes, but yesterday's youth are today's organic farmers and professional artisans, filling the Ganges' Saturday Market with an array of goods and produce.

Not surprisingly, Salt Spring Island is home to a high number of musicians, writers, potters, weavers, painters and sculptors. Many of the artists squirreled away in the woods have garnered an international reputation, and tours of home studios show off the talent involved in everything from functional ceramics to funky fabrics and finely honed sculpture. Robert Bateman, one of the world's premiere wildlife painters, is a longtime resident, as are number of Hollywood part-timers, who keep a much lower profile.

But Salt Spring doesn't need celebrities. Just watch the taxi drivers run their own errands accompanied by chatting fares. Or visit the marina and its pitching wharf of tied-up yachts. The local movie theatre is an old fire hall and features new releases along with old furniture -- go early for the fun, as the crowd jostles for comfy chairs and jeers at the funny slides of locals that replace the trailers.

The local paper, called the Driftwood, also makes for good reading. It's filled with photos of little old ladies in psychedelic "smart cars" and heated debates about the installation of the island's first traffic light. It once featured an article about a home-built aquatic sauna that got loose in a storm and was last seen in shipping lanes on the way to Japan.

A Hasty Retreat
Eccentricity, of course, is best offset with a hint of extravagance and old-fashioned manners. On Salt Spring these are provided in lavish amounts by the Hastings House Country Estate. The 18-suite country house fans across nine hectares of meadow, woods and shoreline on the far side of Ganges Harbour, a 10-minute stroll from the village. A member of the Relais & Châteaux group and of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Hasting House has earned kudos for 25 years for its gourmet food, wine cellar and palatial retreat.

Its international clientele comes for its relaxed grace. The tone is casually sophisticated and unabashedly romantic. Co-owner Bonny O'Connor's wide smile and down-to-earth demeanour identify her as an islander, and the five-star hideaway she and partner Jerry Parks own is a happy part of the local community.

Pull up the drive and you're greeted by a flock of sheep, a venerable orchard (with exotica such as quince trees) and a stunning herb and flower garden. Continue down the path and you come to the seafront lawns and Manor House, a reproduction of an 11th-century Sussex manse built in 1937 from stone quarried on the property.

Upstairs, the Manor House contains two ample suites. Downstairs are the dining room and more casual dining Verandah, alongside a sitting room with William Morris upholstery and an Inglenook fireplace -- the perfect place for high tea or a cocktail.

The other 16 suites sprawl across the property. Climbing a headland in a tiered, cedar-clad building, the seven Hillside Suites offer a more contemporary take on elegance. The remaining nine suites are in four historic buildings: the Barn, the Farmhouse, the Churchill Cottage and Salt Spring Island's original Hudson Bay Company Post.

When foodies visit the island, they make a beeline to Hasting House for executive chef Marcel Kauer's Pacific Northwest cuisine -- especially his signature Salt Spring lamb, grazed on "salt meadows" near the tidal zone. The incredibly tender shanks, racks and loins are invariably on Swiss-born chef Kauer's prix-fixe menu, which changes daily. Eggs, organic fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are all produced right on the property and complimented by West Coast seafood, Alberta bison and Quebec foie gras.

Although Hastings House shuttles guests back to the floatplane and mainland society, you're just as likely to leave Salt Spring Island walking on air. That's the thing about islands -- they have this mysterious tendency to make you float.


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