- SIZE: 53 square kilometers (21.2 square miles)
- POPULATION: 4,500
- FERRY TERMINAL: Descanso Bay
- TOURIST INFO: Twin Beaches Mall on Taylor Bay Road
It may only be a short 20-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo, but when you step onto Gabriola Island and breathe in the fresh island air, you’ll feel yourself click in to the slower pace of island life.
Here, a day spent lounging on a sandy beach or visiting a few art studios is sometimes as busy as life gets. On the other hand, if you’d rather be busy, then Gabriola Island is the place to be with a myriad of activities and attractions for even the most active visitor.
You can kayak through beautiful bays, marvelling at one-of-a-kind sites such as the Malaspina Galleries, a spectacular sandstone sculpture that the winds and waves of hundreds of years have formed into a gigantic wave. The locals (and those in the know) use it as a natural springboard to leap into the Mediterranean-like waters that surround Gabriola in the summer.
Another kayaking route will take you past ancient petroglyphs carved into the sandstone rocks by the First Nations who, some historians believe, once called Gabriola Island home. Land-lubbers and history buffs can view more petroglyphs along one of the many walks that wind through Gabriola’s wilderness areas, or visit the quirky Gabriola Museum where there are replicas of the petroglyphs and the volunteer staff is happy to demonstrate how to do a petroglyph rubbing, a unique Gabriola souvenir.
Of course, a Gabriola holiday wouldn’t be complete without spending time at the beach. Here you have your pick — rocky beaches, where youngsters can spend hours peeking under rocks and discovering tiny sea creatures, long stretches of sandy beach perfect for a shore-side stroll and a break to build a sandcastle, and sandstone beaches where you can spend a lazy afternoon lounging on the sun-heated sandstone watching the world go by. Hint: Degnen Bay is a favourite of locals as it combines sandy spots, beautiful sandstone formations, rocks, as well as a great view towards Valdes Island.
If beaches aren’t your thing, then go on a hike through an old-growth forest or through the 282-hectare park in the centre of the island, where cyclists, horse enthusiasts, runners and walkers enjoy a web of trails.
Cyclists and passionate runners can also enjoy a trip around the 30-kilometre road that loops the island, or a shorter jaunt out to Berry Point with its vistas of the mountains on the mainland, the quaint Entrance Island Lighthouse and, on clear evenings, the lights of Vancouver and Gibson’s Landing.
Gabriola Island is also known as the Isle of the Arts, with more than 200 artists and artisans living and working here. That’s why the annual Thanksgiving Studio Tour is one of the highlights of Gabriola’s busy event calendar, a calendar that includes a theatre festival, a plethora of musical concerts, and wine, beer and movie festivals.
If you’re an art lover but have plans for Thanksgiving, then pick up the Studio Tour Guide, available year round, and browse the listings to see what type of art piques your interest — jewellery, acrylics, woodworking, glass sculpture etc. — then pop by your studio of choice. Many artists open their studios year round, especially if given advance warning, and there’s nothing like buying a piece of artwork directly from the person who made it.
To keep you fuelled on your explorations of Gabriola, be sure to stop in to one of the many restaurants, cafés, farmer stalls or the Saturday Farmers Market. All have something different to offer and all are run by locals, so your morning coffee or your afternoon sandwich may be accompanied by a little advice on island attractions, just in case you’re still having trouble filling all of that laid-back island time.
To view Gabriola Island accommodation options, click here.
— Janina Stajic, with photos by Derek Kilbourn, John Cameron