You Know You’re In A Small, Laid Back Place When Directions Are Given By “Turn At the Big Tree”
Hornby Island is one of our favorite places to visit. It’s where we can always escape to for a relaxing getaway. Hornby has a reputation of being a hippie island. Over the years the atmosphere has changed somewhat. The mix of musicians and artists now share the island with an ever growing number of wealthy retirees and vacation property owners. The locals on the island are a tight nit group that are committed to conservation. Bringing people together through social activities and volunteering are a very important part of Hornby Island life.
It had been a while since our last visit. On this recent trip we felt the greatest amount of change. We hope that it won’t become a place just for the wealthy, losing all of its colourful charm that the island has become known for. For now it still remains a special place with a laid back vibe and an eclectic mix of people.
Family Connections To The Island
We have been to Hornby Island many times. My husband was first introduced to the island in the early 1970’s by his grandfather. He owned what is still called the Shingle Spit Pub today and the row of cabins along the spit. The grandfather helped in some of the early development on the island. If you look at the first road to the left after getting off the ferry it is Parnell road, named after him. His great grandparents have even deeper roots. They were early farmers on Hornby, once owning the huge farm property that skirts the ocean in Ford’s Cove. It’s been known as the Olson Farm for decades.
Getting To Hornby Island
Hornby Island sits off the central east coast of Vancouver Island. To get there you need to catch a ferry at Buckley Bay, one hour north of Nanaimo or 2o km’s south of Courtenay. At Buckley Bay the ferry will take you to Denman Island. You will need to drive over to the east side of Denman island to catch a second ferry to Hornby Island. In summer you can just follow the line of traffic across Denman Island. The first ferry takes 15 minutes and the second one 10 minutes. In summer be prepared for ferry waits.
Pick up the annually updated Hornby and Denman Islands Visitor’s Guide aboard the ferries and at brochure racks on the island. It includes a list of activities, art galleries, restaurants and a map.
When To Go
When you choose to go to Hornby should depend on the level of relaxation and solitude you want. Many shops, restaurants and studios close their doors altogether from October to April or remain open only on weekends.
The year round population of the island is just over a 1000 people. During the summer months this number grows to over 4000, but it’s not like it crowds out the island.
The majority of festivals and events are held during the summer. During the winter there are little options for eating out. If you would like to be somewhere in between the busy period and the dead of winter then go after Labour Day has passed. The rest of September and into October are a wonderful time to visit. Or try going in May or June before the summer rush starts. Take note that some businesses start to close down after the first weekend of September.
Getting Around The Island
If you are trying to get around the island there is no doubt that at some point you will be given instructions to turn at the big tree. I’m not sure how old this tree is, but it has been an icon on the island for as long as anyone can remember. You can’t miss it. It stands proud down from the Co-op at the intersection of Otsby and St. John’s Point Road.
The island is very easy to navigate. It is one of the smaller Gulf Islands at a total of 30 sq km’s or 11.5 sq miles. Central road runs from Shingle Spit at the ferry terminal clockwise around the island through farmland. Then it heads through the forest and over to Tribune Bay, continuing over to the other side of the island at Ford’s Cove. The access to all parts of the island will stem from this road.
There are no buses or taxis, but islanders are very accommodating when it comes to picking up hitch hikers needing to get from one part of the island to another.
If you are planning to stay on Hornby in the summer you should book your accommodation well in advance. There are a couple of commercial campgrounds, resort lodges and B&B’s. The other option is to rent one of the many private cabins or houses available. Places with beach front or an ocean view are going to run you the most money.
Lodges, Cabins And Cottages
The Sea Breeze Lodge has fully equipped cottages that are located above the shoreline at Tralee Point. The lodge has a restaurant that is open for lunch and dinner during the summer.
Hornby Island Resort has a number of beach front cabins for rent, a few hotel style rooms and some camping spots.
On the other side of the island, Ford’s Cove Cottages and Camping has a couple of cabins and space for tents and RVs.
Tribune Bay Campsite, has over a hundred sites for tents. From the campsite it is just a short walk to Tribune Bay Provincial Park and beach. It’s been many years since we have used this campground. It used to have quite a party crowd at it.
Bradsdadsland is another campsite that sits on an oceanfront bluff at Phipps Point. It is just five minutes up the road from the ferry terminal. This is a very family friendly campsite that is nicely landscaped.
Our House Rental
We have rented the same cabin several times on Hornby that was owned by a family friend. It sits right on the waterfront in Whaling Station Bay. We wanted to rent it again this time, but it recently changed owners. The price the new owner wanted was way out of our budget at $2500 for the week!
We decided to treat ourselves to a house rental with an ocean view. It sat up on a bluff on High Salal road overlooking Tribune Bay. Everything we needed for our stay was provided. All we had to do was bring whatever food we wanted to prepare for ourselves. We enjoyed the large deck and the view, but we found the location a bit too isolated and out of the way. It is perfect if you are looking for complete solitude. It was at least 5 minutes drive up hill on a gravel road to get to the house. We missed being in Whaling Station Bay where we could just hop on our bikes and ride around the area. We did enjoy having direct access to Helliwell Park by walking down a trail system that went past the property.
Walking along the gravel access road for the High Salal properties gave us the opportunity to photograph all the amazing diversity of a pacific coast forest.
The house was designed with lots of windows to maximize natural light. It was also designed to be able to take advantage of the views from bedrooms that sit at the back of the house. There is a center courtyard with windows that allow you to see through to take advantage of the views from the large windows in the front room.
Places To Eat
Most of Hornby’s restaurants are open daily in summer and may remain open on weekends during the rest of the year or close altogether.
No trip to Hornby would be complete with out a stop at the Cardboard House Bakery. They make pizza with fresh herbs, speciality breads, pastries, muffins and pies. Specialties include sticky buns and blueberry sour cream pie. Throughout the summer evenings there are live music events held on the orchard property. It’s a fun atmosphere, everyone finds a spot in the grass to sit and enjoy the musicians.
Jan’s Cafe is a friendly place to come grab breakfast or lunch. They have delicious food all made in house. They have burgers, sandwiches and breakfast dishes. The cafe is open from May to October.
Vorizo Espresso Bar serves barista drinks as well as burritos and Pad Thai from their small caravan.
Lix Espresso And Icecream has many specialty coffees, ice cream, gelato and yogurt treats.
The Breeze is located at the Sea Breeze Lodge. It is open for dinner from May to October. The meals are themed and may include Italian, Mexican, Greek , and curry buffets. It is open on weekends in the spring and fall, and daily in the summer.
The Thatch Pub is the islands only watering hole. They serve tasty and filling pub style food. It’s a place of lively conversation between locals and tourists. Friday evenings come alive as jazz night. We had a delicious salmon burger here with a fresh green salad. Our meals as well as the other plates going to tables were all hearty portions and the prices are quite reasonable.
Next door to the Thatch Pub is the Wheelhouse Restaurant. It is a casual place where you can sit down for a meal or order takeaway.
Hornby Island Co-Op And Ringside Market
The center of community activity revolves around the Co-op store and the funky shops and cafes in the Ringside Market around it. This is downtown Hornby if you will. You can find it at the intersection of Central and Shield road. This is where no local can come without bumping into someone they know. The bulletin board here is chock full of notices of upcoming events, items for sale, places for rent and people looking for or offering rides off the island.
The Co-op has been operating on the island since 1955. Several local food producers supply the Co-op with goods. There is Hornby Island Seafood that has fresh, smoked, and candied salmon. The Cardboard House Bakery with it’s breads and other baked goods and Hornby Island Pâté with vegetarian non-dairy spreads. You can get almost anything at the Co-op that you would find at any typical grocery store. Downstairs carries the hardware and housewares section.