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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Vancouver Island is at the southwest corner of Canada on the Pacific Ocean near the US border. It is named after British navy officer George Vancouver who explored the area in 1791 to 1794. The island is quite large, measuring 290 miles long by 50 miles wide. The Gulf Islands consist of about 100 islands on the eastern side of Vancouver Island near its southern end, in the shelter of Georgia Strait. Many indigenous peoples lived in the region for thousands of years, with the British settling there in the mid nineteenth century.

The area is a popular tourist destination, with a young but growing wine industry which started about two decades ago, although fruit growing was well established by the late 1800s. Mountains to the west and the protected Georgia Strait to the south and east have created a microclimate of mild temperatures and moderate rainfall ideal for grape growing. The area has Canada’s mildest climate. Winter night-time temperatures on the coast are usually above freezing. In summer, the temperature can be 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit by day, with an average of 70-80 degrees. Summers are quite dry which can present challenges for grape growers. The climate has often been compared to that of the northern Mediterranean countries.

Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are two of British Columbia’s five wine regions or Designated Viticultural Areas, with several dozen wineries and vineyards. Most are small, family owned businesses, open to the public and offering tours and wine tasting. Some have restaurants or picnic areas. Special events such as wine festivals are hosted by a few wineries. The area is known to produce some of the best cool climate grapes in the world.

On Vancouver Island, the main grape growing areas are Cowichan Valley and Saanich Peninsula. Cowichan means the “warm land.” Grape varieties include Bacchus, Foch, Ortega, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Siegerrebe, Merlot, Gamay Noir, and Gewurztraminer. Most of the island’s wineries are in this area. Saanich Peninsula is a short drive from the largest city, Victoria, and has a warm climate suitable for whites such as Ortega and Pinot Gris and reds like Marechal Foch and Pinot Noir. Kiwifruit, apples, and blackberries are also used to make wine in this area. Most of the wineries in the region are located along scenic hillsides offering spectacular views. Wine tours from Victoria visit various award winning wineries. The region also has breweries, distilleries, and cideries.

The Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival is held each year in early September and has plenty of food and wine, and entertainment by local musicians. There is also the Nanaimo Wine Festival in late October with over 200 wines from around the world. Notable wineries on the island include the Cherry Point Vineyard established in 1990. The winery is world famous for its Cowichan Blackberry Dessert wine. Its new Solera version uses a unique barrel aging process. It has a bistro and picnic area with great views. Vigneti Zanatta Winery has 30 acres of vines and includes Vinoteca Restaurant inside the 1903 farm house. The property was originally a dairy farm.

A smaller number of wineries are found on the Gulf Islands, which can be accessed by several ferries, while the larger islands also have airline services from Vancouver (City) and Victoria. The largest and oldest winery is Saturna Island Family Vineyards established on 60 acres in 1998. It has four vineyards, tours, a tasting room, wine shop, and bistro, and is a 10 minute walk from the dock. It hosts an annual harvest festival in September and won gold and silver medals at the All Canadian Wine Championships in 2008.

Other Gulf Islands wineries include the Morning Bay Vineyard and Estate Winery, on Pender Island. It has a gravity flow winery and private parties can be arranged in the Barrel Room with its grand piano. Salt Spring Vineyards Winery, on Salt Spring Island, opened in 2002 and offers bed and breakfast accommodation. It uses organic farming and harvesting practices and has an annual Grape Harvest Ball in October. Garry Oaks Winery, also on Salt Spring Island, was set up in 2003 from a 100 year old sheep farm.

Apart from the wineries, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands have many other things to see and do. Strathcona Provincial Park is in the middle of Vancouver Island and is popular with hikers, cross country and downhill skiers, fishers, and campers. Mount Golden Hinde, the highest point on the island, is popular with climbers. The island has many lakes and streams where salmon, trout, and other fish can be caught.

Saturna Island is the most easterly of the Gulf Islands and has a population of just 350 people. Half the island is national park. It has sandy beaches which are good for swimming and relaxing. Spectacular views across the islands can be enjoyed from its high points. Salt Spring Island is the largest and most populated of the Gulf Islands with a population of 10,500. It has its own currency and is well known for its arts and crafts which can be purchased at the large outdoor craft market. Galiano Island is known for its hundreds of bird species, including eagles, cormorants, and herons. It has a number of parks for hiking and sightseeing. Shell Beach is made up entirely of old shells, a midden of the Coast Salish people. The Galiano Wine Festival is held each year. On Pender Island, frisbee or disc golf is played at the 27 hole Golf Island Disc Park. The islands and waterways are popular with boating and yachting enthusiasts.

The largest city on Vancouver Island is Victoria at its southern tip with a third of a million people. Tourism is a major industry with over 3.5 million visitors each year. Cruise ships stop at the Ogden Point terminal. The city is full of theaters, night clubs, pubs, and restaurants. Visitors can enjoy shopping, parks and gardens, and many historic buildings. Concerts at Symphony Splash, Canada Day fireworks, and the Swiftsure International Yacht Race are among the major events.