The hub of the Gulf Islands is one of the coast’s most popular destinations – boater-friendly and waiting to be explored.
The weather was cool and boat traffic light that Friday morning last July. Sure it was the weekend – but the day was young and the cool weather not exactly ideal for cruising – how busy could Ganges be?
We passed Second Sister Island at the entrance to Ganges Harbour in a parade of boats of all sizes chugging toward the village, constrained only by the five-knot speed limit. From the inner harbour, it was clear that public Kanaka Wharf, our first moorage choice, was full. So we joined the growing flotilla that circled through the anchored boats and past the marinas. I held my breath as boat after boat called Ganges Marina, our second choice, to claim moorage reservations.
Anxiety mounted in the radio voices – and maneuvering in ever-closer quarters wasn’t helping anyone’s nerves, mine included. But the female voice at the marina remained cool, friendly and professional as she sorted through the requests and chatter.
Finally, at a break in radio traffic, I called in to request a slip…humbly. “Stand by, Thea.” We circled some more – then were directed to a spot on A dock, just off the rocky shoreline. We arrived to the dock attendant’s cheery greeting: “Congratulations, you just got the last slip!”
What was I thinking?
This was our first weekend visit to the hub of the Gulf Islands at the height of summer. We had always come in spring or fall or at mid-week, and we had never seen traffic like this. If it’s Friday and traffic seems light, it could mean everybody’s already in Ganges!
The main attraction for boaters and weekend visitors is Salt Spring Island’s famous Saturday market. But the market is just the tip of the iceberg in this sophisticated, boater-friendly and entirely walkable haven.
Ganges is a first-class boating destination today because it has always been a boating destination. It’s history as the commercial centre of the Gulf Islands dates back more than a century, to the days when boats were the only way to get around and islanders stopped here for provisions, hardware, mail, or just news and human contact. Today, Salt Spring, largest of the Gulf Islands, supports a diverse population of about 10,500 – weekenders from the big city, retirees, artists and craftspeople, farmers and aging hippies-who-never-left, as well as long-term island residents.
These folks come together – in their new Mercedes and their rusty VW vans – and rub shoulders in this little village, enlivening it with a bustle, energy and sophistication that many cities lack. They also support a wide range of businesses and services where you’ll almost certainly be able to find exactly that provision, spice, book, tool, part, objet d’art or meal you crave – and only steps from your boat.
But first, where to park the boat, once you’ve cruised the two-mile length of Ganges Harbour, leaving the Chain Islets to starboard and Grace Island, just off the village, to port.
We have not anchored here but staying on the hook seems a good option, especially on busy weekends. The holding in the harbour east of the marinas and in Madrona Bay is described as good in mud and less than 20’ of water. But stay clear of the taxi path used by the constant float plane traffic, and remember that the harbour is exposed to strong southerly winds, particularly in fall and winter. To escape the bustle of the main harbour, try anchoring northeast of Goat Island or near the head of Madrona Bay. Enter via the channel east of the Chain Islands, taking care to avoid the marked reef northeast of Deadman Island on your way in. If you anchor out, you’ll find excellent dinghy access to the village at the Rotary Dinghy Dock immediately west of Kanaka Wharf.
Kanaka Wharf, the floats northwest of the coast guard station and breakwater as you enter the inner harbour, offers the closest transient moorage to the village. The wharf is operated by the Harbour Authority of Salt Spring Island; space is available on a first-come, first-served basis and rafting is encouraged. There is also space for two or three boats on the nearby breakwater dock.
The public wharf has water and 20-amp power but washrooms, showers and laundry are located at the harbour authority office beside Centennial Park and Centennial Wharf (used mainly by resident and commercial craft). Leave mooring fees in a drop box at the head of Kanaka Wharf or pay by credit or debit card at the harbour authority office.
Ganges Marina lies behind the long breakwater just north of Kanaka Wharf and offers extensive transient moorage with full services, including fuel, a short walk from the village centre. A rock with a least depth of five to six feet has been reported about 50 feet north of the end of the marina’s C dock.
Co-manager Celine Boychuk recommends reservations on weekends from May to September. The marina has dedicated outstation space for the Vancouver Rowing Club and False Creek and Royal City Yacht Clubs. From the lot at the top of the marina ramp, turn left on Lower Ganges Road to walk into town.
At the head of the harbour, below the landmark red Moby’s Oyster Bar and Marine Grill, Saltspring Marina offers full services a little farther from the village. To enter, pass either to the left or right of the two yellow buoys just outside the breakwater. Do not pass between the buoys: they mark the ends of Money Maker Rock, with a least depth of five feet.
Reservations are a must for long weekends from Easter through September, and recommended for most summer weekends as well, says general manager Lesley Cheeseman. Like Ganges Marina, Saltspring offers reduced off-season rates.
“People come here because of our fabulously clean showers and laundry,” enthuses Cheeseman. The facilities building above the marina also houses the Rendezvous French Patisserie, a hair salon, and bike rentals and repair. If you’d like to see more of Salt Spring, the marina offers Ganges’ only scooter and vehicle rentals. The marina office will also make dinner reservations at Hastings House, a local bastion of fine dining, located near the marina.
Harbour’s End Marine and Equipment, also just above the marina, provides full marine repair and shipwright services, haul-outs for smaller boats, and parts sales.
The village is a leisurely 15-minute walk from here – turn left on Upper Ganges Road, then left again at Lower Ganges Road. Or cruise into town aboard the electric launch Queen of De Nile, operated by student crews seven days a week from July through September. For $2 per adult, children free, the Queen shuttles between the two marinas and the village, and makes pickups from anchored boats; call Saltspring Marina at 250-537-5810 to arrange a pickup.
The mainstays of local commerce for locals and visitors alike, Thrifty Foods and Mouat’s Home Hardware, are just steps away from the Kanaka Wharf and the dinghy dock. Thrifty is an excellent provisioning stop with full groceries, produce and an impressive meat and fish department. And they deliver to marinas.
Mouat’s has operated here since 1907, selling everything from groceries, lumber and hardware to Ford automobiles over the years. Today, Mouat’s Trading Company operates the hardware and housewares store in the green-and-white building that’s a Ganges landmark, and Mouat’s Clothing in the nearby Harbour Building. The hardware store stocks a wide range of hard goods, tools, marine and auto parts, and housewares – you’ll find gadgets you didn’t even know you needed!
The local BC Liquor Store is in Grace Point Square, a shopping centre across Fulford-Ganges Road from Mouat’s. You’ll also find art galleries, restaurants and retail shops here.
Whether you’re stocking the boat or simply want a taste of the colour and diversity of life on Salt Spring, you have to experience the Saturday Market at least once – odds are you’ll join the ranks of cruisers who build weekends around it. The market offers a bounty of local arts and crafts, produce, food and entertainment – vendors must “make it, bake it or grow it” to participate. “Farmer’s market heaven,” says my wife Jan.
The market operates from April through October from about 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Centennial Park. Arts and craft vendors line the north side of the park along Fulford-Ganges Road, while produce and food are sold along the west side. Arts and crafts can include pottery, jewellery, textile and decorative arts, paintings and graphics, even children’s crafts.
We gravitate to the foodies’ booths, stocking our galley with baked goods from breads to cinnamon buns, organic produce, locally-raised meat and locally-caught seafood, cheeses, even bunches of organic garlic. And save room for lunch – several vendors serve hot ethnic dishes on site.
More Local Knowledge
But Ganges offers plenty more to see and do – easily enough to make it worth staying on after the market. In fact, there’s much more than I have room to describe here. What follows is a rundown of our crew’s favourites – bear in mind that shops come and go, chefs and menus change, and you may discover an entirely different side of this intriguing village.
Hastings House and House Piccolo headline the fine-dining scene here. But over the years we’ve enjoyed good meals at Calvin’s Bistro on Upper Ganges Road, Auntie Pesto’s I in Grace Point Square, Tree House Café near the public wharf, and Moby’s – all have inviting outdoor patios.
Ganges may have more coffee bars per capita than Vancouver or Seattle – but there’s not a big-name franchise in sight. Try Café Talia on Hereford Avenue for espresso-based drinks, pastries and paninis; Salt Spring Coffee on McPhillips Avenue; and Barb’s Buns, the popular bakery, bistro and meeting place just off McPhillips for coffees, breads and baked goods, and excellent lunches.
If you enjoy fine pasta and Italian specialties, don’t miss Del Vecchio Pasta Fresca, a small kitchen/café in the row of shops west of Centennial Park. Grab a slice of gourmet pizza for lunch, then choose fresh organic pasta and sauce or pesto for dinner. And why not dessert, too – tiramisu or Sicilian anola? Owners Max Del Vecchio and Carlie Goring host regular dinners themed around Italian regional cuisines – perhaps another good reason to visit Ganges – and prepare hot lunches in their Saturday market booth.
The Fishery on Upper Ganges Road, near Ganges Marina, is fisherman-owned and offers a full selection of fresh and frozen seafoods, including locally-caught Dungeness crab.
OK, I still like buying books, and Ganges is well served by four bookshops, including Volume II Bookstore just above the coast guard wharf, and Watermark Books and Salt Spring Books, both on McPhillips Avenue. My favourite is Black Sheep Books in Grace Point Square for its two well-stocked floors of used, antiquarian and new books. Don’t miss its extensive and well-catalogued collection of used marine charts, some quite old and a few marked with notes and courses by commercial fishermen or towboat skippers.
Arts and music are important on Salt Spring – the island is home to many visual artists, craftspersons and other creators, as well as sophisticated audiences. Check the Salt Spring Arts Council’s Mahon Hall on Upper Ganges Road, and Artspring on Jackson Road for regular programs of exhibitions, concerts, and performing arts.
We noticed a curious thing that weekend last July – after the Friday bustle and the excitement of the market, Ganges began to quiet down. After midday check-out hour, slips emptied and calm returned to the village streets. It was a treat for us to stay on, stroll through the village, and enjoy a relaxed evening with friends. And Sunday morning was downright sleepy as we departed for other Gulf Islands.
Depending on the day or the season, you can have Ganges however you like it: abuzz with visitors and excitement or relaxed and ready to explore. Just don’t forget that moorage reservation!
Harbour Authority of Salt Spring Island
Monitors VHF 66A
Tel: 250-537-5810 Toll-Free: 1-800-334-6629
Monitors VHF 66A
Salt Spring Island Saturday Market
By Duart Snow
A longtime West Coast boating editor and writer, Duart Snow cruises his Grand Banks 32 Thea from Vancouver. He is the editor of Canadian Yachting West.