Only twenty minutes by ferry and you will find an amazing piece of land surrounded by picturesque beaches, intricate caves, artists’ workshops, old cedars and ancient history. This is Gabriola Island…
8 Interesting Facts about Gabriole
1. The first Europeans, the Spanish explorers Narváez Galiano and Valdés, arrived on the island in 1791. They called the place called (Punta de Gabiola). But in the 19th century, British cartographers mistakenly added another letter to “Gaviola” to get “Gabriola”.
2. According to the 2016 census, Gabriola’s permanent population is 4,033.
3. Before the arrival of Europeans, the island was inhabited by the Snunéymuxw (means “Great Men”) tribe, now they own a small reservation in the southeast of Gabriola. The earliest local archaeological finds date back to 1500 B.C. All over the island you can find petroglyphs – rock paintings drawn thousands of years ago.
4. Gabriola Island is 14.5 km (9 miles) long, 4.5 km (2.8 miles) wide, and about the size of Manhattan. It takes about 30-35 minutes to drive around it by car. Every summer, locals hold a “Moonwalk around Gabriola” by moonlight from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
5. Gabriola ranks 6th in Canada in the number of artists per capita. More than 200 artisans live and work here, and many of the galleries are open year-round.
6. The marine life and reefs around Gabriola Island are considered some of the best diving spots on the B.C. coast. Popular spots include Dragon’s Lane, Gabriola Passage, Orlebar Point, Roger’s Reef, and Taylor Bay
7. During the late summer, when the weather is good during a new moon, you can catch bioluminescence – the glow of living organisms in the water – off the coast of Gabriola.
8. Deer and raccoons are some of the most common land animals on the island. There are also some wild turkeys and guinea fowls. There are no coyotes or foxes, and bears very rarely come to Gabriola.
What to see on Gabriola Island:
Malaspina is probably the most interesting natural attraction of the island. The four-meter-high limestone galleries in the shape of an overhanging wave appeared here several thousand years ago and have long been used by the indigenous peoples of Snunéymuxw for burial rites.
Unlike sea caves, it wasn’t the surf or the wind that did this. Salt water penetrates the sandstone and “attacks” the clay, which binds the rock particles together. The salt evaporates and gradually chips away. The process is complicated and, to be honest, not very clear to me until the end. If you want to explore more, the Gabriola Historical & Museum Society has a posted detailed report for public access.
The galleries were named after the 18th-century Spanish explorer Alejandro Malaspin. Get there by foot from the parking lot at the end of Malaspina Drive. The trail is uncomplicated (I hurt my knee the day before and still managed to get down to the galleries). We were in Malaspina at high tide, the traffic was excellent.
They say there are also similar caves on the southwest side of the bay off McConvey Road.
Gabriola Sands Provincial Park
A small, beautiful park located on the isthmus between Taylor Bay and Pilot Bay. Because of the two beaches on either side of the road, locals call this place Twin Beaches. The right beach with white sand and shallow water is suitable for swimming, the left – for picnics and searching for crabs.
There is parking off Ricardo Rd. There is also a coastal trail from the Malaspina Galleries to Sands Park, about 1.5 km in one direction.
Orlebar Point / Berry Point
Orlebar Point is the northernmost point of Gabriola Island. Just follow Berry Point Road and it will take you straight to a stunning marine panorama: quaint sandstone shores, Georgia Bay with distant snow-capped peaks on the horizon, and the picturesque Entrance Island Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was organized on the island in 1876, and was rebuilt into a modern one in 1971.
Originally called Berry Point, it was renamed in 1945 in honor of Lt. Orlebar. Locals still use the old name, so the maps indicate both at once.
Orlebar Point is also associated with a high-profile political scandal at the end of the 20th century. A certain politician Stupich with high titles misappropriated about $1 million, bought up land on Gabriola, built a house and sat there rejoicing in the sunsets. It’s great that the fraud was solved, the dirty politician was punished and now anyone can walk here, look for whales and take pictures of the lighthouse.
Sandwell Provincial Park
A short 800-meter trail through the woods leads to the long sandy beach and Lock Bay panorama. In bad weather, the last section of the trail is quite slippery, so make sure you have hiking boots.
At low tide, look for ancient petroglyphs carved into the rocks nearby.
Elder Cedar Nature Reserve
The Old Cedar Reserve is home to both young trees and the last old-timers of Gabriola. A 30-minute trail through a marshy area, with a bridge and steps over a creek. Just a beautiful atmospheric forest.
Drumbeg Provincial Park
Drumbeg Provincial Park is one of three provincial parks on Gabriola Island. It overlooks the Strait of Georgia, the coastal mountains of the Mainland and Gabriola Passage.
The park is ideal for diving, hiking, observing marine life (seals, oysters, herons) and picnics. At low tide, the mile-long beach exposes beautiful formations of sandstone and rock.
Drumbeg is a small Scottish village where the former owner of the park was born. The province bought the land in 1971.
Indigenous peoples have lived on Gabriola for thousands of years and their petroglyphs are found all over the island. One of the most accessible original clusters can be seen at Christ Church Gabriola.
Behind the church along the fence there is a narrow path to the ritual glade with petroglyphs. The images are slightly erased, fuzzy, but very creative. It’s impossible to know exactly how old they are. Researchers suggest that the age ranges from a thousand to five thousand years. The drawings are related to local myths, legends, the surrounding world and the main models are snakes, sea lions, crabs and salmon.
From the late 19th to the mid-20th century, Gabriola Island was home to a brick factory. There was no electricity at Gabriola at the time; and the plant operated on steam pumps and cheap coal from Nanaimo. The raw material was extracted here on the hill by the beach. Chinese hired laborers and immigrants made about 80,000 bricks a day by hand! The work was difficult, noisy, and dirty, but it built many towns and villages in British Columbia.
The produce was loaded onto barges that departed from the shore with the tide. Defective and broken bricks were thrown out nearby, and that’s how Brick Beach turned out.
The plant was closed in 1952, and a little later the building was dismantled and the area was cleared. Enterprising locals still dig bricks out of the banks (one man threw bricks into the truck in front of us) and every year on Canada Day they hold a potato shooting contest here with homemade cannons.
What else not to miss
- Art galleries: many artists living on Gabriola hold public workshops or sell products in their studios. For guests’ convenience, the visitor center came up with the Yellow Flag program: if a yellow flag flies on the gate, the studio is open and welcomes visitors
- Descanso Bay Regional Park: a pleasant park a short drive from the ferry
- Gabriola Museum: the history of the island, artifacts, reproductions of petroglyphs in the yard. Open on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Ravenskill Orchards: an orchard farm that makes and sells delicious cider
- Madd Acres: master classes in cheese-making
- Paradise Alpaca Farm: alpaca farm and store
- Saturday market: a seasonal market of local producers. Open Saturdays from May through October at Gabriola Agricultural Assn Co-op/Agi. They sell fresh produce, ready-to-eat foods, and artisan products
- Tours with Silver Blue Charters: Fishing and 3-hour sea lion and orca tours
- Page’s Resort & Marina: Kayak and Canoe Rental
How to get to Gabriola Island
A ferry leaves from Nanaimo Harbour for Gabriola Island almost every hour. It was only a 20 minute trip, and we paid about $45CAD for two people and the car. Buy tickets on the spot. Check the cost and schedule at the link. Get in line for the ferry 20-25 minutes in advance
Gulf Island Seaplanes fly regular flights to Gabriola from Vancouver International Airport, 12-minute trip, starting at $114CAD. Book your trip here.
Useful Tips Before Going to Gabriola Island
- In the off-season Gabriola can be seen in one day, in the summer – I recommend to go on an overnight trip (to go to the master classes, kayaking, sunbathing on a sandy beach, take a tour of marine animals and do scuba diving).
- The best way to get around the island is by car
- Take food with you for a snack. Almost all the restaurants are on the west side of the island by the ferry (The pizza at Woodfire Restaurant & Catering is fantastic)
- Check the news, camping, lodging, and other activities on the island’s official travel website – HelloGabriola
- Download tide apps on your phone (e.g., Tide Charts Near Me)
- Save the map with the sights
Sunny, hot travels to all!
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