In the early 1900s, the weekly arrival of the steamship ferry S.S. Iroquois was unofficially designated Boat Day at Ganges Harbour. That was the day Salt Spring Island’s farmers lined up their wagons at the town dock while the ship offloaded passengers, mail and freight before their produce was loaded and shipped to off-island ports like Sidney and Nanaimo. Boat Day gave islanders a reason to celebrate another week and to welcome visitors to their island community.
Today, every day is Boat Day at Ganges Harbour. The boating activity can be intense as dinghies buzz back and forth between the anchorage and town, sail and power boats come and go from five different docks, seaplanes deliver crew and visitors from afar, and spectators line the boardwalk—just like Boat Days more than a century ago.
As the Gulf Islands’ economic hub, Ganges has everything visiting boaters need including a full complement of marine services, an eclectic mix of restaurants, coffee and pastry shops, art galleries, entertainment, a new library and, if it is Saturday, the region’s largest and busiest farmers’ market.
Salt Spring is the most populated Gulf Island with 12,000 or so inhabitants—more during summer months. At 182.7 square kilometres (70.5 square miles), it is also the largest island in the Gulf Island / San Juan archipelago. Its southern location and easy access by ferry and yacht from nearby Sidney and the neighbouring U.S. San Juan Islands, makes it the most visited Gulf Island.
Saltspring or Salt Spring Before going further, we need to explain how Saltspring/Salt Spring Island ended up with two spellings. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary indicates the Hudson’s Bay Company called it Salt Spring Island in the mid-1800s because, obviously, of the island’s numerous salt springs. The Geographic Board of Canada changed the name to Saltspring in 1910. So, officially it is one word, but locals prefer the two-word version and even that is not unanimous. Having visited many times, we call it Salt Spring because we feel like locals.
The island has a high proportion of resident artists, artisans, craftspeople, and musicians who chose the tranquil lifestyle in the 1960s. Even though the prevailing feeling of ‘life before business’ is still there, it now competes with the fact that the island has been discovered as a great place to live or to own a second home. Hence we have noticed that development and escalating land values have the ’60s ‘island time’ ethic trending toward upscale. While Salt Spring Island’s future is the source of ongoing debate, one constant remains: visiting boaters and other ‘off-islanders’ are given the same warm welcome reminiscent of Boat Days of yesteryear.
Finding Ganges Harbour When approaching Ganges Harbour from Captain Passage keep Second Sister Island’s flashing red light to starboard. Favour it slightly to avoid unmarked Ganges Shoal at four metres (13 feet) in the centre of Ganges Harbour entrance. Other than the shoal and scattered crab pot floats, the harbour is free of obstruction. Keep the Chain Islands to starboard. Reduce speed to five knots within the harbour and watch for No Wake Zones. Canadian Hydrographic Chart 3442 will guide you safely in these waters.
Government Docks Salt Spring Harbour Authority operates Ganges’ three government docks. The first dock lies to port of Grace Point beside Centennial Park. Residents and fish boats use this dock and, even though there is transient moorage with services available, we recommend that you head to the north side of the harbour where there are two more government docks, two private marinas and ample anchorage space.
If you wish to shop or have lunch, you can tie up at the 240-foot long government Floating Breakwater Dock on the north side of Grace Point for two hours at no charge. Larger yachts tend to tie up on the outside. Rafting is allowed as long as the channel is kept open. Services include water, 30-amp power and a pumpout. There is a floatplane landing off to the side. The Canadian Coast Guard station at the top of the ramp has information for visitors.
Kanaka Visitors’ Wharf has 800 feet of guest moorage on three fingers with water, 30-amp power, and wifi access. If you have questions about any of the public docks, contact the harbour manager by calling 250-537-5711. The harbour office is located alongside the boat ramp at Centennial Park.
Ganges Marina On Ganges Harbour’s west shore, popular Ganges Marina is a short walk from the village. With 3,500 feet of visitor’s moorage, vessels to 100 feet can be accommodated on the inside and, with a reservation, up to 400 feet on the outside of the breakwater dock. The docks have 15, 30 and 50 amp power and water. Larger yachts requiring 100-amp power can run their generators provided they are insulated. Wireless internet service is available.
Marina managers Céline and Nick Boychuk inform us that old docks will be replaced over the next few years, and some slips will be revamped to allow larger boats on the inside. They are also in the planning stages of renovating or completely changing the restrooms, showers and laundry facilities. These things will take time, and the Boychucks want PY readers to know that they are doing their best to upgrade as quickly as possible.
The marina office has fishing gear, drinks, ice cream and two-stroke oil; free muffins and coffee are available between 08:00 and 09:30. At the head of the ramp are washrooms, showers and laundry, as well as a garbage drop. The marina is the site of Ganges Harbour’s only fuel dock.
This is a busy place during the summer and reservations are encouraged; call 250-537-5242 or VHF 66A.
Salt Spring Marina At the head of the harbour, Salt Spring Marina has slips with 15- and 30-amp power, water and wireless internet access. With advance reservations, the marina can accommodate vessels up to 100 feet in length. When approaching, stay away from Money Makers Rock marked by two yellow buoys in line with the main dock. The marina docks are looking a little rustic but there is a plan afoot to double the size of the moorage area and upgrade eventually. Until then, it continues to be busy during summer months. To make reservations call 250-537-5810.
Washrooms and laundry can be found in the building across from the marina office. Nearby are the Harbours End Marine & Equipment, a chandlery and full marine repair shop, and the Rendezvous Café serving tasty French pastries and coffee. Also available are kayak, car and scooter rentals and fishing and whale watching charters.
Good news! We found that Moby’s Pub has re-opened. New owner Dale Schweighardt says, “Our emphasis is on the pub with good food and fun.” The menu is still evolving, and Dale said that the halibut and chips is the most popular dish by far. Marianne enjoyed a light lunch of seafood chowder and said it was “Terrific.” The view from Moby’s deck is outstanding. On summer weekends, check www.mobyspub.ca to see what live band is playing.
Across the street on the bank sits Harbour House Hotel Restaurant and Organic Farm with a pub and beer and wine store. We didn’t get a chance to partake but the restaurant uses vegetables, fruit and herbs grown in their own organic garden.
Speaking of fine food, the famous Hastings Country House Hotel sits on 22 acres above the marina and is a small luxury resort with spa and renowned restaurant. You can walk the grounds, view art pieces and stay for lunch or dinner in gorgeous surroundings. Pricey…but hey, you deserve a special treat once in awhile.
Getting to town from Salt Spring Marina is either a 10-minute walk or a two dollar scenic cruise aboard the little electric shuttle Queen of de Nile that makes provisioning a whole lot easier.
Getting the Art of Salt Spring If onboard supplies are low, Ganges is the ideal place to restock the larder. The village and its many shops are walking distance from the marinas, and the town’s Rotary Dinghy Dock makes it easy for folks to connect to the anchorage and marinas.
While Thrifty Foods, located just above the harbour, is excellent for provisioning (they will deliver orders over $25 to the boat), we recommend that you complement your shopping with a visit to the famous Salt Spring Saturday Market (see sidebar). This vibrant weekly event is a showplace for everything the island has to offer. Here locals sell organic produce, baked goods, cut flowers, arts and crafts, and give musical and other creative performances.
Noted art critic John Villani published an art guide naming Ganges “the best art town in Canada” and the ninth best in North America. Besides the Saturday Market, he lists another Ganges ‘must see’—the renowned Artcraft exhibition located in the Mahon Hall, across from the Ganges Marina, that features the work of over 200 talented Gulf Island artists and craftspeople.
Villani also mentions ArtSpring Theatre, Salt Spring’s premier venue for concerts, theatre and exhibitions. See the event calendar at www.artspring.ca.
For more art, pick up the studio tour brochure at the Tourist Information Centre, 121 Lower Ganges Road, rent a car, and head out on a self-guided tour of 30 or more artist studios spread over Salt Spring Island. Or check out Western Splendour Tour Company, which offers various guided tours of Salt Spring Island to suit all tastes. This is a great way to meet fascinating folks, see amazing creations, and tour the island all at once. While exploring, you will want to stop at some of the wineries and the local brewery, Gulf Islands Brewery, located in the Fulford Valley.
For Marianne and me, no trip to Ganges is complete without a coffee break at Barb’s Buns, now called Barb’s Bakery & Bistro. The sunny patio deck is the place to catch the Salt Spring vibe while enjoying at least one of the many sweet or savoury croissants and an espresso.
Around the corner from Barb’s is the new Salt Spring Island Public Library & Archives. This modern facility is a source of pride for the community. We availed ourselves of the archives in search of historical photos to illustrate the Boat Days theme of this story.
Mouats’ Hall of History About 10 years ago, while exploring Ganges’ rambling Mouat’s building (circa 1907) housing Home Hardware and assorted shops, we discovered the Hall of History. We recommend you browse through this photo gallery for a black and white look at the early years. One photo in particular caught my attention—Boat Day, Ganges Harbour 1907—this image of islanders gathering to greet the S.S. Iroquois has stayed with me over the years.
While land values, the town and the harbour have grown, we think you will find that the Ganges welcome is every bit as strong as it was way back then.