Believe it or not, but the Pacific Northwest has quite a few islands that offer supreme weekend getaways. The San Juan Islands in Washington get the most attention and thus tend to be packed during peak seasons. But head just a bit north of the San Juans and you'll find hidden gems offering much more intimate experiences. For our annual 4th of July road trip, we decided to head to one such place: Gabriola Island. Having spent many weekends in downtown Vancouver and Whistler, we hadn't spent much time in or around Vancouver Island, so this was our chance to finally do so! Want to see more photos of Gabriola Island? Click here.
Where is it?
Gabriola Island is a small southern Gulf Island located in the Salish Sea that separates Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia. The easiest way to get here is taking a 20-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo, a small city on Vancouver Island. You can also take the super scenic route by flying in a float plane from Vancouver Airport. For our weekend trip from Seattle, we drove north to Vancouver, BC to a small town called Tsawwassen. From here, we loaded our car onto a BC Ferry and set sail to Swartz Bay (Victoria). It was a pleasant and scenic 90-minute ferry ride.
Overnight Stay in Victoria
Given the amount of land and water travel we did on day one, we made a short pit stop at an Airbnb rental in Victoria. The capital of British Columbia, Victoria is a lovely, picturesque city located on the southern end of Vancouver Island. There is lots of visual evidence of the city's British colonial past in the form of Victorian architecture. You can easily spend a whole day wandering the streets of Victoria with a camera in hand, marveling at the building designs. If you prefer outdoor activities, there's also an abundance of outdoor activities including hiking, biking, zip lining and even bungee jumping (which I may have done in Canada in my younger years).
What to Do in Victoria
- Walk through Beacon Hill Park, the city's main urban green space that has a petting zoo
- Visit Butchart Gardens, a designated National Historic Site of Canada
- Enjoy high tea at the iconic Empress Hotel
- See the Neo-baroque British Columbia Parliament Buildings light up at night
- Go hiking, biking, zip lining, or bungee jumping
- Take an Orca whale watching tour
Days 2 & 3
Head to Gabriola Island
The next day, we departed Victoria for Nanaimo harbor. We loaded our car onto a ferry and enjoyed a 20-minute ferry ride to Gabriola Island. The ferry pulled into Descanso Bay, and from there we headed to our accommodations. Marina's Hideaway is bed and breakfast that we found on Airbnb. We occupied an upper-level guest suite attached to the property's main house and absolutely loved the comfortable atmosphere and delicious home-cooked breakfast. But perhaps best of all was the view! Sitting out on the deck or in the outdoor hot tub gave you the most stunning view of Nanaimo in the distance. It's the most beautiful place to watch a sunset. We recently discovered that Marina's Hideaway has been sold; hopefully the new owners are still running it is a bed and breakfast, but we can't say for sure.
What to Do on Gabriola Island
With a population of just over 4,000 people spread over 22 square miles, Gabriola is pretty sparse in terms of people. However, the residents that live here are tightknit and have a lovely community established throughout the island. You'll find nicely paved roads, restaurants, shopping centers, museums, and lots of art. After all, Gabriola is known as the "Isle of the Arts" and holds three large annual arts events throughout the year. Even if you're visiting during a non-art event weekend, many artist studios are open and welcome visitors.
In addition to the arts, there are many public beaches and forests offering lots of hikes and opportunities for nature photography. There are three provincial parks on the island: Gabriola Sands Provincial Park, Sandwell Provincial Park, and Drumbeg Provincial Park. There's also Descanso Bay Regional Park located near the ferry terminal. We visited all of these parks during our two-night stay in early July. The weather was a bit wet and chilly for summer. But considering that it was a peak travel time, there were very few travelers that we encountered. This was a huge change from our previous trips to Orcas Island, which is generally packed during this time of year.
The lack of people made it feel as if we were on our own private island. We would walk hours on the rocky beach shores without encountering a soul. Instead, probably due to the lack of people, we saw an abundance of wildlife. There were banana slugs as big as our hands, flocks of cormorants gathering at sunset, families of harbor seals playing incredibly close to shore, more deer than we've ever seen in the Northwest, and our very first sighting of a large, lone sea otter in the wild. The nature viewing was spectacular.
We ended our last day on Gabriola with one last home-cooked breakfast at Marina's, and then caught the BC Ferry back to Nanaimo. From here, it was a long wait to board a ferry back to mainland Canada, and an even longer drive back to Seattle. This was likely because we were joining the flocks of people traveling after a long weekend. As a result, we highly recommend leaving ferry travel in the Pacific Northwest to non-weekend days.
Gabriola Island is a special getaway from Seattle and Vancouver that actually isn't much further than other popular island destinations. It has significantly fewer visitors, which gives you a more intimate, private experience. Have you visited Gabriola Island or any other islands in Canada? Let us know in the comments below!