IT was a perfect day to travel by ferry – sunny, with a light breeze. The waters of the Strait of Georgia were placid; the sky was a spotless blue. After an hour and a half ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay north of the city of Vancouver, we docked at Nanaimo’s Departure Bay on Vancouver Island.
My family and I then drove towards the town of Crofton where we were to board another ferry to Salt Spring, the jewel of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. And from Crofton, it was a short 20-minute crossing.
On the dock of Vesuvius Bay, we were greeted by a most hospitable sight – a two-story house that had PUB invitingly scrawled on its roof in big, bold letters. But not to be distracted, we headed to the town of Ganges to forage for lunch. After a walkabout in the cozy town center, we settled on a fish and chips café by the dock where we were soon munching on our battered halibut, salmon and chips washed down with cold beer.
We spent the rest of the afternoon inspecting interesting shops laden with iridescent hand-blown glass, organic soaps and shampoos of every imaginable scent and spice, trinkets and baubles, smooth and grainy wood pieces, all created by the island’s artists and craftspeople.
Mutya, my daughter, took a fancy to a brownie mix with lavender and I was made to part with a few dollars.
Housed in a pale yellow heritage wooden building in town was an arts and crafts exhibit by local artists. We were just blown away by the art pieces. There were playful and fantastical ceramic pieces by a Korean-Canadian artist who has garnered several international prizes for his works. Impressive patchwork and appliqué wall hangings deftly captured the lights and colours of B.C. coasts’ marine and landscapes. Found objects such as driftwood in varying shapes and sizes became canvases for oil and acrylic paintings. There were stained glass hangings, exquisitely handcrafted cedar bowls and lamps, handpainted gossamer silk scarves and fine jewelry made of precious metals and natural stones. We left the exhibit hall awed and inspired to create beautiful things of our own.
Armed with an assortment of maps and brochures, we decided to drive further south to Fulford, a place said to have “funky architecture and eclectic shops.” And on the way, we decided to stop by the Salt Spring Winery located on a hilly patch with a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains.
We entered a wooden gate that was shaded by an arbor festooned with lush grapevines. The slope, too, was planted to neat rows of grapevines. We went straight into the tasting room where a young woman gave us the wine list for the day. Three of the fruity wines we sampled got our nod – the winery’s very own pinot noir, blackberry port, and a white wine called amorata. We lingered in the garden with our wine picks, taking in the picturesque scenery. Then, we were off to our next destination on the tourist map – the goat cheese farm.
From the main highway, we turned left to a sinuous road lined with shady trees and drove for a couple of minutes. The goat cheese farm was not difficult to find. Sighting some ruminating goats and several haystacks, we knew we were in the right place. We proceeded to where the cheese was being made. One could actually see the process through a series of windows, leading up to the final stage of packaging. And the best part was going into the fromage room for the sampling and purchasing. We came away with three kinds of cheese: garlic-flavored; the Julietta, which is soft and almost runny with a strong flavor, and the Marcella, which is harder and perfect with a glass of wine.
The daughter could not wait to get to our next stop – the island’s famous wood-fired brick oven bakery. What a disappointment it was when, at the end of the dirt road, we were greeted by a “closed” sign on the house’s rickety fence. It seems that the owners had decided to go out and enjoy the sun.
By this time, we were getting famished. But not wanting to miss the chance, we decided to drive further to the Ruckle Provincial Park. I was mildly surprised to find old, weather-beaten farm sheds amid apple trees. This vast piece of land was donated by the Ruckle family for public use. Part of it is the oldest farm in B.C. that has remained in operation since the 1870s.
Still driving south towards the water, we came to Fulford, a cozy community of artisan shops and boutiques housed in multi-colored wooden houses. One could almost hear the rhythmic bounce of reggae or Jack Johnson’s lazy slide guitar. Because of this and its reputed laid-back lifestyle, the place is called the “Caribbean of the Gulf Islands.” There were a few shops selling organic clothing, tie-dyed shirts, flouncy crinkled skirts and accessories from faraway India, Nepal and Thailand.
I ventured inside a nearby weaving room where a bright-faced young lady sat at the loom working on a woolen scarf. She pointed me to glazed tea sets and coffee mugs of intentional imperfections that she proudly said were all made by local potters. Bidding her goodbye, I walked up the road and came upon an open barn full of papier mache farm animals. On the barn’s roof perched two gigantic crows—made of paper, of course.
Back in the hotel room, I recalled reading about a famous author who had decided to make Salt Spring Island his home. I searched the Internet and voila! Nick Bantock’s name appeared. Author of “Griffin and Sabine,” that best-selling trilogy about two people who fell in love but were separated by place and time, Nick owns a bookstore and a gallery on the island called the Forgetting Room, according to one of the articles.
The next day was a hunt for Mr. Bantock. We searched for Sabine’s Bookshop but nowhere could it be found. Instead, there was a Blacksheep Bookstore at exactly the same address. I went straight up the winding wooden staircase, each step of which was laden with books on antiquity. On the second floor, vintage books and more recent ones lined the walls and filled wooden cabinets. There was a bespectacled man from whom I inquired whether the bookstore was Mr. Bantock’s. He replied that the bookshop was sold by the author but that they have maintained it as it was. Indeed, Mr. Bantock’s special room was still there, containing copies of the miniature drawings and postcards as they appeared in his books.
Off to the Forgetting Room we drove. As we alighted from the car, a lanky bearded man waved and welcomed us with the gentlest of smiles. On the gallery’s walls hung Mr. Bantocks’s large art pieces in mixed media and collage. Not unlike his books that are veritably a marriage of art and text, his paintings are graphic, cryptic and full of historical allusions. One is made to wonder why a Samurai warrior and an Egyptian god share one canvas space. There were also sepia-colored postcards, old eastern maps and photos of Egyptian and North African women put together, and mounted on sturdy cardboards like an ancient traveler’s portfolio. For those who want a piece of Mr. Bantock’s clever artworks, these affordable pieces could be had for $40 up.
Amongst crates of his paintings packed for an exhibit in the United States we sat, and Mr. Bantock talked about persistence in the practice of one’s craft. About Salt Spring Island, the artist had only praises for this nurturing community of forested lands and kindred souls. As parting words, Mr. Bantock encouraged us to engage our muse and do art, for it truly is too precious to leave to the experts.
Meeting Salt Spring Island’s noted writer-cum-artist in his Forgetting Room Gallery was truly a memorable cap to our tour of this artists’ island haven. •
Angelina Maranan-Claver and her family are currently based in Vancouver, British Columbia.