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Vancouver is a bustling, cosmopolitan city with strong Asian influences and whilst downtown has much to offer tourists, those seeking nature may soon want to explore further afield. Less than 40 miles from the mainland, Vancouver Island and its surrounding islands offer pristine wilderness, almost untouched in parts. Quaint little towns nestle around sun dappled harbours where yachts bob in the bay and seaplanes buzz overhead. If you want to escape the city for the day, and discover an entirely different side to Vancouver, jump on a Harbour Air Island hopping tour. The views are breathtaking and you will leave with a greater appreciation for the Vancouver area.
Harbour Air tour options
Harbour Air offer a range of sightseeing tours that visit Vancouver Island and other nearby destinations. We opt for the Mail Run tour which includes stops in Maple Bay on Vancouver Island and the bohemian town of Ganges on Salt Spring Island. The tour departs at 11am and if you opt for the drop off in Ganges, it returns at around 4pm and costs $258 CAD per person. This tour gives guests the opportunity to experience numerous seaplane flights and replicates the mail run of old.
Here is the full itinerary:
- 11:00 am – Check-in for your flight to Ganges at Harbour Air’s downtown Vancouver terminal
- 11:30 am – Fly from Vancouver to Maple Bay via Ganges Harbour. Stretch your legs in the scenic harbour of Maple Bay before jumping back onboard.
- 12:55 pm – Continue your tour with a flight from Maple Bay back to Ganges Harbour.
- 1:20 pm – Disembark in Ganges and enjoy the sights of Salt Spring Island and Ganges. Sip a cold beer at one of the seafood restaurants or bars overlooking the harbour before your return to the dock.
- 3.40 pm – Check in for your return flight to Vancouver
- 4:10 pm – Board your return flight
- 4:45 pm – Arrive back in Vancouver
The Harbour Air Mail Run island hopping tour
Contrary to what I expected, the pilot does not arrive laden down with postal bags to deliver to the islands. The tour is simply a nod to the past and follows the delivery routes of yesteryear as it hops between the picturesque coastal communities of the Gulf Islands. I must confess I was rather hoping to be an apprentice postie for the day!
Our Harbour Air island hopping tour
We clamber into the tiny cabin of our Harbour Air seaplane and strap into our life jackets and seatbelts. It’s cosy and we feel a little like caged hens in our cramped seats. We soon forget any discomfort however as we chug into Vancouver harbour and hurtle across the water before soaring into the air.
We skim the clouds as we circle over the city and head past Stanley Island towards the scenic treasures of the southern Gulf Islands.
I keep my eyes peeled for orcas but instead see tugs pulling long strands of logs through shallow murky waters. Tiny bays fringe emerald islands dense with lush forest vegetation, an endless chain of islands stretching into the distance beneath mountains that peep through the clouds. We glimpse homes hidden in the forest and spot signs of Vancouver commuters. Many homes have boat docks bordering swathes of coastal land and some even have a seaplane dock! Just look at that setting for a home!
Our first stop is in the quaint harbour of Maple Bay. This beautiful seaside community in the Cowichan Valley is popular with mountain bikers and hikers. Its protected harbour glistens in the sun as we bounce to a stop in the narrow inlet that leads to the marina. Locals wave as we pass and we excitedly jump from the plane to wander the dock.
A café and bar perch above the dock where a tiny petrol station refuels visiting yachts. Houseboats in bright colours line the shore and friendly marina staff give us a geography lesson on the topography of Vancouver island.
Just a short hop from the mainland this huge island stretches 460 km from end to end and is up to 100km wide. It is impossible to navigate the entire length as much of the island is only accessible by boat or seaplane. The Vancouver Island Mountain Range dissects the entire Island and covers a vast area. The range contributes to the isolation of many Vancouver island communities as the summit of Golden Hinde (2,195m) is often impassable. It seems a world away from the sprawl of downtown as we stroll along the seafront admiring boats in the harbour.
Ganges on Salt Spring Island
Salt Spring Island is the largest and most densely populated of the southern Gulf Islands. It is just off the west coast of Vancouver island and Ganges is a vibrant bohemian community with a strong LGBTQ presence. It is famous for its artisan producers, organic vineyards, laidback lifestyle and local cuisine.
Rustic houses with wrap around balconies and fire pits line the shore. Seriously, these kind of homes could tempt me to move here! (If only I had a spare £1 million or so….). In town, a ramshackle collection of bars line the waterfront of the kaleidoscopic village centre. The Oyster Bar hugs the cove whilst the Boardwalk Burger sits on an elevated boardwalk perched above the bay. Sit back, enjoy a cold beer and enjoy magnificent views as you dine. Watch out for sealife as Jason spotted seals floating in the waters as we indulged on crab burgers.
Shopping in Ganges
Once you have had your fill of hearty seafood or burgers, head to the cute shopping mall just behind the waterfront. Upmarket stores sell expensive tourist trinkets, outdoor wear and strong smelling soaps. Feed your creative soul by dropping into one of the artisan studios or galleries or head to a yoga class at the local studio. Life takes on a slower pace in Salt Spring and is an ideal destination for those seeking refuge and restoration.
Saturday market in Ganges
If you visit on a Saturday, head to the local market. It is home to an eclectic mix of stalls selling pungent soaps, artisan foods, and dream catchers. Chimes tinkle in the breeze whilst raucous sounds spill from the ‘Local Pub’ (yes, that is its real name) where locals revel in Saturday afternoon live music. It’s a village of contrasts – wild partying and meditative yoga combined with artisan galleries and trinket shops. I just wish we had more time to explore the island!!!
Return to Vancouver island
Without a car, a few hours in Ganges is sufficient to sample the village attractions. Be under no illusions however, the best part of this tour is soaring above emerald islands. From deserted coves to mountain scenes, pristine forest and long empty beaches, there are delights at every turn.
On our return, rainbows dance beneath us as the sun makes an appearance. Yet, all too soon we bounce to a stop in Vancouver harbour and return to shore. It has been a fun filled day of flying and sightseeing.
For those short on time, who want to experience a taste of the wilderness only a short step from Vancouver, this trip is a must. It’s surprisingly affordable considering it includes 4 different seaplane flights.
Book your tickets
Check out different tours here. You can opt for short sightseeing flights or longer journeys such as the one we opted for.
The staff at Harbour Air are magnificent. Check in takes place at the terminal on Vancouver harbour and is incredibly efficient. It takes just minutes to receive our baggage tags and boarding passes. Then you can sit back and relax in the waiting area and enjoy free WiFi.
Onboard staff are quick to run through safety procedures and ensure an even spread of weight in the cabin. They even scour the cabin after disembarking meaning Jason is swiftly reunited with his phone after leaving it behind. Not the only time this happens I might stress!
If you would prefer a shorter adventure you can check out the full range of Harbour Air tours here. Admittedly, these are not budget days out but they are the kind of trips you will remember for a lifetime.
Soaring into the air on a seaplane is an incredible experience (even if you are an old hand!). Equally exciting is the bumpy landing as you skim across the surface of the water. You can enjoy these aspects on a short sightseeing flight around Vancouver harbour. However, hopping over to the islands is a great way to reveal a a more laidback, bucolic side to Vancouver and if you have the budget, I urge you to go ahead and do it.