I don’t have many traditions, but the yearly retreat to Pender Island is hands down my favourite. Especially if, by “retreat”, you mean “cramming into a cabin with thirty of your closest friends and copious amounts of adult beverages”.

View from Oak Bluffs Lodge, Pender Island.
View from Oak Bluffs Lodge, Pender Island.

A two-hour ferry ride away from Vancouver, Pender Island is a charming and peaceful community of ageing hippies, retirees, and young families. It’s also been the home base of our university reunions over the New Year, where we significantly increase the island’s winter population.

One of my travel goals for 2016 was to explore more of my own backyard, so being on Pender Island was a pretty good start to the New Year. If you’re looking for a wild, big-city vacation, this is certainly not it.  However, there’s plenty to do and see on the island, including a disc golf course, the Beaumont Marine Park (accessible by car or boat), and lots of opportunities for nature walks and hikes.

Tranquil forest walks
Tranquil forest walks

During the winter, Magic Lake is a tranquil spot for a walk (or for skipping small stones over its frozen surface). The highlight of New Year’s Eve is a lantern festival, where crowds pack onto a small hill and watch dazzling light displays.

Getting around the island can be challenging without a vehicle. Thankfully, hitchhiking is very common, with car stops clearly marked at regular intervals of the road. While getting a lift back from the town centre, we were invited to a bonfire hosted by one of the families who live on the banks of Magic Lake. Ah, small town hospitality.

Magic Lake lives up to its name.
Magic Lake lives up to its name.

Another scenic detour is Port Browning Marina (right off the main shopping area of town), which looks out onto islands in the distance. There’s also a pub, if stunning scenery isn’t enough of a draw. During the summer, kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals are also available to explore a little more of the Gulf.

Looking out from Port Browning Marina onto the Salish Sea
Looking out from Port Browning Marina onto the Salish Sea

Eating on Pender Island

While there are several eateries and cafés on the island, buying groceries and cooking your own food is probably going to be your best bet. Whether out of habit, convenience, or lack of other major options, it’s something we’ve done for years and it suits larger groups well.

However, splurge on a hot chocolate at the cosy Slow Coast Coffee. Housed in a refurbished and brightly painted portable, it’s my favourite (not that there are many to pick from!) I was pleasantly surprised to find that they served, in addition to the usual coffee and pastries, a selection of dosas.

Slow Coast Coffee

Before boarding the ferry back to the mainland, don’t forget to grab a bite at The Stand –a modified Winnebago turned burger and hot dog joint. Conveniently located right by the ferry terminal, the food is of comparable price to that on the ferry, and of markedly better quality.

The Stand

Old school.
Old school.

Sample Costs

We were lucky enough to be staying at Oak Bluffs Lodge, where we’ve been visitors for the last several years. It is quite pricey, but the cost is significantly offset by packing more humans into the house than is sensible. However, there are plenty of vacation rentals, AirBnbs, campgrounds and glamping on the island to suit every budget and taste.

Ferry from Vancouver to Pender Island: $19.45 CAD
Return Ferry: $10 CAD
Burger at The Stand: $9-12 CAD

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