Gulf Islands

Salish Sea: Hidden Islands Beyond The Roadmap 

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You Haven’t Seen the Magical, Mediterranean Salish Sea Without an Expedition Yacht

Last April, Sue Kollet sat under a night sky, suspended in the warmth of tugboat Swell’s hot tub, as the boat, anchored in an island cove, lay suspended in the Salish Sea. Sue gazed up, into the stars. A streak of light, and then another appeared: the Lyrids meteor shower.

It’s a moment she returns to when she reflects on all the ways a trip in the region of BC’s Gulf Islands National Park Reserve is unexpected, magical and stimulating.

An expedition cruise aboard a classic boat

She and husband Paul, both from Washington State, booked a weeklong expedition cruise aboard Swell that promised to take them and just 10 other guests to islands not accessed by ferries, to landscapes and wildlife bursting with spring energy.

“I liked it because it felt like our own boat, and we spent time close to the water,” said Sue. “We were the only ones out there, and there were so many islands. It felt quiet and more exploratory.”

The trip, operated by respected tour company Maple Leaf Adventures, was designed to show people the elements of spring in this region — things that you don’t experience by taking a ferry and driving along Salt Spring Island’s forest-covered roads. There are about 200 Gulf Islands, only a handful serviced by ferries.

Natural, geological and Indigenous history

Highlights include meandering for days among sculpted sandstone and fluted granite shorelines, nosing ashore by tender and stepping onto white shell beaches that are artifacts of millennia of Indigenous use. Some trips also include a deep dive on the Indigenous history of the islands, with an Indigenous crew member.

Experiences include picnics on rocky bluffs where vultures and eagles soar below, and naturalist-led walks among ferns and rainforest in narrow valleys. Especially in spring, it includes carpets of wildflowers: lone Calypso orchids, clouds of pink sea blush, blue-eyed Mary and white fawn lilies, sometimes splashed with fuchsia from tiny lilies named shooting stars.

“It’s a unique place,” says naturalist and deckhand Rachael Merrett, a veteran of wildlife tours and conservation work in the Salish Sea. “Although it’s surrounded by urban areas, it’s still wild. You’ll get whales popping up in one place, eagles flying over the forest. It’s really amazing to be here and know it’s your backyard.”

On the Kollets’ trip they encountered a pod of orcas, had porpoises bow riding the Swell, and watched sea lions and seals. But an aspect of the trip they loved is that it went far beyond what industry insiders call the “charismatic megafauna”.

“We love the whales, but we learned about so many more things including sea stars and birdlife. We took away an appreciation for nature and sea life of various kinds,” said Sue.

Exploration and camaraderie

The adventure and learning was fuelled by the friendly crew. Experts on the coast, they have key shore trip areas pre-planned but leave room in the flexible itinerary for following their nose.

“Getting out on the zodiac from Swell and going somewhere that even the crew had never gone – that really felt like exploration together,” said Paul. “You can see how easily that could happen with all the coves and islands there.”

Exploration begets camaraderie, or perhaps it’s the other way around. Regardless, that’s another thing the Kollets noticed about the trip.

“It’s an intimate situation with the crew, who become family in a way,” said Paul. “The crew sets the tone on the first day.”

They contrasted this with their experience several months later on a luxury Alaska small ship cruise with a little fewer than 400 guests. On that trip, “people just brushed by us and we didn’t get to know anybody,” Paul said.

He suggests people look beyond the surface when making a buying decision.

“People get sticker shock (with expedition cruises like Maple Leaf’s) because they see the big, traditional cruise prices and they seem so inexpensive,” he says. “But you’re in such a peaceful state of mind on these trips. I couldn’t trade that for the big ships, especially after our last [Alaska] trip cohort was 388 people – 345 too many.”

All-inclusive vs traditional prices

There is also a difference in an all-inclusive price, which expedition cruises have, and the base-fare plus extras model that traditional cruise ships offer. In the former, you don’t ever pull out your wallet for anything once you start your trip. In the latter, you’re paying for a basic service, while additional experiences, such as a short kayak trip in a cove, could cost $300 per person.

Ultimately, not reaching into your pockets for every foray into nature lends that sense of peace and connection Paul referred to.

“I think they found it rejuvenating to be out there,” Rachael said about the guests after the trip. “There is always something new to learn, and I think they all had a renewed sense of discovery.”

Trip Dates and All-inclusive Rates

Salish Sea (south) & Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

  • Apr 14-18, Swell (tugboat), depart/return Victoria, from Cdn $3550
  • Apr 21-25, Maple Leaf (sail), depart/return Victoria, Cdn $3000

Salish Sea & Desolation Sound Supervoyages

  • Apr 19-26, Swell (tugboat), depart Victoria, return Campbell River, from Cdn $4950
  • Apr 26-May 4, Maple Leaf (sail), depart Victoria, return Campbell River, Cdn $4450
  • May 7-14, Swell (tugboat), depart Campbell River, return Port McNeill from Cdn $5000*

Salish Sea (north) & Desolation Sound

  • Apr 27-May 1, May 2-6, Swell (tugboat), depart/return Campbell River, from Cdn $3550
  • Apr 30-May 4, Cascadia (catamaran), depart/return Campbell River, from Cdn $5000
  • May 5-9, Maple Leaf (sail), depart/return Campbell River, Cdn $3000

Prices are per person and include all accommodation, meals and snacks, beverages, shore trips, guiding, activities, and permits. Do not include 5% GST and $200 sustainability fee.

* This trip goes north from the Salish Sea into the Broughton Archipelago.

The Vessels

Cascadia: Our luxury expedition catamaran that accommodates up to 24 guests in 12 spacious, bright cabins.

Swell: A handsome, converted tugboat, the 90-foot Swell accommodates up to 12 guests in 6 cozy private cabins with ensuites.

Maple Leaf: Our flagship, the beautiful 92-foot schooner accommodates up to 8 guests and is a classic BC heritage vessel.


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