Ravens the size of small airplanes.* Giant rocks that magically balance on beaches. Blowholes on shore that spray land like a whale spout. Seafood so bountiful that you can literally walk into the ocean to scoop it up. Forests so dense and ancient that they vibrate with some of the brightest greens and whispery darkness you’ll ever see – all at once.
Welcome to Haida Gwaii.
in 2011, I was lucky enough to cross off a very big item off my life travel bucket list: Haida Gwaii. Perched over 100 km west of British Columbia’s north coast, Haida Gwaii is an archipelago of hundreds of islands covered in rich, dense temperate rain forests, Haida villages and ancient heritage sites. The population of Haida Gwaii is about 5000. Most folks from Haida Gwaii live on the largest island of the group, Graham Island in the towns of: Queen Charlotte City, Skidegate, Tlell, Port Clements, Masset and Old Massett.
My first time to Haida Gwaii, I was invited to tag along on a family road trip north with my friends Allan and Tamara, whose family’s hail from from Old Massett, one of Haida Gwaii’s northern most communities. I was so excited I could barely sleep the night before we left. On that 10 day journey we drove, ferried and drove the 1801 kilometres between Vancouver and the northern tip of Graham Island. I learned about memorial feasts (a community gathering to mark the headstone moving of someone who has passed), cedar carving, how to catch a dungeness crab in low tide, how to clean a crab, how to filet and smoke a fish and how to Stand up Paddleboard (let’s say I’m better at crabbing).
Since that initial trip, I’ve returned to Haida Gwaii twice and learned a little more each time. It’s a magical, misty place where people are so lovely and hospitable, so proud of their culture and home. And they are so fierce in the passion to protect the lands and waters that sustain them. As I would be too.
Below you’ll find five reasons to start planning a visit to Haida Gwaii RIGHT NOW.
Though the destination is the ultimate prize, travelling to Haida Gwaii is not for the faint of heart of light of wallet. Driving is by far the most economical (carpooling, still better) but expensive in terms of time. But Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert and then the ferry from Rupert to Aliford Bay is one of the best Canadian road/boat trips you can make. Flying isn’t always easy either. My second trip there, a fog hugged the islands so tight that we flew all the way from Vancouver and back again arriving 12 hours late. But as the old travel quotes/cliches/wive’s tales go, a trip to Haida Gwaii really is about the journey and destination.
The first thing to do upon arriving in the Misty Isles is to buy a shellfish fishing license and heck, a fishing license while you’re at it. Check what’s in season and then borrow/rent/buy or use your own gear that you packed (you smart, travel planning cookie you) to go out crabbing or fishing. There are many fishing charter companies to choose from. As for crabbing, at low tide you can walk out and literally scoop them up on North Beach. Be wary of crab size and proper sex. Ask, a local how to determine both. Heck, they might even grab their crab pot and join you.
In terms of restaurants, Haida Gwaii has plenty of great places to nosh. Though fine dining outlets are few and far between, the collection of restaurants and the families that run them are the friendliest of folks, the food is delicious and the atmosphere casual. I would return to eat at any of the places below (and did). My Haida Gwaii must-eats include: Ocean View in Queen Charlotte, Jag’s Beanstalk in Skidegate, Raven’s Roost at the Crow’s Nest in Tlell, and The Ground Cafe & Gallery in Massett, the Haida Rose Cafe and Roaster in Old Masset and Moon Over Naikoon Bakery in Tow Hill. *!*! See note below….
Perched where the ancient seaside village of Kay Llanagaay stood, the Haida Heritage Centre acts as a community gathering place, museum and education centre for both visitors and residents of Haida Gwaii. The Haida Heritage Centre features exhibits on local ecology, Haida ways of living and modern or historic art. The totem poles outside of the centre are a instagrammable as are the views of the oft-stormy, oft-sparkly Skidegate Inlet.
Worldwide, the Haida people are known for their art. Thanks to the work of artists such as Bill Reid and Charles Edenshaw among others, the Haida tradition of carving cedar, gold, silver and/or copper with its rich detail, vibrant colours and narrative composition made it one of the most saught-after Aboriginal art forms for traders and collectors alike. Monumental carvings in the can be found all over the islands. You can easily walk or drive through many of the communities to check out the various carved poles. Start in the south in Skidegate and work your way north to Old Massett.
The people of Haida Gwaii are generous, hardy souls. Haida Gwaii is isolated from the mainland, shrouded in clouds and pelted by storms many months of the year. Haida Gwaii residents have a long tradition of utilizing natural resources to survive whether it’s foraging, fishing, logging, harvesting. Increasingly, eco-tourism brings visitors from across Canada and the world to experience the gorgeous outdoors, highly complex and beautiful Haida culture and the boundless eco-tourims opportunities (from kayaking to glamping to surfing). I love the people on these islands and am quite partial to the rough and tumble community of Masset. A couple of years ago the Vancouver Canucks visited Haida Gwaii as a team building experience before they started their season. I know why – because no where else in the world will you be welcomed with such wide smiles, teasing jokes and yummy food.
I can’t wait to return. And I’m pretty sure you’ll say the same after you go.**
*I’m totally exaggerating. Kind of.
**Fun fact: friends of mine who went up there for a romantic birthday weekend returned the following year, this time with visiting New Brunswick mother-in-law in tow.
*!*!* Update – my family and I have since moved to Haida Gwaii and LOVE IT. I’m thinking of developing mini-guides to different communities on island including: Masset and Sandspit. Stay tuned…
Here are a couple of pretty rad guides to the Islands written by locals:
Vogue magazine Travel Guide to Haida Gwaii, Galapagos of the North by poet and novelist Susan Musgrave
Yes and Yes Mini-Guide to Haida Gwaii by Allison.
Have you visited Haida Gwaii? Where was your favourite spot?