This is the fourth in an ongoing series called “5 Favorites” in which we’ll explore a range of topics such as memorable anchorages, marina showers, cruise-in breweries, fun things to do, ports, days of sailing, meals to make aboard and much more. The aim is not to make a list of “bests” or to rank things, but rather to provide an entertaining and insightful look at what we’ve enjoyed while cruising the Pacific Northwest. And since every boater has their favorites, we invite you to share yours in the comments below.
British Columbia’s beautiful Gulf Islands are among our favorite places in the Pacific Northwest to drop the hook, tie a line ashore and head out on foot or by kayak to explore trails and beaches. So it was only natural that the many parks scattered among these islands would make a perfect “5 Favorites.”
But one of the things that guides this particular list is that our cruising time in the Gulf Islands has been heavily skewed towards the winter months. Cruising throughout the islands for many weeks at a time during the solitude of winter has been highly rewarding, but also means that very few boats are around. That being the case, we’ve visited all of these as the lone boat there and I’m not sure many of them would make my 5 Favorites had we been there exclusively in the more crowded times of the summer. Also, they are all great spots for kids, with easy hikes and accesible beaches.
Just like my previous “5 Favorites” topics, though, there are so many great ones to choose from that finalizing this list was extremely difficult. Alas, here are my 5 Favorite parks in the Gulf Islands from north to south.
Pirates Cove (De Courcy Island)
When Porter asked where we were going and the reply came, “Pirates Cove.” He knew what he’d find there: treasure! The boys love the treasure chest that is permanently housed on the rocky outcropping that creates the eastern boarder of the cove, but the trails found throughout this park are also well suited to their short legs. Every time we visit, they leave a toy for other kids to find and take a new one. And each stop we’ve made at Pirates Cove has been different, which is one of the reasons we love it there.
The park’s boundaries are mostly found on the water, including Pylades Channel to the east and Ruxton Passage to the south. Entry into the cove can be tricky, but stay in between the marks and don’t go too close to the end of the rocky outcropping and you’ll be fine. Two dinghy docks will get you to trails on either side of the cove and there are numerous places to drop the hook and stern tie. Otherwise, anchoring in the center of the cove or off the private marina is possible. (Find a park map here.)
Pirates Cove and De Courcy Island, like many islands in the area, have a sordid and interesting history. And because the story of what took place here is almost unbelievable, I’ll let the BC Parks do the talking:
De Courcy Island was named after Michael de Courcy, captain of the HMS Pylades, a vessel that charted these waters from 1859-1861. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, De Courcy was the home of the Aquarian Foundation founded by the infamous Brother XII, a man described as “downright evil”, “The Great Beast” and the “blackest man to have ever lived.” Brother XII (aka Edward A. Wilson, among other names) was able to convince up to 8,000 followers that he was the Twelfth Master of Wisdom — part of a line of divine perfect masters from another world who would teach his faithful the mysteries of ancient Egypt and usher in a new age.
The amount of money donated to the foundation is legendary — people would give their entire life savings in support. The land purchased included De Courcy Island. A settlement was built on the north end of the island, with stories of having gun fortifications and rock shelters. Any excess money was said to have been converted to gold coins and sealed into glass jars and placed into cedar chests. No one knows what happened to this fortune — perhaps visitors to Pirates Cove (called Gospel Cove or The Haven in Brother XII’s time) sail over it every time they arrive! There are many books written about Brother XII — some fact, some fantasy, all intriguing.
Of the five parks I chose for this piece, Cabbage Island is the only one we’ve been to just once. The reason is that it lies on the outside of Saturna Island and isn’t necessarily on the way to or from a lot of other spots. That alone made it enticing to us, and we ended up spending a few idyllic days there last December.
Cabbage Island is part of the Gulf Island National Park Reserve and is little more than a flat island surrounded by sand and rocky beaches, and covered by stands of Garry oak, Arbutus (Madrona) and Douglas fir trees. (Check out a cool interactive photo map of the island here.) Between fits of winter rains squalls, we circumnavigated the island by foot, played in the sand and kicked a soccer ball on the grass under tall trees. At night, we swung safely on one of the 10 mooring buoys in between Cabbage and Tumbo islands as a strong southerly blew through.
When we first dropped the hook near the dinghy dock on the north side of Russell Island, it was with the intent of staying for a single night and leaving in the morning. But in looking back on that visit, my initial post from days after says it all:
Russell Island is a place where time seemed to stand still, and for us, it did. As is often the case with how we cruise in the winter, we didn’t really have our next destination planned and when one didn’t materialize quickly we made the simple decision to just stay put for another day and night in the anchorage. It was that good.
Russell Island also has an interesting history, which can be further explored here. The gist, though, is that it was settled by Hawaiians in 1886 and has changed hands only a few times since. A small house still stands that was built in the early 1900s and boardwalks and trails criss-cross through the island’s forests. (Check out a interactive photo map of the island here.)
After exploring the grounds and beaches of the homestead, we made for the western end of the island with an evening snack to take in a magical winter sunset — a perfect way to end our time on Russell Island.
Just south of Russell Island is larger Portland Island. Royal Cove on the northern end of the island is counted among of our favorite hidey-holes to wait out winter storms and the park’s trail system is one of the best in all of the Gulf Islands. From white sand beaches to moss and grass covered rocky outcroppings and thick forest, a hike around Portland Island is a feast for the senses.
As far as anchorages go, Royal Cove is yet another cove that we’ve spent many nights at but never with another boat. Our strategy here is to set the hook in the middle of the cove and then stern tie adjacent to the dinghy dock. This puts the bow into the oncoming ferry wakes and if a southerly is blowing, the tall trees off the stern create an excellent wind block. Princess Bay on the south end of the island is another spot to drop a hook and go ashore via dinghy dock, but we’ve never been able to stay the night there as it is not good in a southerly.
What I imagine to be a bustling place for boaters, campers and day-trippers on summer weekends, we’ve found Sidney Spit to be one of our favorite parks to stop at after checking into Canada at nearby Van Isle Marine in Tsehum Harbour. And the reason we enjoy it so much here, quite frankly, is the exquisite beach.
The Spit’s soft sand greets your boots or toes when you step from the dinghy and we’ve spent many afternoons picnicking on a beach blanket, running through the water and playing on the piles of driftwood. Besides the sandy spit, there are also miles of hiking trails to stretch your legs and the bird watching here is some of the best in the islands. Also, sunsets over Vancouver Island can be breathtaking.
For visiting cruisers there are 20 mooring buoys to use and anchoring can be found up and down the western side of the spit. Just take care with your depths, as several shallow spots — especially at low tide — can creep up on you if you’re not careful.