When cruising north from the San Juan Islands, Pender Island rises out of the Salish Sea with the same signature mountains, rocky shores, and evergreen forests as stateside islands. But for the hastily drawn border between the US and Canada, it might have been one of the San Juans. Geologically it belongs with Orcas, Stuart, and Waldron, the three islands located south across Boundary Pass. Geographically, it is part of the Canadian Gulf Islands.
Just five nautical miles north of Stuart Island, Pender Island is the first Canadian stop for many U.S. boaters heading into the Gulf Islands and beyond. Boaters slip into Bedwell Harbor on South Pender to clear customs and then often head right back out on their trek north. Folks who linger awhile are rewarded with a range of mooring, anchoring, dining, and recreational options just inside Canadian waters.
North and South Pender used to be one large island connected by an isthmus until a narrow canal was dredged in 1902 to allow steamships to pass between Bedwell Harbor to the south and Port Browning to the north. Connected only by a narrow two-lane bridge, the islands today are treated as one land mass by locals and tourists alike, but each has a unique personality. Transiting the Pender Canal today is relatively straightforward, but caution is needed in the narrow, shallow, twisty channel.
When Europeans first came upon Pender Island, it was actively inhabited by the Coast Salish people. Archeological research shows that the Coast Salish lived on the island for at least five millennia, and as with many of the Southern Gulf Islands, artifacts can be found around many coves and beaches. Europeans began settling on Pender in 1872 and quickly began ambitious development.
Today, Pender Island is home to just over 2,000 permanent residents, though like most of the Southern Gulf Islands, the population booms with seasonal residents and tourists in the summer months. The island’s appeal is undeniable: deep protected anchorages, beautiful beaches, wonderful sub-Mediterranean weather, and full amenities make it a popular boating destination for good reason.
Lace Up the Hiking Shoes
Miles and miles of well-marked and maintained trails traverse both islands just begging to be explored by hikers and trail runners. The steep terrain adds a degree of difficulty on many trails, but the views are always worth the effort. Trails are closed to cyclists and other uses, so pedestrians have paths to themselves. Free maps are available at almost every retail outfit on the islands, showing the way to secluded beaches, cliffside views, lakes, and parks. Interpretive signs line the routes marked on the map. For visitors willing and able to cover a few miles on foot, hiking the trails is the very best way to get the flavor of the place. Especially popular is the Magic Lake area, which is ringed with trails and has a great swimming area to cool off in after the climb from Port Browning.
Not quite ready to do a big hike? Wait at one of the many Car Stops on the island and get a ride from a helpful local. This technology-free Gulf Islands rideshare system is a great way to get around, as the locals who pick you up tend to be very willing and generous tour guides. Islanders are proud of their home and are happy to show you around.
Dive into Culture
The small but comprehensive Pender Island Museum is a gem among the Southern Gulf Islands. Open on weekends and holidays, the museum is a tribute to Native and modern culture, with amazing artifacts dating back over 5,000 years. If you are on North Pender Island, this is a can’t-miss stop.
Sea Star Vineyards is Pender’s only winery and is a delightful place to spend an afternoon. The 26-acre terraced vineyard feels like a movie set, and Sea Star is one of the only Gulf Island wineries to grow their own grapes. The sub-Mediterranean climate is perfect for growing a wide variety of grapes, and the award-winning wines they produce are a testament to the quality of the environment and the craftsmanship of the winemakers. The winery hosts live music and a wide variety of other events throughout the summer. Be sure to stock up the boat before leaving Pender.
Support Local Artists
There is something about the Gulf Islands that draws artists of all types to practice their craft, and Pender is no exception. Dozens of artists, ranging from painters to jewelers, showcase their work at galleries and markets around the island. Check out Jem’s Jewelry south of Poet’s Cove for whimsical designs from Janet Blakely. Or visit Armstrong Studio, where Malcom and Sandra Armstrong show their nautical oil paintings by appointment. At the Saturday Farmer’s Market, artists of all types sell their work every summer weekend. The Southern Gulf Islands Arts Council hosts a website (sgiac.org) with updated listings for local artists and events around the island.
But Are There Whales?
Yes, there are whales. On Pender Island, you don’t need a boat or a tour guide to see them. The beaches and bluffs of the island offer spectacular whale watching, especially when the Southern Resident Orcas are nearby. In the summer months, orcas tend to swim quite close to shore on the southern and western sides of Pender, making the island among the best places to see whales without the cost, hassle, and potential disruption of viewing by boat.
Thieves Bay on North Pender is by far the best shore viewing spot in the Southern Gulf Islands. Whales swim right up to the breakwater, providing close-up viewing from the comfort of the beach. For the most spectacular views, with or without whales, hike up to Oak Bluff on North Pender Island. The elevation here provides expansive, sweeping views of Vancouver Island and offers spectacular sunsets.
If the whales have moved north, get a ride to Roe Bay. A short hike from the road leads to a spectacular viewing site here. Even if the whales decide not to show up, Roe Bay is home to the Pender Island Museum, a worthy visit.
South Pender Island is home to one of the most luxurious seaside resorts in all the Gulf Islands, Poet’s Cove. Tucked into the hillside on the southern end of Bedwell Harbor, the expansive hotel and spa property beckons boaters who stop in to clear Canadian customs. With a luxurious spa, two outdoor heated pools, café, restaurant, and lounge, it is easy to answer the siren’s call and linger here far longer than intended. Boaters moored overnight at the Poet’s Cove marina have access to all the resort’s amenities.
The Port Browning Marina and Resort on North Pender has a decidedly more laid-back vibe while still providing everything a visiting boater could want. A sprawling lawn, with room for sunbathing, tossing a Frisbee, or walking the pups, fronts a cozy lodge that houses an updated pub and bistro, marina office, showers, and a heated outdoor swimming pool. Sipping a local IPA on the deck and watching boats come and go is a perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.