Photograph by Gunter Marx/HI/Alamy
Known as the Canadian Galápagos for its endemic wildlife, including the ubiquitous Sitka deer visible along the islands’ only main road, this 155-mile-long, torch-shaped archipelago hangs underneath the Alaska panhandle, over 90 nautical miles off British Columbia’s North Coast. (Previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the home of the Haida First Nations reverted back to Haida Gwaii in 2010.) The Haida culture, the remote location, and the ocean mist drifting through moss-draped cedars all contribute to the islands’ mystical atmosphere, best experienced without expectations or itineraries.
"Life is about letting things unfold," says Canadian poet and writer Susan Musgrave, who lives outside the islands’ largest town of Masset, where she runs a bed and breakfast. Musgrave urges her guests to let serendipity shape their island experience. "If you ask for a ride, you’ll end up at a party on the beach by the fire, eating crab. That’s how things happen here."
When to Go: October to May is surfing season along North Beach, the Hiellen, Jungle Beach, and Rinnel Sound. For hiking, water sports, and fishing, visit June through August, when many local communities also stage summer festivals. Among the biggest is August’s Edge of the World Music Festival. The three-day event showcases a diverse line-up of more than 40 musical acts ranging from traditional local Haida performers to off-island bands performing indie and rock, reggae, Latin, and ska. Year-round bird-watching is available in Masset at Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary, the migratory home of about 140 different bird species.
How to Get Around: The islands are accessible by air or water, and only two—Graham (the largest and most northern island) and Moresby (directly south of Graham)—have roads. The quickest way to get to the islands is by plane (about a two-hour flight) from Vancouver to Sandspit via Air Canada or to Masset via Pacific Coastal Airlines. BC Ferries also operates a year-round route between Prince Rupert and Skidegate Landing. The trip takes at least seven hours (exact time depends on weather), and you are able to bring your car, bike, or kayak with you. Once on the island, shuttles and taxis are available. But you’ll need a car to get around since there isn’t any island-wide public transportation. Reserve a rental car in advance and consider booking an Inland Air floatplane trip or Moresby Explorers’ Zodiac tour to visit more remote areas.
Where to Stay: Built in 1914 and relocated twice by floating (first on a log frame and later pulled upriver by two oxen), the Copper Beech House is poet Susan Musgrave’s funky, five-room bed and breakfast located by the docks in Masset. Painted bright red with an even brighter blue trim, the cottage is decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques and hundreds of books. Each room has it charms, but only the Harbour Master’s Keep (the favorite of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife, Maggie) has its own kitchenette. This suite also includes a twin bed in a separate room. Conveniently located between Masset to the north and Queen Charlotte to the south, the Haida House faces the tea-colored Tlell River and backs onto the ocean shores of Hecate Strait. This 8,000-square-foot cedar lodge features nine guest rooms and, while a bed-and-breakfast-only rate is available, their all-inclusive rate packages make reaching Haida Gwaii and getting around pretty hassle-free. Three- to seven-night packages start at about $3,000 per person and include round-trip airfare from Vancouver, airport transfers, daily meals and lodging, and guided tours.
Where to Eat or Drink: The Ground Galley & Coffee House in Masset is a friendly local hangout with free Wi-Fi. More off the grid is New Moon Over Naikoon, a small bakery café housed in a cabin in the woods on the gravel road toward Tow Hill that serves up fresh-baked cinnamon buns and basic lunch options like pizza or soup (menu changes daily). It’s only open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and the cinnamon buns sell out fast, so plan a summer visit and stop in early on your way to the beach. For traditional Haida fare such as sea asparagus, octopus balls, and herring roe on kelp, get a seat at Keenawii’s Kitchen, aka Roberta Olson’s Kitchen, in Skidegate.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed, by John Vaillant (W.W, Norton & Company, 2006). The award-winning man-versus-nature tale leads into Haida Gwaii’s old-growth forest, where one man’s obsession to protect a 165-foot-tall Sitka spruce led to its destruction.
Fun Fact: A place largely bypassed by the Ice Age, Haida Gwaii bears more biomass per square yard of any place on the planet.
Masa Takei writes for several publications including Canadian Geographic, Explore, and the Globe and Mail. Most recently he filmed a yearlong series of video diaries while building an off-grid cabin on Haida Gwaii.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
Show us your best photos of nature, cities, and people from your travels around the world.