Gliding over the green/blue waters of the Strait of Georgia and between the rocky shores of British Columbia's Southern Gulf Islands had me giddy with excitement. The breeze smelled slightly of low tide, fresh and crisp, while seagulls flew overhead and the promise of local fresh food, arts, scenic hikes, and tasty brews lingered beyond. It was a gorgeous sunny day, so I wasn't the only one enjoying the rays on the upper outdoor deck of the BC Ferry. I found a bench sheltered from the wind and camped out in the sun for the rest of the ride. Our quaint waterfront treehouse and private beach await.
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Most visit Salt Spring Island for a break from reality and a little me time. Its island culture with close connections to nature offer visitors a chance to relax, rejuvenate, refresh, and to immerse themselves in the environment and each other, leaving the distractions of their every day lives behind. Its lush valleys, rugged mountains, wildlife-rich shorelines, and spectacular wildflower season are simply stunning and are reasons to visit on their own. Needless to say, I was sold.
This post is in partnership with The Enso Treehouse. All opinions, photos, and writing are my own.
My Spring Packing List
Jeans (1 pair)
Puffy coat (for evenings)
Blanket (for the beach/picnics)
Swimsuit - you never know
But first, a little history.
Salt Spring Island, named for its salt springs on the north end, is part of the traditional territory of the Saanich, Cowichan, and Chemainus First Nations that can be traced back about 5,000 years. Aboriginal elders have described this island as a "breadbasket" due to its wealth of resources and its diverse environment. By the late 1890's, the first immigrants arrived to the area because of its cheap land; the island was still mostly forest with no roads or facilities. Over time, roads, towns, a post office, and more were built, attracting more immigrants and eventually visitors. The first vacationers set foot on the island in the '30s and the '60s brought the artists and craftsmen. Today, visitors to the eclectic community can see nods to the past around every bend, be it art, the cheese and lamb from the onset of local dairying and sheep farming in the early 1900's, the potters, woodworkers, quilters, and more.
Day 1: Arrival
Ganges, Cider, Mt. Maxwell, Oysters
We booked a 10:55 a.m. ferry from Tswassen Ferry Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C., for a 12:50 p.m. arrival at Long Harbour, Salt Spring Island. Ferry routes differ depending on the day. Ours stopped at Galiano Island, Mayne Island, and Pender Island before terminating at Long Harbour on Salt Spring Island - it was a beautiful island-hopping tour. Food and beverages can be purchased on BC Ferries but lines are longggggg so pack a snack!
From the Mainland: Tswassen Ferry Terminal has two departing ferries per day for a Long Harbour, Salt Spring Island arrival. This makes the most sense coming from Seattle.
From Vancouver Island: Swartz Bay - Fulford Harbour, Salt Spring Island (every 2 hours or so) Crofton - Vesuvius Bay, Salt Spring Island (every 1 hour respectively)
If you have a set schedule and need to make a certain ferry, definitely make a reservation weeks in advance. These ferries fill up quickly, especially in the summer months. To check sailing schedules and make a reservation, visit the website linked here.
We actually sailed from Fulford Harbour to Swartz Bay to Tswassen on a "Thru Fare" (purchased on the Fulford to Swartz inter-island ferry) for our return trip because it had more sailings throughout the day. The Thru Fare ticket costs about the same as the direct sailing from Long Harbour.
Ganges (pronounced gan-jeez - "an" like in "can"), the island's biggest town center, is just a short drive from the Long Harbour ferry terminal and we couldn't wait to get our first taste of local food culture. A little research led us to the eclectic Treehouse Cafe in the town center next to the marina. This adorable shack is literally built around a tree (on the ground) and is open to the air. Perfect for a beautiful spring or summer day. After downing a delicious salmon sandwich each, a beer for me, and blueberry tea (spiked with Grand Marnier and Amaretto) for him, we set off to explore the walkable waterfront town.
Cute shops, ice cream parlors, and endless galleries line the streets. I picked up a Green Tea Exfoliant from Saltspring Soapworks that is literally to die for. Across the street, an artist transferred his view to canvas with every stroke of his brush in the grassy waterfront park while another local popped over to say hi.
Additional Food Faves:
Barb's Bistro - try their ginger twists
Moby's Pub - waterfront dining
Mateada - delicious farm to table delicacies
Switchboard Cafe - coffee and pastries
Auntie Pesto's - fancy waterfront dining
Axe & Reele Outdoor Emporium - this shop is AMAZING. Legit vintage and durable clothing, gear, and other adventure products. I found two rad working vintage film cameras that you'll see throughout the photos on this post. Highly recommend.
Saltspring Soapworks - handmade natural body care products
OMG Boutique - cute clothing I could actually afford
Fever Tree - home decor
Foxglove Home & Garden - adorable plant shop pictured below
Hippy culture is alive and well on Salt Spring and the locals dressed the part. I felt a little out of place in my sundress - I pretty much screamed tourist - as we arrived before the tourist rush that brings an extra couple thousand people to the island every year, but give it a month and I'm sure I would've fit right in.
Salt Spring Wild Cider
A short drive west from Ganges lies the must-visit Salt Spring Wild Cider house. The ciders are brewed from Salt Spring Island-grown apples picked from 100-year-old trees. Pick up a tasting flight poured into a melange of adorable unique tasting glasses and enjoy these tasty blends either indoors or out at one of their farm-view picnic tables. This was easily one of my favorite Salt Spring activities; I'd go back in a second. Our favorites were the Hopped Apricot, Elderberry/Flower, and the Bitter Orange Rosemary, which we couldn't help but purchase a bottle of.
The island is only about 17 miles long (27 km) and 9 miles wide (14 km), so getting around is a breeze, which is why a little backtracking through Ganges to Mt. Maxwell was not a problem. It took us about 15 minutes to get to the top from the Cider House. Arguably one of the best views on the island, those with 4WD can actually drive all the way to the top - no hiking required. This road has tons of potholes, steep climbs, and slick rock surfaces that only a 4WD vehicle could navigate, so if you don't have a 4WD vehicle, pull over when the going gets rough and walk the rest of the way up. The island views over to Vancouver Island and south over Fulford Harbour are 100% worth it.
With our Day 1 itinerary in the bag, we finally set off to settle in to our cozy beachfront treetop accommodations for the weekend at the stunning Enso Treehouse.
The Enso Treehouse
At the base of Mt. Erskine, turn down the driveway to find the studio and a small pond to your left before arriving at the sanctuary's gates. The Enso Treehouse is through the gates and across the sanctuary's yard.
The circular "enso" shape rendered by Zen masters and found in the Enso Learning website's logo represents an individual's journey to engage, refocus, discover, and connect to a truer you, and if there's a spot to embark on such a journey, this is it. The 4.5-acre property offers beach access, forest walks, a studio space, and more with the option to book the entire 4800-foot retreat center that sleeps up to 15 people in six bedrooms with six bathrooms. The one-room Treehouse is on the south end of the property in a corner of its own complete with a king size bed, a kitchenette (fridge, kettle, dishes, utensils, coffee, and drinking water), and deck overlooking the bay with a tree protruding through the wood floor. Dori, the owner and founder of Enso Learning, stocked the fridge with a few yogurts and fresh cream for the coffee, as well as some homemade granola from Barb's Buns, a fruit platter, and chocolate with a lovely welcome note. It was such a thoughtful touch!
If the location isn't enough to find your true self, Dori also hosts multiple retreats, workshops, and courses for various all-inclusive holistic experiences under the theme, "A Shade More" with the intention of shifting yourself in some way just a shade more than before because transformation simply takes time.
Dori's next project is a composting outhouse complete with an indoor/outdoor shower and a sauna upstairs, but for now, a temporary composting bin in a tent is just outside and visitors can use the indoor retreat center's facilities as needed. In the warmer months, visitors can shower at the water's edge at the base of the stairs.
A Treehouse Kind of Evening
We arrived as the sun was setting and man, was it magical. The light reflected off the front-facing windows and lit up the minimal space. The king size bed sits front and center upon entry, the window seat to the right and the kitchenette to the left. I received a welcome packet before my arrival with instructions for my stay and recommendations separated into activities for an easy read - the same packet is printed in the Treehouse to refer back to. It was super helpful as a starting point for further research!
On the deck, a table and two chairs encourage an evening of Salt Spring Island wine and cheese. We snapped some photos, changed into comfy clothes, and strolled down the steps to our private beach to bid the day goodbye with a bonfire.
The rocky shore turned white with resident oysters, many of which we snatched up and cooked over the fire for a tasty treat from the sea; to complete the sea feast, scrape up some clams just down the beach.
We broke out the Uke, strummed some tunes, and feasted by the light of the distant sunset coaxed by the warmth of the fire. Content with full hearts and bellies, we hit the sack - we had an early morning and a big day ahead of us.
Day 2: South Salt Spring
Mt. Erskine, The Market, Cheese, Wine, Beer, and a Broken Down Car
Beep, beep, beep goes our 5:30 a.m. alarm - that can only mean one thing: It's time for our sunrise hike. We threw on our clothes with our eyes still shut and ran out the door to make it up Mt. Erskine (pronounced er-skin) in time for sunrise. There are two different approaches to reach the Mt. Erskine loop: The Juniper trail lies on the same road as the Enso Treehouse (Collins Rd) just 0.8 km away and is a steep uphill 2 km scramble to the loop. There's a small parking lot to the right and the trail ventures up on the left of the road. It's not called the Assault Route for no reason!
The less-steep option is accessible on the other side of Ganges on Juniper Road called the Trustees Trail. This is a 1.7 km one-way trail to the loop that's a little less steep than the Assualt Route but still a moderate hike. Keep an eye out for fairy doors while enroute! Rumor has it they live up there.
At the top, take in the incredulous views of the Southern Gulf Islands, and at sunrise, the sun sets the mountainous islands aglow!
The Saturday Market
Back at the Treehouse by 8 a.m., we took a power nap prior to some french-pressed coffee on the deck followed by the legendary Saturday Market. Vendors filled the public park for the goods swap that happens every week of the warmer months; the whole island seemed to be there. You had your painters, photographers, and woodworkers; your bakers, cooks, brewers, and growers, and your handmade soaps, cheeses, jams, jewelry and more. A steel drum band played in the walkway and a violinist down the way. This island could be totally self-sustaining if they wanted. They don't need Costco, Target, or QFC because they have each other.
I purchased a pack of waxed canvas to be used as reusable snack bags before heading to Barb's Buns for some pastries and Salt Spring Coffee Works' truck for a latte. After my much-needed coffee and carb fix, we were off to the south end of Salt Spring to further excite our tastebuds.
Salt Spring Island Cheese Company
What do you get when you combine 100 percent pure goat milk, sea salt, dairy culture, and rennet? Some freaking tasty cheese, that's what! All Salt Spring Island Cheese Company's products are handmade using traditional methods right there at their farm. Visit the grounds to bleat at the goats (yes, they scream - click here to be amazed) on one side, and drool at the cheeses in the making on the other. Taste their full cheese collection (as well as local jams and crackers) in their store front, purchase your gold, and enjoy it in their garden overlooking the pastures below. Most of their cheeses are mild, fluffy, and delicious - me being opposed to stinky cheese LOVED what they had to offer. I couldn't go home without their Garlic and Herb Ruckles and Tampenade cheeses for myself.
We took a little detour to Beaver Point to check out the park (which is an awesome historic farm and waterfront campground), and we stumbled upon the coolest little cafe! Kizmit Cafe is as hippy as it gets. A tiny converted camper serves a rotating vegan menu, the building serves the beverages and snacks, and every corner offers something unique for sale. It's so incredibly creative and one of my trip highlights for sure. I didn't find this in any of my research! You've gotta go here!
Just a short drive from the Cheese Company lies Fulford Harbour, an adorable six-building downtown center and home of the inter-island Fulford to Swartz Bay ferry. I instantly fell in love with the slow-paced tiny town; every establishment boasted ultimate charm in its own unique way. We stopped for a bite to eat at the celebrated Rock Salt waterfront restaurant. From the recommendations, we expected a high-end fancy establishment, but were pleasantly surprised to find a low-key, colorful building with a casual vibe. It's waterfront dining with no pressure - my kind of place. Indoor or outdoor seating is available. I ordered the halibut and chips, which was great, but the Halibut Sandwich was even better. It was a special that day so no guarantees it'll be around when you arrive, but I'm sure their other menu items are just as mouthwatering!
Grab a locally made popsicle from the mercantile and spend some time sunbathing on the public dock.
Salt Spring Vineyards
We had our hearts set on visiting the Garry Oaks Winery until every local recommended we visit the Salt Spring Vineyards instead. While I'm sure Garry Oaks was good, Salt Spring had the adorable vibe I was going for and the delicious blackberry dessert wine I couldn't wait to try. They're also a walk a way from each other so one could spend a happy afternoon tasting both!
We walked through a gate into the winery's gardens; the grape vines followed and the mountains completed the scene. Inside the doors we faced a tough decision: a free tasting of three wines or a $5 CAD charge for 7. We chose 7, the decision really wasn't that tough. Make sure to taste their housemade "champagne" made in the same traditional way as those in Champagne, France, and their famous blackberry dessert wine. Yes, I took home a bottle of that too. Whoops?
Pro Tip: The winery closes an hour earlier than the brewery at 5 p.m., which is why we veered off trail a bit to make it to both!
Salt Spring Island Ales
Bistro lights line the path up to the award-winning Salt Spring Island Ales' doorstep. The subway tile, natural wood fixtures, and greenery exude ultimate PNW vibes. I felt so at home and their "drink beer with nature" slogan totally resonated with me. It took everything in me not to dish out the money for a t-shirt. A little sunshine and this place would've been the full package. We grabbed a tasting flight to try the collection, my favorite being the Creme Brulee Vanilla Stout, and enjoyed it at their outdoor picnic tables. Bar seating is available indoors.
Ok, it's on the tourist map, but don't go here unless you have a super durable car. Paragliders launch here, and if you climb the towers, you've got a 360-degree view of Salt Spring and the islands beyond. Killer. But, if your car decides to poop out like mine, you're in for some serious trouble. We thought our battery died, but after a failed jumping attempt, we knew it was something much worse and definitely not fixable on a mountaintop. Long story short, after three hours of calling the island's three tow companies, the Canadian non-emergency line, and taxis while being a 10-minute walk away from our car on the side of a mountain (because it was the only place I had service), Johnson's finally pulled through. At one point we were sure we'd be spending the night up there. But, thankfully Chris is the man and drove up in his personal jeep and pulled us out; his buddy coasted us down the mountain in neutral, flying over potholes and dodging rocks the entire way down. We called the only taxi driver on the island - Alex - and he drove us back to the Treehouse for the night. We celebrated our return by the bonfire fellow visitors built in the yard before turning in for the night.
Day 3: To The North!
Vesuvius Bay, Fernwood, St. Mary Lake, Lavender
We spent our morning messing around with the car, but after no luck and no open shops on Sundays, we rented a car of our own and continued our island-wide explorations.
Sunset Dr. loops around, turning into North End Rd., which makes the perfect north island loop. Going clockwise, you'll pass Vesuvius Bay, one of the three ferry docks on the island, where you can feast indoors or out overlooking the bay and the ferry terminal at Cafe Vesuvius. Do not leave here without ordering the crab cakes! They're freaking delicious.
Lavender & Black
Continuing up the road, a short drive through stunning mansions will lead you to Lavender & Black. Fields of 10 types of lavender flow over the hills with the Stuart Channel visible through fir, arbutus and maple trees. Their shop offers various alembic essences for healing and fragrance among other products created with their homegrown lavender. All their products are vegan and contain no artificial fragrances, colorants, or preservatives. Add their on-site distillery to the mix and I could've spent my entire day there.
We kept at it, following the loop up and stopping at the farthest north of three beach access points on the west side, just as a fishing boat pulled into the dock. Around the bend and Fernwood presented itself with its iconic bright red dock. With two eateries and a beach, it's the perfect place to enjoy a quick lunch before continuing your journey.
St. Mary Lake
The island's largest of eight lakes, St. Mary Lake has a small sandy public access point with a gradual slope into the water. It's great for families! Want a quick dip? Pull off the road on the east side to experience the rope swing.
And with that, we circled back to Ganges and called it a day. We had more car troubleshooting to do the next morning.
Day 4: Homebound
Johnson's is literally a lifesaver. They towed our car from Drummond Park down in Fulford to their shop in Ganges, pinpointed the problem as our starter, and luckily, they had a starter in stock on-island, otherwise we would've been stuck another day. While we waited, we visited the super cute Switchboard Cafe and enjoyed a lavender latte and bacon quiche while working from our phones with their free wifi.
We then swung by Foxglove Farm & Garden because I'm a sucker for plant shops - their plants were so cheap!! If only I could've brought them back over the border. Back in Ganges town center, we napped in the park when we got a call that our car was ready to go at 2 p.m.
Off to the inter-island ferry in Fulford!
HUGE thank you to Dori for hosting us at her beautiful Enso Treehouse. She made our stay so comfortable, offered wonderful activity suggestions both in her welcome packet and in person, and even went above and beyond offering us a ride to town when our car broke down!
How do I Book?
So, you want to book? Check out the Enso Treehouse on Airbnb linked here for more information and the option to book.
Talk of the Town:
Your blog is awesome! It makes me want to visit Salt Spring, even though I already live here :)
- Mike, Salt Spring Wild Cider
I live on Salt spring Island and your article + photos are the best ever written on the island, so thank you.
Congratulations! We think you might have just created THE definitive guide to visiting Saltspring.
- Gary, Saltspring Soapworks