SALT SPRING ISLAND, B.C. — Wearing a pair of railroad-style overalls, her hair pulled back in a red bandanna, potter Francine Hampson-Reid popped out of her studio to greet visitors.
“You found us!” she said.
To that point, my husband and I were having no trouble following a self-guided artists’ studio tour on Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Canadian Southern Gulf Islands in British Columbia, just northwest of the San Juan Islands.
But when we approached Reid’s Mudpuppy Studios, and saw a sign for the Harbor House Hotel, we were a little confused.
“We are not a hotel,” she said with a laugh.
Turns out, her spouse, John Reid, collects vintage signs. There’s a Sweet Arts Cafe sign hanging above their sauna in back, and another for Belcher Bob’s Chili outside her gallery.
Salt Spring is home to dozens of artists, artisans and craftspeople, most of whom sell their wares at galleries or at the Saturday Market in the main town of Ganges. But for travelers with time for more than one-stop shopping, the studio tour takes visitors behind the scenes, where there’s always a backstory.
Taking the tour
First things first: Pick up a map on the ferry or in Ganges to find the locations featured in the studio tour, or go to saltspringstudiotour.com to follow along online and find artist profiles. Opening hours vary, so check the listings before visiting.
Once you’re on the trail, numbered, blue-and-white sheep signs posted along the roadside point the way to the homes of 20 potters, glass artists, cidermakers, cheesemongers and more, none more than a few minutes’ apart on an island that’s just 17 miles long and 9 miles wide.
“It’s a way for tourists to know we’re here,” said artist Mark Lauckner, who blows, casts and presses glass at the Glass Foundry, just past Laughing Daughters Gluten Free Foods off Upper Ganges Road.
Many artists open their home galleries to visitors, but those who participate on the tour must live where they work, make at least 80% of what they sell on-site and commit to regular opening hours, Lauckner explained.
Lauckner uses recycled scrap window glass and an energy-saving electric-powered furnace to produce coastal giftware such as starfish, sea horses, slugs, bowls and vases. A small table filled with scrap glass invites kids to design their own fused glass plates.
His backstory involves hundreds of colored glass insulators lined up on rows of shelves outside his gallery.
Now collector’s items, they were used between 1920 and 1950 on telephone and telegraph lines to prevent wires from touching poles. For those curious enough to know more, Lauckner will unlock a side door leading to a small museum housing Canada’s largest collection of insulators (3,000), all neatly labeled with explanations of their historical significance.
Not far from St. Mary Lake, one of two large lakes on the island, Hampson-Reid of Mudpuppy Studios walks visitors through an explanation of how she crafts wheel-thrown stone dinner and cookware in “runs”: one day pie plates, the next day mugs or bowls.
After an initial firing in an electric kiln, the pieces are fired again using an ancient German technique of mixing salt and baking soda in a backyard propane-fired kiln cranked up to 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit.
The salt vaporizes and interacts with the clay to create unique and unpredictable designs. The firing takes place over a three-day period. The kiln has to be monitored for heat control, which Hampson-Reid and her husband can do while sitting in their sauna.
Finished pieces are for sale in their “gallery,” consisting of two glass cases in the hallway of their home next to the pottery studio. Among items for sale are teapots with wooden handles crafted by Reid from Madrona trees on their property.
Close to Ganges is Cheyenne Goh’s Tweed and Bananas workshop, where the crafter works in a garage decorated with an Oriental rug and vintage suitcases to “upcycle” fabric scraps, old kilts, tweed jackets and most anything people drop at her door.
“From the beginning I have been into recycling and upcycling,” Goh said, a passion that evolved while the Singapore-born crafter worked with nongovernmental organizations to teach Indonesian villagers to recycle paper and make paper products that were sold to hotels and galleries.
Her signature items are bags fashioned from Harris Tweed jackets, incorporating the lapels as a design detail. Sleeves from jacket cuffs become small purses. Old neckties become holders for key fobs. Upholstery samples, dropped off by a company closing its business, are fashioned into clutch purses.
Her next project might involve an elegant silk Japanese wedding kimono that’s been sitting on a shelf waiting for an idea.
“I see something,” Goh said, “and I want to figure out what to do with it.”
Explore north and south
The studio tour is an opportunity to explore the far north and south ends of the island, just a 45-minute drive in either direction.
At the northern tip of Salt Spring Island is Sunset Farm, where the owners raise sheep fed on native grasses along with pet donkeys, horses and goats. For sale in a small shop next to the farm is wool for knitting or felting sheepskins, socks, blankets and pillows.
Facing Vancouver Island and Vesuvius Bay is the Zak Studio, where Margo Zak, a ceramist since her college days in Manitoba, crafts functional, hand-built porcelain vessels, and Dan Zak, a retired architect, paints watercolors, using abstract touches to interpret natural scenes around Salt Spring, Tofino and other Canadian destinations.
A flight of wooden steps leads to the contemporary house, which Dan designed to include a home gallery and studios for the duo. Margo works downstairs building tubular vases, mugs and pots, glazed on the inside so they can be used for holding liquids. Dan works upstairs, painting and making his own borderless frames for his watercolors.
Heading south, closer to Fulford Harbour and Ruckle Provincial Park, with trails and ocean views, are two worthy refreshment stops.
Former restaurant owners Michael and Rie Papp operate Salt Spring Shine, a craft distillery with spirits made from fermented local honey. Stop by to see their small still, and sample their gin, vodka, honeycomb or apple pie moonshine.
Farthest south and perhaps the most remote location on the tour is Salt Spring Island Cheese Company, in business since 1996. Travel a woodsy road past farm stands selling coffee, books, firewood and homemade jams, then veer off on a one-lane road, park and walk up the hill to the farm where the owners raise goats and make cheeses delicately decorated with flowers and herbs.
Visit the goats, watch the cheese-making process or picnic in the garden with a pizza from the farm cafe or a slice of fresh goat-cheese cheesecake.
If you go
Salt Spring island lies in the Strait of Georgia between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. It’s the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands, connected to the mainland and Vancouver Island by ferry. Getting there takes some time, so plan on a two- or three-night stay.
Border policies: The Canadian government says existing coronavirus-related border restrictions will remain in place until at least Sept. 30. That means most U.S. travelers will need to provide proof of being fully vaccinated to enter the country.
The government requires all travelers to upload their vaccine information and travel documents to the ArriveCAN mobile application up to 72 hours prior to arrival. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can sign in to ArriveCAN from a computer to get an ArriveCAN receipt to print and take with you.
See travel.gc.ca/travel-covid for full details; check before you go for any updates.
Remember to bring your passport when crossing the border.
Ferry reservations: There are three towns with ferry terminals on Salt Spring Island. See bcferries.com for schedules and reservations. Ferries call between Tsawwassen, north of Point Roberts, about 135 miles north of Seattle, and Long Harbour on Salt Spring (the most direct route); between Swartz Bay (Victoria) and Fulford Harbour; and between Crofton (on Vancouver Island) and Vesuvius Harbour.
Exchange rates: A favorable exchange rate makes Canadian travel a good value for U.S. travelers. The current rate is about 78 U.S. cents to one Canadian dollar. See bankofcanada.ca/rates/exchange for more info.