Ever since high school, I’ve floated around the idea of someday retiring to Gabriola Island to open an art studio alongside a robust garlic farm. I can barely remember the details from that excursion but I’ve since longed for that same sense of deep inspiration and relaxation.
Located on the unceded and traditional territory of the Snunéymux First Nation, Gabriola Island has a quiet, humble identity. For most of the year, the Island is home to about 4000 residents, with the number increasing to almost 6000 in the summer. Unless you have your own boat, the best way to get to the Island is from Nanaimo on Vancovuer Island (you can also get there from Victoria, although it’s not as easy). It’s barely a 20-minute ferry ride that many residents are happy to take as part of their daily or weekly commute.
There’s no such thing as “Downtown Gabriola”, but if you’re a first time visitor, consider stopping by the Visitor Centre and surrounding area before venturing onwards. During COVID-19 times, we really found that a stop here was helpful to figure out what special restrictions were in place. The Visitor Centre is also surrounded by a few key establishments including a health and wellness store, hardware store, grocery store, small restaurants, an outdoor clothing store, and perhaps most importantly, Mad Rona’s Coffee Bar (which has ample indoor and outdoor seating, cafe food, wifi and washrooms for customers).
Camping at Descanso Bay Regional Park
The easiest and most popular spot to stay on the Island is Descanso Bay Regional Park, a 40-acre oceanfront park with trails, beaches and picnic areas, and easy parking for RV’s (caravans) if that’s your kind of thing. We opted to take our tents. Endless rock and tree formations (especially the beautiful Arbutus trees that the Gulf Islands are famous for) frame the campground, making for a scenic place to rest your head for the weekend.
With so many limits on travel and activities these days, I felt a surreal privilege to be able to camp in such a beautiful and spacious place.
If you go onto the reservation website, you can easily select and book the exact campsite that you want, depending on the size of your group and your needs. The Descanso Bay camping experience is halfway between “roughing it” and “glamping”. These sites have picnic tables, easy water access, and permanent, well-built outhouses . But they’re still outhouses.
You can also rent canoes, stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) and kayaks here. The rentals are a little more expensive than I was expecting, but the experience of paddling with my sisters (Bianca and Candace) in tandem with seals in the Pacific Ocean was worth it. The management is a pretty low-key operation. I would email the campsite for any questions you might have in advance.
Exploring the Island
First and foremost, you should explore the beaches. I meant it when I said that the Island has a beautiful rugged shoreline from every angle. Gabriola Sands Provincial Park (Twin Beaches) has beautiful views of Vancouver Island and the Mainland. Sandwell Provincial Park is accessible by a short hike through forest and features a prehistoric petroglyph carved into the sandstone rocks that you can see during low tides. Drumbeg Provincial Park, located on the East End, is a sandy beach that’s great for shell hunting and picnicking (and there are outdoor washrooms here as well).
If I had to pick one scenic destination, it would have to be the Malaspina Galleries, a unique sandstone formation eroded by the waves of the Pacific Ocean over many years. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt to get there, but the feeling of finally finding the spot will make the experience even more worthwhile.
When you’ve seen enough of the beaches, you may also want to plan a proper walk, hike or bike ride. This 2019 version of the Gabriola Trial Maps and Walks is pretty helpful for helping you plan a route. The Elder Cedar Nature Reserve is a very special place. Let’s just put it this way: if you think you’re getting enough fresh oxygen in your day-to-day life, think again. Coming into this forest will rejuvenate you, and the walk is designed to be an easy-to-follow 30-minute loop.
Finally, you can’t leave the “Isle of the Arts” without taking a peek into the world of the local artists. Allegedly, there are more than 200 artists and artisans who live on the Island, and the annual Thanksgiving Studio Tour draws a ton of visitors from the Mainland and Vancouver Island.
At the time of writing this article, the 2020 Studio Tour is cancelled as a result of COVID, but you should definitely pick up the Studio Tour Guide from the Visitor Centre (ask about the Yellow Flag Program) to help you navigate your way around the Island. There are tons of artists who simply have a “honour system” display with their artistic creations located right in front of their property.
Where to Eat on Gabriola Island
Gabriola Island is small, and all of the restaurants are basically located within a stone’s throw of each other near the Visitor Centre. You can find the list of restaurants here, along with a list of farm stands and local growers. Most of them are currently open with social distancing restrictions in place.
Honestly though, it’s all about the raw, local products here. Plan your trip to coincide with the Gabriola Farmer’s Market (every Saturday from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving, again, COVID restrictions pending) if possible. A sandwich and salad you make with farm fresh ingredients will be one of the best ways to take in the Island, literally.
On Gabriola Island, it’s hard to say whether it’s the people and products that are shaping the nature, or if it’s the nature that is shaping the people and products. That is an incredible balance to find in this day and age. I left the Island feeling reassured that this place was still ever as special as I remembered it to be.
P.S. If you want to get to know more about the Island, I’ve also written an article about my visit to Deep Roots Farms and a wonderful Gabriola family’s adventures in garlic farming, Icelandic Sheep breeding and so much more.
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