VANCOUVER, Canada — The barnacled docks at Tsawwassen, south of the city of Vancouver, fade into the distance as the ferry begins to thread its way through the emerald Gulf Islands dotting the Strait of Georgia. Salt breezes brush your hair under skies so blue that they look transparent. The sounds and smells of urban America are blown away with one cool, cleansing breath as wide bands of kelp stream--ribbon-like--behind the ferry.
Dinner awaits in the Gulf Islands, which can be reached by ferry across waters where pods of whales sometimes surface and whistling eagles carve graceful arcs.
Take your car on the ferry or leave it behind in Vancouver. Six incredibly beautiful islands are waiting with inns and restaurants offering lovely food as a delicious lure. Take seven days and do all six or select just one. Or visit several and spend a few days at each, relaxing in the welcoming arms of the inns.
It's possible to spend a week or a lifetime exploring the Gulf Islands: 200 tiny jewels southwest of the city of Vancouver. Mild enough to grow both cactus and kiwi, some islands are a bit pastoral, others are still forested and a bit wild. Locals can point out the sheltered, beachy coves where a picnic is shared with only tiny crabs and perhaps a sandpiper.
Fishing and sailing charters can be booked at many of the major marinas. Scuba diving is exquisite in countless sheltered bays where, if the diver is lucky, swimming companions will be playful seals.
A summertime Gulf Islands adventure could be orchestrated as follows:
From Tsawwassen, take the ferry 50 minutes west to Woodstone Inn on Galiano Island. Woodstone sits amid nine acres of forest laced with walking trails. The innkeepers even provide gumboots for tramping through the woods on self-guided nature walks--a perfect way to work up an appetite for the inn's northwest cuisine, which celebrates seafood and other local ingredients.
Chef Dean Mollon uses as many locally grown foods as possible in his dishes; even the eggs are from the inn's own farm. Breakfast is served only to guests. It may be poached eggs with local smoked salmon in a bath of bearnaise, or a steaming stack of orange-laced buckwheat pancakes with island-made herb sausages.
The 12 rooms--named Sweet Pea, Buttercup, Hawthorn and the like, after flowers growing nearby--make a perfect base from which to explore the rest of the 22-mile-long island.
After golfing, hiking, sailing, kayaking and eating, it may be time to hop on a late-morning ferry for the 20-minute trip to Mayne Island. Mayne is "not a place to do, but a place to be," according to Mary Crumblehume of Fernhill Lodge and Herbfarm on Mayne Island.
Crumblehume and her husband, Brian, have been providing authentic "historical" dinners for nearly four years. From Roman to Renaissance, the Crumblehumes create historically accurate dishes such as oysters swimming in a cumin sauce or flowers folded into cheesecake. The acres of garden are filled to bursting with more than 150 varieties of herbs.
A dozen strains of mint, a half-dozen of oregano, a multitude of sages, lemon verbena, lovage and basil all provide inspiration for what the Crumblehumes call their "farmhouse menu." Depending on the season, it's possible to dine on zucchini with herbs and pimento, saffron pasta with pesto and minted fresh strawberries.
Visit the Active Pass Lightstation (circa 1884), which is open to the public from 1 to 3 p.m. daily. Lightkeeper Don De Roussie sometimes can be persuaded to take a visitor to the top.
Like the other Gulf Islands, tiny Mayne is an artist's haven. The Artery (landscapes/pottery), The House of Taylor (weaving/island crafts) and Charter House (weaving/hand-spun wool) are three small galleries that represent the local art scene.
Oceanwood Country Inn, which has a fabulous view overlooking Navy Channel, specializes in local seafood. Among the treasures are such dishes as juicy scallops and shrimp in a fresh basil sauce over herb pasta or thyme-and-fennel-spiked tomato sauce with chunks of perfect Pacific snapper.
In season, there may be a British Columbia wild mushroom salad. Northwest wines are offered by the glass so that it's possible to sample a range of vintages. The small dining room is open to the public for dinners and Sunday brunches. The innkeepers, Jonathan and Marilyn Chilvers, provide bicycles for guests who choose not to lounge by the hot pool or take a sauna in the garden.
Next sail to North Pender Island for the Saturday market of vegetables, bakery, vinegars and all sorts of crafts at Driftwood Centre. The ferry docks at Otter Bay Terminal.