TO THE POTENTIALLY marriage-straining angst of renting a vacation cabin sight-unseen I had piled on the risks of choosing a destination no one in my family had ever heard of and that required a longish drive, an international border crossing, and three ferries. My first impressions of Denman and Hornby, diminutive sister islands bobbing next to each other in the Georgia Strait off the east coast of Vancouver Island, only tightened the knots in my stomach. Denman, where we had to switch ferries in order to reach the dread rental on Hornby, went by in a blur of pottery studios, fields backing onto woods, and water views locked up by second homes.
After the final 10-minute ferry ride, Hornby hove into view with a thatch-roofed pub listing woozily toward the channel. The three teenage daughters sighed and the dogs panted. What we could see of the island from the main road had a distinctly run-down hippie-infested air. “Bong hits, anyone?” one of the daughters intoned as we cruised past a circle of long-hairs flopped in a pasture across from the complex of food co-op and tie-dye, whole-bean-dangly-earring emporia that serves as the midisland center of commerce.
Past the Big Pine—a green giant out of Lord of the Rings rising right in the middle of the road—the conifers gave way to fields of rough grass and wild flowers. And there, at the end of a long driveway, was the cabin—snug, functional, immaculate (whew), and commanding a fabulous vista of blue salt water and BC Coast Range. We tumbled down a steep path that led to a beach that I can only describe as otherworldly: Imagine a vast expanse of tawny whipped cream that some master geologist has whirled and pocked with a giant spoon and then set to harden by the sea.
Aside from the five of us and our two wet dogs, the only creatures that moved were sea otters slapping their tails on the surface of the water and the occasional loon.
My shot in the summer vacation dark had landed in a pretty sweet spot.
At about 12 square miles, Hornby is small enough that in the course of a week we pretty much covered it by foot, bike, kayak, and car, with the occasional foray back across the ferry to poke around longer, larger, skinnier Denman. If Denman is reminiscent of Lopez Island—rolling, tame, bucolic, artsy—Hornby has a tang of the craggy ruggedness of Orcas. But the San Juan comparisons only work if you jump back a generation. Dreamy, woodsy, innocent of even a whiff of glitz, these Canadian islands are well-loved by a select group who come here to be and to be left alone—summering college profs, Vancouver bohemians, laid-back organic gardeners, and, yes, stalwart hippies of all ages. One cloudless summer afternoon we made the mistake of pulling our kayaks out of the water within earshot of a young couple perched on a remote stretch of sandstone beach. “Geez this place is really getting overrun,” the twentysomething topless woman muttered audibly as I averted my eyes toward the otherwise perfectly people-free panorama of water, woods, and rock.
Island days slipped by gently. Our rental sat near one of the many paths that thread the island, and within 20 minutes we could meander to the beach at Tribune Bay Provincial Park, and we made that our usual morning dog walk. Rocks carved by erosion rose from the packed sand like a herd of Noguchi sculptures; the glazing of the mudflats reflected the pink and blue morning sky while a huge swath of the strait glittered beyond. Pale British Columbians arrived in the afternoon to strip down and plunge into the warming water of incoming tides.
Kayaking out of Ford Cove, a marina and cabin complex at the southern tip of the island, takes you past rock sculptures that are more Michelangelo than Noguchi—enormous honeycombed masterpieces heaped and tumbled along the shore and surfacing farther out in temporary offshore islands. We had a seal for company on one memorable afternoon, and a bunch of eagles feasted on shellfish along a deserted cove. The occasional rooftop peeped out from the firs and madronas lining the shore. We caught a glimpse of the Denman ferry plying the channel. And a chatty old gent approached us on an otherwise empty cobble beach. Though never far from island amenities, we felt that we had somehow stroked our way off the map and into heaven.
Heaven, of course, has an expiration date with a vacationing family of five. The girls tired of the charms of sunning at Tribune Bay and failed to be as blown away as I was by the three-mile loop through ancient firs and lush native huckleberries at Helliwell Provincial Park, the island’s other major seaside public space. Nightlife, so far as I could tell, consisted of campfire sing-alongs at the Sea Breeze Lodge near our rental. We never sampled the restaurant there—but the grub at the Thatch Pub at the ferry terminal was pretty much what you’d expect—a perfect accompaniment to cold Kokanee beers.
Denman and Hornby do not provide gourmet meals, plush hotels, or commuter planes back to morning meetings in Seattle. In the course of our lulling week, I came to count these as virtues. The girls couldn’t believe their parents were actually misty eyed as we stood taking in the view for the last time. Some day you’ll understand how sweet these aimless country vacations are, I felt like telling them. But I just smiled and shrugged, and we piled into the car.