If you want to experience the family-friendly, laid-back ease of the southern Gulf Islands this spring, but feel that Salt Spring is too busy, Galiano too close and Saturna too far, allow me to recommend the picture-perfect middle ground of the Pender Islands.
My family just spent Easter Weekend on the Penders, so we did all the scouting for you. First tip: don’t travel to the Gulf Islands on a long weekend. The ferries are squirrely-busy and the ferry stress just isn’t worth it, even with reservations. It’s almost as if long weekends take B.C. Ferries by surprise, especially on the island side.
Once you’ve actually made it, there’s plenty to explore and lots of places to wine and dine on the twin islands of North and South Pender, which are linked by a quaint, single-lane bridge.
The meandering road from the Otter Bay ferry terminal will lead you to the Pender Islands Community Hall, a beautiful barn-like post-and-beam structure that is the heart of the islands. It’s also where you can quickly find out what’s happening while you’re on the Penders.
The Saturday morning Salish Eagle ferry from Tsawwassen is fairly well-timed to drop you off right in the middle of the year-round farmer’s market held on the main floor of the hall. Upstairs is a great theatre for live events.
Down the road is the Driftwood Centre, the main shopping hub of the islands, where you’ll find Jo’s Place, a friendly joint for brunch or lunch. A few doors down is Talisman Books, one of the best independent bookstores in B.C. That’s the place to buy tickets for the events happening at the hall. The Driftwood is also where you’ll find the liquor store, pharmacy, gas station, grocery store and a nice central meadow for the kids to run around while you’re shopping.
Further along you’ll come across Woods on Pender, which is the latest accommodation to go head to head with Pender’s many Airbnbs. Woods offers a fully glamping hipster experience in kitted-out airstreams, log cabins and a remodeled motel.
Woods also boasts of some of the islands’ best dining at their Coffee + Kitchen, but check the hours of operation carefully, and reservations are recommended. Otherwise, you may get the bum’s rush, as my family did when we made the mistake of showing up and sitting down for brunch on a holiday Monday. You’d think, right? Nope.
That led us to seek out family-friendly food elsewhere, and there’s plenty of options up and down the islands. If you follow the road down to Magic Lake, be sure to stop in at the very cozy Slow Coast Café for light eats and a nice atmosphere. My singer-songwriter wife even sat in on the jam that goes down every Sunday afternoon in the side room featuring several fine local players.
If nature is your kick, some of the best options are found on the South Island. As soon as you cross the bridge, take the first left down to the Mortimer Spit, which gives you a great view of the canal between the islands, and, if your kids are napping in the car, this is the perfect beach to hang out at while keeping your car and kids in view and close proximity.
Further down the South Island you’ll come across the Enchanted Forest, an easy walk along a boardwalk through emerald rainforest wetlands, leading to a waterfall.
A little further still is Poet’s Cove, Pender’s largest high-end resort that is built upon an ancient Tsawout First Nations village site that dates back thousands of years, though you’d never know it now. Like many Gulf Islands, their First Nations history is sadly unrepresented.
One of the Penders’ most beautiful locales is Brooks Point, a geographic wonder that takes you through several different landscapes in the short time it takes to walk from the road to the shoreline. Follow the boardwalk through a marsh, which will lead you into a dark forest, until you suddenly emerge into the grassy open meadows and rocky outcrops of the point. The beaches are stunning and filled with sun-bleached driftwood. Walk along the ridge to the lighthouse for the best views.
As for getting around, if you didn’t bring a car, don’t sweat it. Pender has a bus service and a ride-share program called Car Stop (you’ll see the signs every few turns along the roads). Think of it as a kind of friendly island-time cross between hitch hiking and Uber.
The Car Stop system is particularly useful if you’re planning on a Pender bender by hitting up Sea Star Winery, Twin Islands Cidery, or the boisterous pub in Port Browning. As always, check on operating hours before you go. Almost everything is seasonal.
If you can avoid a B.C. Ferries nightmare, Pender Island could be your dream destination.