By Alison Gardner
At the north end of the Salish Sea, the seascape between British Columbia’s mainland and the east coast of Vancouver Island narrows dramatically, filled to capacity with a cluster of 10 Discovery Islands. All but two are cloaked in evergreen forests almost to their shores while offering solitary protected coves in which to drop anchor and share space with undisturbed birdlife and animals both on land and in the water. Top-quality marinas are out there, but they are elusive.
The other two islands in this cluster, Quadra (pop. 2,500) and Cortes (pop. 1,000) are perfect for boaters who like to mix up their pristine wilderness with well-established creative art studios, farmers’ markets, lively musical evenings in the local pub, native cultural experiences, and supermarkets to re-stock the galley.
Half way up the east coast of 290-mile-long Vancouver Island, the community of Campbell River is the anchor city and ideal jumping-off point for exploring the Discovery Islands (www.discoveryislands.ca). Powell River on the mainland’s Sunshine Coast is another entry point to the islands.
The scenery in between is dramatic, separated by a maze of narrow passages, inlets, arms and channels. In fact, boaters are never more than a few minutes from land and a sheltering cove, but sailing in such a close landscape presents challenges of swift tidal currents and invisible rocks that leave no room for complacency. National Geographic has declared this collection of island jewels to be one of “Canada’s Places of a Lifetime”.
“There are countless routes among the Discovery Islands,” said Michael McLaughlin, manager of the British Columbia Ocean Boating Tourism Association and mastermind behind the AhoyBC.com boater website launched in 2015. “Despite the lack of settlement on most islands, there are nevertheless an impressive 22 marinas, some in surprisingly remote areas, offering a range of services, provisions and valuable advice. A number of marinas are associated with a wilderness resort or lodge so, if a break from galley fare, some guided activities or an overnight off the boat seems enticing, check out the hospitality.”
Four marinas, four stories
In late August while cruising among the islands, I checked out the marinas, services and land-based amenities at the remote locations of Blind Channel Resort on the northwest edge of the Discovery Islands, and Dent Island Lodge on the northeast tip. I also spent time at the easily accessible destinations of April Point Marina (Quadra Island) and Gorge Harbour Marina Resort (Cortes Island), both at the southern perimeter off Campbell River.
Each property could not have been more different, except for the warm Canadian welcome common to all. All were full service marinas, accommodating numerous large yachts during a season that offers best weather from May through September though three remain open year round. (See box, Discovery Islands Marinas at a Glance.)
The marina most “invisible” has to be the Gorge Harbour Marina Resort whose deep circular bay is accessed through a narrow doorway of sheer rock face rising tall on either side. The resort has hung out at the back of the bay for 40 years, but according to General Manager Bill Dougan, it has definitely been noticed.
“On any given day in July and August, our docks will be 50 percent full with larger yachts,” Dougan said. “During this time, reservations are paramount to tie up on our docks though I do keep 300-400 feet a day for first-come, first-serve clients. Many vessels over 90 feet anchor out and dinghy into our facility. Larger yachts use the fuel dock, restaurant, grocery store and come ashore for the nightly entertainment.”
Managed by Larry Holmes for the past five years, April Point Marina faces Campbell River just a 10-minute run across Discovery Passage. He, too, cites a keen interest from large yachts, with many using this secluded, quiet marina as a safe home base for a season of cruising while owners come and go by scheduled floatplane or from the Campbell River Airport as they balance work demands and recreational desires.
“About 75 percent of boaters have been here before, with about 200 yachts over 60 feet arriving annually,” Holmes said. “Guests really appreciate the nearby April Point Resort & Spa with its fine dining reputation, an activity center offering many water-based tours and the salmon sport fishing that is so exceptional in these waters. A full-service spa is also a major draw for the boating community.”
To sample that pristine wilderness with which the Discovery Islands is usually associated, we head north through narrow waterways to Blind Channel Resort. It is on West Thurlow Island that all but closes the entrance to Johnstone Strait. We secure our spot on the 2,000-foot marina dock in this visibly isolated location. However, as we are greeted by members of the four-generation Richter family who pioneered this marina and resort starting in 1970, any sense of isolation evaporates.
Living on the property are great-grandfather Edgar and great-grandson Jonah, with the middle two generations of Richter males, Phil and his son Eliot, expertly handling day-to-day operations. Eliot shares that family and friend groups looking for a variety of experiences can stay aboard their yachts as well as in cabins, hike the old-growth forest trails maintained on the island, and enjoy summer evenings of live jazz and blues.
Navigating due east as the crow flies, our final destination on this Discovery Islands exploration is Dent Island Lodge on Stuart Island. Arriving at the marina’s small cove, I was quite unprepared to see a mother lode of megayachts and several float planes, all coming and going in an orderly fashion. General Manager Justin Farr assured me the marina welcomes vessels of all lengths, but that day large yachts ruled, several up to 150 feet.
What was originally conceived as a private family getaway evolved into a luxury lodge and marina with a spa, gym, spacious lounge, a store and two gourmet restaurants as well as salmon fishing charters and jet boat wildlife tours. Arrival by yacht is augmented by scheduled and chartered seaplanes from Vancouver and Seattle, and water taxi service from Campbell River. Remote is relative here. A collection of deluxe land cabins is well hidden among tall trees though no cabins are more than a stone’s throw from the lodge.
Many boaters dedicate a season to exploring the region’s recreational opportunities, marine parks and bountiful nature. Others are passing through. No matter the itinerary, they will appreciate why the Discovery Islands are indeed among Canada’s Places of a Lifetime.
Discovery Islands Marinas at a Glance
Discovery Islands Marinas at a Glance