The Solo Travel Adventures series:
I recently realized that I’d become so dependent on travelling with Don that I’d forgotten how to do it on my own. I’d lost my confidence, and I needed to relearn how to be without him. So I practice by taking day trips alone.

These are the rules for my Solo Travel Adventures:
1. NO help from Don with research or planning, or deciding where to go.
2. Have a day out alone (weekly if possible) as if I’m in a foreign country, which means local transport only, and whatever help I can get from the internet and people along the way.
3. Preferably go somewhere I’ve never been before, or not for a very long time.

26 June 2021. I initially heard of it in 1974. It was my very first time out of Australia, and my first visit to Canada. My sister’s former husband’s family had a cottage there. Still do I believe. I was invited there a couple of times back in those days and have hazy memories of a blue-grey sky hanging over blue-grey water, and walking by bleached grey logs strewn along beaches of grey-brown sand. I was puzzled by the logs. Why were they there? After the wide expanse of golden sand beneath my feet, and the bright sapphire skies above Australia’s beaches I was not overly impressed. It was all so grey. And I was feeling both shy and lonely. I was still getting used to Canada.

Which reminds me, many many years ago my sister Julie visited Vancouver with her young daughter whom she photographed playing on one of Vancouver’s beaches. Back home in Australia she had a slide-show for the family. When this picture came up she sniggered and said “this is Canada’s idea of a beach”. We all laughed. Poor Canada. It’s an unfair comparison really. Canada has beauties that Australia can only dream of. Like actual mountains.

Anyway I’d not been back to Bowen Island since those early visits in 1974 even though it is part of the Vancouver metro area, and a mere twenty minutes by ferry from Horseshoe Bay, and even though I’ve been to plenty of the other nearby islands.

I leave early as the morning sun is beginning to settle in for the day. It might be only twenty minutes on the ferry but getting to Horseshoe Bay from East Vancouver involves first a bus then a Skytrain to downtown, then another long bus ride.

I arrive at the ferry terminal and look out the window of the waiting-room. Canada may not have Australia’s spectacular beaches, but what it does have is this,

this blue beauty, these mountains that inform just about every view in the Vancouver area. I watch as the ferry comes in. It’s one of the smallest in the BC Ferries fleet, just enough to take a few cars and walk-on passengers like me.

There are more than a dozen islands off the coast of Vancouver. Most are inhabited, some more than others. Some are easily accessed, others not so much. Bowen is the closest and the easiest to access, but for all that the year round population is still only about 3,500. I’d heard that it’s a “bedroom community” with a portion of the population who love living in the country but still work in the city. When I did a little research into it I found this Reddit thread that gives a hint of the reality:
1. Definitely possible. You just need to factor in the extra time for the ferry (once a hour) into your schedule. Life is slow and rural on the island, with a strong sense of community.
2. Quiet, peaceful once you on the island. You can commute to downtown by bus but prepare for early mornings and getting home late every day. Being a kid on Bowen can be extremely boring and I watched more than one friend hit the bottle or drugs to excess.
3. All they do is bitch about
1-BC Ferries
3-BC Ferries
4-how hard it is to get on/off the island
5-BC Ferries
4. Start by crunching the numbers – If you’re commuting as a foot passenger six days a week then you’re looking at ~$40 per week in BC Ferries fees. Much more if you’re taking a car across [~$250 more with a car]. While there’s a thriving hitchhiking culture on the island, as well as a community shuttle bus, you really need to live within walking distance of Snug Cove if you don’t have a car. It’s beautiful, but there really isn’t much to do over there, so make sure you’re comfortable with Netflix or a good book.

But for me, as a visitor, it is all magic. I hang over the railing of the upper deck on this bright sparkly day watching as we approach Snug Cove,

a perfect name for the bay, the ferry terminal, and the town that butts up against it.

I walk off the ferry into a little country town. The city has melted away. It’s as if I’m in another world, another country almost. It’s hard to believe that this is part of metro Vancouver.

I choose a Saturday as I’ve read that there’s a farmers market in the school grounds and I want to check it out, so my first act on leaving the ferry is to grab a map at the nearby information centre and then to march up the hill to the school yard. I go with an over-active imagination expecting a big thriving affair like the ones we go to in Vancouver, or on Salt Spring Island (that has three times the population). Compared to these the Bowen Island market is initially disappointing. What was I expecting? This is a small rural community and the size of the market reflects that.

It’s one of those blistering hot days we can get here in the summer, though there’s no guarantee of it. Which reminds me of a friend, a fellow Aussie, who was curious about the weather in Sydney one rainy day in Vancouver several years back. In Sydney it was 15 and raining, in Vancouver it was 16 and raining. The only difference was that in Sydney it was mid-winter, in Vancouver mid . . . yeah, I’m sure you get it.

Anyway back to Bowen Island in the summer of 2021 and it’s blue-sky hot and the sun has more than settled in. The market stalls need shade so most of them are snugged under a covered parking area.

My first stop is for treats at the local bakery stall – cookies and crumble, lemon bars and muffins, and all of it home-made sweetness. I buy a lemon bar and stash it away for lunch.

There are several stalls selling home-grown organic vegetables: lettuces, broccoli, portobellos, red peppers, kale, microgreens and herbs, and garlic scapes arrayed in a shiny bowl.

Some is produced on-island like Barking Raven Market Garden,

and some “imported” like Anna’s

Of course there are flowers

and a craft stall with work by local artists,

and all of it is served with love. The market may be modest but the community spirit is not.

Leaving the market I make my way back down the hill looking for a place for coffee and lunch, and find The Snug, a family-run business that specializes in coffee, breakfast, lunch, and baked goods. It looks enticing and cosy. I’m a bit overwhelmed for choice at first, but I have that lemon bar burning a hole in my pack, and I need coffee and something a bit more substantial. I choose a salad from the deli that looks a bit like a cold Buddha’s Feast and tastes just as good. After moving a vacant table a couple of feet to create a seat in the shade in the courtyard I settle in.

Bowen is pretty amazing for food choices considering the size of the community. There are five cafes, several restaurants (including Barcelona Tapas and Tuscany Pizza), a couple of pubs, a candy store, an artisan chocolatier, an ice cream parlour, and a coffee roaster. Perhaps we are not so far from a modern cosmopolitan city after all.

It’s time to get out of town. If you walk a little way up Miller Road you’ll come to a whole series of trails leading to Killarney Lake. I have no idea which to choose so I just choose: the Hatchery Trail then the Meadow Trail. I don’t think too much about the names.

I have the trail to myself. First it takes me into the forest,

past a variety of wild flowers,

and across Terminal Creek

where the local Fish and Wildlife Club has built a salmon hatchery. I climb down to the water.

I’m feeling present and peaceful and attuned to the environment, but even so I am not prepared for what’s to come.

At the end of Hatchery Trail I turn right onto Meadow Trail. I don’t know why it’s so unexpected; you’d think the name would be a clue. Suddenly I’m in a magical meadow filled with blooming buttercups against a backdrop of forest with a hint of mountains. I catch my breath. I was not expecting anything so beautiful.

I lie down amongst the buttercups and breathe in the beauty of the moment, feeling languid, lulled by the earth beneath me, the sky above, and the simple joy of an entertainment of golden buttercups waving above my head.

Leaving the meadow I arrive soon at Killarney Creek,

then turn left onto Killarney Creek Trail which takes me through the forest

past tall straight old-growth fir and hemlock, past white foxglove, past pink foxglove, past sword ferns and liquorice ferns

and finally to Killarney Lake.

There’s a loop trail around the lake but I’m not sure I have time to do it and I don’t want to rush. After a while I turn back to Snug Cove and wait for the ferry, which takes me back to those blue on blue mountain views,

and back to Horseshoe Bay.

I don’t do even half of what there is to do on Bowen if you can tear yourself away from all the cafes, restaurants and pubs in or near Snug Cove: go sea kayaking, rent a scooter and ride around the island, go mountain biking, go swimming or beach combing, go horseback riding or play golf.

The island’s motto is Within Reach. Beyond Comparison. It sounds like something a hired PR person came up with, a bit slick, even slightly cringe worthy, but there’s no doubt that Bowen is special, made all the more so by its easy access from Vancouver.

Bowen Island is part of the unceded land of the Squamish people.

Next post: Highlights of ten years of travel: the Atacama Desert; crossing the Pacific Ocean island by island; festivals in India, Peru and Mexico; Egypt; Myanmar; naturally Bali; and more. And after that the special magic of Spanish Banks at low tide.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.