If you’ve visited Canada you’ll know that the locals are generally very friendly. But there’s one part of the country that Expedia recently named as the friendliest. Each year, thousands of visitors discover a warm welcome when they travel to Pender Island to view the orcas.
It’s part of the Southern Gulf Islands, which lie in an inland sea a short ferry ride south of Vancouver. And it’s one of the best places to view these amazing mammals. Around 2,300 people live on the island, which is 7 miles long by 3 miles wide.
Richard Fox is the author of The Pender Islands Handbook. He says the island is, “a magical place” and visitors might be surprised that it is considered, “the tropics of Canada” because it rarely freezes. “It’s in a microclimate that has a similar temperature to Seattle in Washington,” says Richard. “It’s known as a zone 8 climate – sub Mediterranean. I have friends who grow cacti on the island!”
Pender Island attracts outdoorsy visitors who want to immerse themselves in the landscape. “It’s popular with the active crowd, especially kayakers,” says Richerd. “More recently we’ve seen an increase in stand-up paddle boarding and even stand-up paddle boarding yoga classes! The islands aren’t surrounded by the open ocean, so the waters are fairly calm. That means it’s one of the premier destinations in the world for cruising on a boat. The many different islands have lots of cute little harbours to explore.”
A large part of Pender Island has been incorporated into the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve so there are many walks and rambles. “In my book I’ve listed a hundred trails – from ocean walks to mountain tops. There are beautiful views along the coastline and so many paths to choose from.”
Richard also offered another advantage that might surprise European visitors. “One thing I like about hiking on Pender Island is you don’t have to worry if there are mountain lions or grizzly bears about. It’s one of the safest places to hike. There are no poisonous snakes and there is no violent crime.”
The big draw for many visitors is the marine life. Richard explained: “Pender Island is the best of the Gulf Islands for watching orca, or killer whales, go by because they swim along the Swanson Channel following the salmon up to the Fraser River. They pass right by the north coast of the island fairly regularly.” He says you can be added to a ‘telephone tree’ – a kind of notification system – so you don’t miss them when they’re sighted.
But the best way to see orcas is to go on a whale watching boat trip, because the skippers will radio each other about where they are. “The orcas are magical. I’m a boater and they have surrounded me on many occasions. There are two types here. 82 resident orcas that mostly live in the region and make up three different pods. They eat the salmon, so do better when there’s plenty of fish around. There are also the transient orcas. They eat sea mammals like baby whales or dolphins. They’re the sort you see on the Discovery Channel,” says Richard.
Humpback whales have also returned to the area. “These are the singing whales and they can be seen frequently in groups of as many as ten,” says Richard. “You’ll also see seals and the little river otters scurrying around so watching the wildlife is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of birdlife too, like bald eagles, ospreys and other seabirds.”
So when you’ve finished watching the local wildlife, what else is there to keep you busy? “There are some amusements on the island including a disc golf course, which is a bit like frisbee golf,” Richard told me. You’ll find a regular golf course too. If you’re even more active outdoors, you can rent bicycles from several places. Richard says that cycling can be a bit of a challenge because of the hills, but if you’re in good shape it’s a very popular activity. Or you could just take a stroll. “It’s worth getting around the island to see the pastoral landscape, dotted with organic farms and produce stalls,” says Richard. It’s an arty place too, with plenty of private and co-operative art galleries that people can visit.
So where can you stay? Richard told me the most interesting accommodation on the island is called ‘Woods on Pender’ where you can spend your nights in a luxury Airstream caravan.
Richard Fox’s The Pender Islands Handbook is the definitive guide to the island and, at around 400 pages, it’s full of useful information. You can buy it on Amazon.