Pender, Saturna & Mayne: The Magic of the Gulf Islands

Magical Gulf Islands

Magical Gulf Islands

Not all trips are off to a good start. This was one of them. For years we have wanted to make it to Saturna island, but the ferry schedule makes it difficult to fit it into a regular weekend, and even a three day weekend was stretching it. So as soon as we knew that we had a four day weekend ahead of us (thanks 1QBit!) I was hoping that we could finally make our way to Saturna Island, while adding another island or two.

Ferry hopping - on route to Mayne

Ferry hopping – en route to Mayne Island

In the week before, we constantly checked the weather forecast which seemed borderline, but since the odds of it being a nice weekend seemed higher than it being a rainy one, we decided to finally go for it. We both had to check the ferry schedule a few times and scratch our heads repeatedly before we came up with what seemed like a reasonable plan for island hopping between Pender, Saturna and Mayne Islands.

Do you always have to fall asleep minutes before we arrive??

Do you always have to fall asleep minutes before we arrive??

The core of the plan was this one ferry that only runs on Friday mornings at 10:10am. We left a little bit too late and ten minutes into the drive we heard a strange noise from the back seat. I turned around to discover that Neil had thrown up all over himself and his new car seat that we had just installed. So we had to stop, clean him up, change all of his clothes and diaper and move on. Of course with it being a work day, and with extra traffic of people who had already started their weekend (or were trying to) it was a slow drive. Sure enough after about 20 minutes Neil threw up again. Eventually he fell asleep, just a few minutes before we arrived.


Cycling on Pender Island

Since the time was running very short we decided to park in the parking lot about 3-4 km from the ferry terminal instead of our usual free street parking in Tsawwassen. We probably broke a record in getting organized fast, and we left after just a few minutes. At the ferry terminal we were told that we were very lucky as we had made it just two minutes before the ‘cut off time’. Of course we still waited for about 20 minutes till all the cars got uploaded before we could actually get onto the ferry.

Still sleeping in beautiful places, even if this guy is around...

Still sleeping in beautiful places, even if this guy is around…

We had some evidence that Neil’s tummy was not in good shape, which required a lot of diaper changes, but generally his mood improved and he was running up and down the ferry aisles, bumping into people’s feet every now and then.

When we finally arrived to Pender Island we were greeted by a steep uphill to get out of the ferry terminal, something that the Gulf Islands are famous for. I think there must be a competition between the islands for the steepest exit from the terminal. Finally, we were cycling on Pender Island, and the day just got better. Neil was sleeping in no time, and we enjoyed the quiet and magical atmosphere that the Gulf Islands offer.

Gili and Neil

Gili and Neil, Pender Island

We’ve been to Pender once before, and for some reason I had this memory that the island was flat… well, it’s not. Actually none of the islands are flat, the hills are not very long, but they sure are steep, especially for Gili towing Neil in the trailer. We cycled to Gowland Point, where both Gili and I took well deserved naps (in turns), while Neil was running around the beach. The night before the trip was very hectic (as usual) with last minute packing and errands, so we both didn’t get too much sleep.

Waiting for the ferry to Saturna

Waiting for the ferry to Saturna Island

For the night we found a quiet side road leading to a viewpoint with absolutely no traffic or people. We remembered that the campground in Pender was in the forest and not very attractive so we preferred something else. The next day we discovered that a new marine campground called Shingle Bay, accessible by bike, had just opened on Pender, so maybe next time we’ll check it out.

Local BBQ on Saturna Island

Local BBQ on Saturna Island

On trips, Neil often rises early, so we had an early start to our day, which in a way was a good thing. We made it to the Farmer’s market just as they were opening up and were surprised how big the market was. We bought a few pastries and literally got addicted to the caramelized onion and gruyere sticks. Look for it if you are there for the farmer’s market. After a long break, a few chats with people in the market and a few rounds at the playground, we made our way to the ferry terminal to catch our next ferry, this time to Saturna Island.

Zero traffic - Saturna Island

Zero traffic – Saturna Island

Immediately as we got off the ferry in Saturna we could feel that something was different, something magical. The laid back atmosphere of the Gulf Islands just got ten times more relaxed and it felt as if we had gone back in time at least a good number of years. We came across Saturna’s farmer’s market that was basically just a few tables outside the general store (aka The Store), a far cry from the huge market on Pender. Not too far away a family farm held a BBQ with pork hotdogs made from their own pigs, $5 a pop. Neil immediately made himself at home with the local kids. Apparently there are eight kids on the island, who are all like brothers and sisters (it’s a close-knit community), and we probably met half of them.

N.... campground - Saturna Island

Narvaez Bay campground – Saturna Island

Then Neil was ready for his nap and we were ready to move on after a few hot dogs. The guy running the BBQ warned us that the ride to the campground will take us at least an hour and a half to two hours, so I was quite surprised that we arrived to the ‘end of the road’ after 45 minutes or so. I guess for people who don’t cycle it’s hard to estimate cycling times. The whole ride not a single car passed us, and the road was forested and very mysterious.

Good morning!

Good morning!

I love those campgrounds that are only accessible by bike, foot or boat and Narvaez Bay campground is one of them. As we made our way down we found a full campground with many of the people we’d seen on the ferry – they must have hurried up and did not stop for hot dogs and to chat with the locals like we did (their loss). So we hung out on the grassy area overlooking the ocean, enjoying some rare moments that Neil was still sleeping in the trailer while we could read, stretch and relax.

Cycling to East Point

Cycling to East Point

Finally we decided to pitch our tent in that area, although you are not supposed to, but with the campground full and with the experience from the previous night (Neil cried lots) we didn’t want to be too close to other campers (for their sake). We didn’t expect a visit from the park rangers, but they came, on a motor boat. We were sure we would get in trouble and maybe even get a fine, but they understood the situation and since it was only for one night they didn’t make a big deal out of it and even offered us a sticker for Neil.

East Point - Saturna Island

East Point – Saturna Island

Neil actually slept through the night this time, but we had an early rise again. I guess with sunlight starting at 4:30am and the tent not being light proof or anything, it’s hard for him to keep sleeping. But waking up early has advantages too, and after a relaxed morning we were packed and ready to go by 8:30am, while many people were still cozy sleeping in their tents. I guess that was our life too before we had Neil?

Farmer's Market on Saturna

Farmer’s Market on Saturna Island

We cycled all the way back to ‘town’ and then followed a different road that led us to East Point, where apparently there is legendary whale watching from shore. The road went downhill quickly but then we were faced with one of the longest steepest climbs I’ve seen on the Gulf Islands. Then we were finally rewarded with a beautiful flat ride along the shore with almost zero traffic and expansive views.

Our little piece of paradise

Our little piece of paradise

East Point is this beautiful area with a small museum about the history of the area and the animals around. While we didn’t see any whales we saw many sea lions and seals and two sea lions gave a whole show of fighting over an octopus (although the volunteer at the museum insisted they were sharing it….). After a couple of hours of hanging out and exploring the rock formations we were finally ready to go, just to discover that the trailer had a flat tire. Oh well, it was almost time for lunch anyway, so we made the stop even longer and Gili changed the tube.

Good times!

Good times!

Our next destination was Mayne Island. By the time we got there it was already late afternoon and I was ready to call it a day. We heard from others that the campground was full, which was not surprising for a long weekend, so once again we had find another solution. Mayne is a small island, but the hills still felt steep, especially for my tired legs, so I wasn’t so happy that an hour after getting off the ferry we were still cycling and trying to find a place to camp.

So we decided to head down a road where apparently there was a beach. I wasn’t so optimistic since most beaches on the Gulf Islands are rocky and don’t work well for camping. However we quickly found our little piece of paradise with a sandy beach which had just enough space for our tent and no other people around (and even none of those pesky “no camping” signs).

Neil was very interested in the stove the whole trip

Neil was very interested in the stove

The beach is the most natural playground and Neil can easily spend hours there. We find that actually there are less dangers for him than being at home or in the city and he is free to play and explore without us watching too closely. We woke up to a cloudy morning and took it easy, allowing more time for Neil to explore. When he started to get tired we hopped on our bikes and he fell asleep immediately.

For lunch Gili upgraded our five day old bread to toasted sandwiches while Neil was excited that we were using the stove again for lunch (fire, again? yay!). Our trip back to Vancouver was a bit of an ordeal, and we weren’t as lucky as on the way to Pender. They only sold 23 foot passenger tickets on Mayne that day, and we were about the fourth in the line not to get on. Us and many others had to be re-routed to Victoria where we took a super busy and full ferry back to the mainland. There were so many cyclists on board which really made me happy to see that this is how many people chose to spend their long weekend.

Since it was late, for the first time ever we had ferry food for dinner, which was actually not all that bad. A quick bath for Neil at home and off to bed with no trouble – our boy was tired!

Family pic at East Point

Family portrait at East Point, Saturna Island

This entry was posted in British Columbia (and nearby), Cycling & Cycle Touring, Gulf Islands and Sunshine Coast, Trip Reports, Trips with Kids. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pender, Saturna & Mayne: The Magic of the Gulf Islands

  1. Peta Kaplan says:

    I love that last picture of Neil standing up in the red top. He is no longer a baby! Very cute… Saturna Island looks beautiful and tranquil. We are currently in Puerto Rico visiting a good friend and also just spent the last few days immersed in nature: a rain forest, bamboo forests and dramatic river. The beaches are awesome here too. Hope Neil’s stomach is back to normal. Great that you kept to “plan” and could still take the trip!

  2. Nicole says:

    Great photos, as always!!!!

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