There had been a crisis when we arrived on Salt Spring Island. Fritz, the cat who lived on the porch of the community hall above the principal town of Ganges, had been abducted. The full force of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been mobilised and a watch was being kept on the three ferry terminals. Calm was restored to the island when Fritz was recovered from the car of a well-meaning but misguided woman from the mainland who thought that a hall porch was no place for a cat to live.
This was a high level of excitement for an island where traffic violations are usually as bad as it gets, despite Salt Spring being the largest of the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia, with a permanent population of 11,000. Nestled between the mainland and Vancouver Island, Salt Spring is 17 miles long and nine miles wide and enjoys a mild climate. This, coupled with the natural beauty of the place and the quiet pace of life on the island, has attracted a range of creative people who now give the island its distinctive character.
It was apparent from the moment we came off the ferry at Fulford Harbour and took the narrow road to Ganges. A sign indicated one of 42 studios where you could stop off to look at and sometimes taste the work – from glass and pottery to musical instruments and clocks, cheese to artisan breads. Organic, naturally.
Some of these artists have achieved such international stature that collectors come specially to visit them. You can potter round this abundance of creativity independently but we chose to go in the company of straw-hatted Wendy Hartnett, who leads scheduled or bespoke tours.
Typical of the enchanting situations of most of the studios was the deeply embowered workshop of Ulrieke Benner. Beyond the beguiling colours of her hats and scarves arranged on stands, her panoramic studio window looks out over the island-dotted inlet that leads up to Ganges, the gentle ripples of the sheltered water lapping the narrow rocky shoreline. Hardly a sign of life can be seen among the forest that covers the low hills lining the channel.
Continuing our tour, we grazed on bread baked in a wood-fired oven, while inhaling the scent of lavender through the open sides of the bakery; coveted an exquisite glass screen; laughed at the folk art animal sculptures of Paul Burke; and admired the courage – and the award-winning Garry Oaks wines – of Marcel Mercier and Elaine Kozak who quit the corporate world to realise their dream of owning a vineyard. They are 21st-century counterparts of the hippies who made Salt Spring their home in the 1960s, and salt and pepper ponytails are a common sight among the market stalls of Ganges on a Saturday.
The Saturday market is the most popular event on the island, held on a grass field overlooking the harbour. It’s a rule that all the produce must be locally baked, grown or made. The result is a market that has become a byword on the west coast for quality and interest. Equally the shops of Ganges are a cut above the norm: its largest is the independent Mouat’s Store, founded by Shetlanders in 1914, and still supplying all manner of goods to the islanders. Among the exceptionally well-stocked shelves of Sabine’s Fine Used Books, we even found a book by my great uncle, a Hertfordshire solicitor and historian whose Confessions of an Uncommon Attorney was a minor classic of its day.
But what had initially enticed us to the island was the prospect of staying in one of North America’s great hotels, the idyllically situated Hastings House Country Estate overlooking the harbour at Ganges. Comparable in concept and atmosphere to Portmeirion in Wales, the hotel has 18 suites, 10 of them in sensitively adapted historic buildings and two in the manor house built in the 1930s by Barbara and Warren Hastings.
It became a hotel in 1980 and regular guests Bonny O’Connor and Jerry Parks were so anxious to preserve its unique charms and perfectly judged service that they bought the hotel when it was put up for sale in 1995. When you look out over the harbour through lead-paned windows, while enjoying the island’s celebrated lamb during a five-course dinner cooked by Swiss chef Marcel Kauer, it’s easy to see why Warren Hastings thought this “one of the most beautiful places in the world”.
Salt Spring, unlike the other Gulf Islands, has half a dozen mountains from which walkers can enjoy spectacular views over neighbouring islands and west to the mass of Vancouver Island. Closest to Ganges is the walk up Mount Erskine, through pine, arbutus and the hairy manzanita with its fragrant white to pinkish flowers in springtime. It was to protect this and other treasured landscapes that the people of Salt Spring have become skilled fundraisers. Millions have been raised, including $1.1m through sales of a calendar in which 35 of the island’s bravest women bared all. It’s a measure of the community’s love for the place that the local cinema eschews commercial trailers in favour of slides of their island. No wonder Fritz’s disappearance caused such a hullabaloo.
Air Canada flies from Heathrow to Vancouver, tel: 0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.com
Frequent BC Ferries serve the island, www.bcferries.bc.ca
Hastings House Country Estate: tel: +1 250-537 2362; www.hastingshouse.com
Island Gourmet Safaris, tel: +1 250-537 4118; www.islandgourmetsafaris.com
Garry Oaks Winery, 1880 Fulford Ganges Road, tel: +1 250-653 4687
Tourism British Columbia, www.hellobc.com
Tourism Vancouver, www.tourismvancouver.com