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Discover Denman Island: An Offbeat Canadian Destination

Sometimes it is the places that you visit by chance that you end up loving the most. This was particularly true for me and Denman Island. What started as a chance meeting turned into a full-blown love affair, one that is still going strong.

Denman Island is truly a special place.

I won’t go into the full story of why I ended up on Denman Island, let’s just say it involved a bad experience volunteering on a farm and my food being drugged, but as soon as I arrived I knew it was exactly where I was meant to be.

Denman Island is a small island located in the Northern Gulf Islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Denman is home to a close-knit community and is abundant in understated natural beauty, with temperate rainforest and a rugged and beautiful coastline, teeming with life.

Despite its beauty, Denman Island has managed to escape the tourist hordes that swarm to its neighbor, Hornby Island, with its famous white sand beach, and in that lies its charm.

Denman has little tourist infrastructure, and it is this lack of commercialization and capitalist-driven enterprises that has attracted the small number of residents that call Denman Island home.

Coastline on Denman Island

There is an unusually high number of creatives that live and work on the island including painters, potters, photographers, sculptors, and carvers. A large wave of residents moved to Denman Island in the 1970s with dreams of living self-sustainable lives in a peaceful place.

These people have all shaped Denman as the island has shaped them. It is a place of big dreamers that are fiercely proud and protective of their secret island paradise.

During my two visits to the island including volunteering for 2.5 weeks in fall and a couple more days there during summer, I came to appreciate the kindness of the locals and the simple, satisfying lives that they live on this small, forested island.

If you spend some time here, you may never want to leave. I still dream about this magical place.

The Best Things To Do on Denman Island

Explore the Small Village Center

Small would probably be an understatement when describing Denman Island’s village core. Tiny Denman Village is home to a general store, a bookstore and coffeeshop, a bakery and ice cream store, a small church, a real estate office, a Hardware Store, and a bistro.

Downtown Denman Island

And that’s about it. It may be small but it is the heart and soul of Denman Island and still definitely worth a look. I particularly love the old-fashioned wooden General Store which sells a bit of everything, like any small town General Store should.

Swimming in Graham or Chicadee Lakes

There’s nothing better on a hot, summer’s day than cooling off in the clear waters of a lake ensconced in a forest, and Denman Island has two of them. I haven’t been to Chicadee Lake but Graham Lake is beautiful, perfectly cool and refreshing, and is a great place to meet locals while lying on the pontoon that sits out on the lake.

Hiking to Graham Lake on Denman Island Graham Lake on Denman Island

After a short hike through the forest, you can then alternate between swimming in the clean waters of the lake and lying in the sun on the pontoon: the perfect way to spend the day. Bring a picnic.

Beach Time in Fillongley Provincial Park

There aren’t a lot of typical beaches on the island with much of the coastline being rocky but Fillongley Provincial Park is the exception. There is a sheltered, sandy beach there with water as still as glass, perfect for swimming.

Summer on Denman Island

Long grasses and wildflowers grow right up to the sand, and weathered driftwood decorates the beach. There are views over to Hornby Island and if you are lucky, you might see a cheeky seal or a pod of orcas offshore.

Walk Over to Sandy Island at Low Tide

You don’t have to have a boat to get over to Sandy Island Marine Park, known locally as Tree Island, a 30-hectare island off the northern tip of Denman Island – you just need to wait until low tide. Located at the northern tip of Denman Island, Sandy Island is home to numerous species of bird and is a fragile ecosystem of rare plants.

Sandy Island Sandy Island off Denman Island

You can access Sandy Island by walking along the coastline from Morning Side Park, from where you will need to wait till the tide is within an hour of its lowest point for the sand bar to appear that leads out to the island. It is a twenty-minute walk and you can expect your shoes to get muddy on the way.

Once on the island, you can explore to your heart’s content, there is a stand of Douglas Fir trees, sandy beaches, and fields of long grasses.

Attend the Farmers Market and Free Store

From May till October, every Saturday from 9.30am till 12.30pm, there is a small Farmers Market held behind the Recycling Depot.

Denman Island Farmers Market

With various stalls ranging from local vegetables and fruits, artisan products, weaving and knitting, home-baked goodies, freshly made coffee, jewelry, handmade soaps, arts and crafts, and flowers and potted plants, the market has something for everyone and is a popular meeting place with locals.

Make sure to visit the Free Store at the Recycling Depot for previously-loved clothing and books. It’s open on Saturdays from 10am – 2pm.

Day Trip to Hornby Island

Only a stone’s throw away from Denman Island’s eastern side is popular Hornby Island. The island is one of the more touristed islands in the Gulf and is home to many holiday homes owned by Vancouverites.

Hornby Island

It is a beautiful island with lots of hiking trails, long white sand beach, rocky coastline and temperate rainforest, similar to Denman save for the much larger number of visitors that frequent its shores, giving it a different vibe.

There is a lot more infrastructure on Hornby Island with a number of pubs, restaurants, and a few shops, although it is still small-scale.

Whaling Station Beach on Hornby

Hornby Island is only a short ten-minute ferry ride away from Denman Island and like Denman, it doesn’t have any public transport so you are best taking a bike or being prepared to hitch if you don’t have your own vehicle.

Overlook Tiny Chrome Island

If you are into lighthouses, you have got to make the trip to Boyle Provincial Park to hike to the overlook over tiny Chrome Island.

Hiking on Denman Island

The island is so small – only two acres in size – it practically just looks like a large rock with some buildings on it, but people actually live there – it is manned by a couple who file weather reports every three hours and collect scientific data. I love islands but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live on one so tiny.

Go Rock Pooling

One of the things I love about Denman is its rocky shoreline, home to rock pools full of tiny creatures and bright purple starfish, thick bands of glossy green seaweed, and pockets of gravelly white sand.

Rock pool gazing on Denman Island

Strolling this rainforest-rimmed wonderland is always a fun thing to do, soaking in the beauty and silence, and if you are lucky, you may see a pod of orcas offshore. It is the perfect place to clear your head and reconnect with nature.

Attend a Local Event

Denman Island may be home to a small community but it is a sociable one, with lots of events happening on the island on a regular basis such as classical, folk, and pop music performances, a Christmas Craft fair, home and garden tours, and art exhibitions.

I attended a performance by the incredibly talented folk singer Christa Couture which was held in one of the local’s houses, as well as played volleyball with a group of locals and of course, attended the weekly Farmers Market.

You can find out what’s going on by checking out flyers outside the General Store or on the Denman Island website.

Rock pooling on Denman Island Denman Island Bird

Hit the Hiking Trails

For a small island, Denman Island has a number of parks and hiking trails. Here are a few of my favorite places to hike on Denman. You also can’t go wrong just wandering aimlessly along the coastline with various access points across the island.

Fillongley Provincial Park

Along with a beautiful beach, Fillongley Provincial Park also offers some great hiking trails, such as the trail through old-growth forest to the meadow where the original owner, George Beadnell, had his homestead before selling the land for $1 to the Provincial Government in 1953.

All that is left of Mr. Beadnell’s estate is an overgrown stone fountain and his grave. The park is known for being home to some of the largest remaining stands of Douglas Firs and Cedars in the region, and they towered over me.

Boyle Point Provincial Park

Boyle Point Provincial Park is one of the highest points on Denman Island. The park offers trails through thick rainforest and mossy undergrowth to steep clifftops at the southern tip of Denman Island, from where tiny Chrome Island and its lighthouse can be viewed. There are also viewpoints over to Vancouver Island and Hornby Island along the trail.

During the herring run in spring, the park is alive with bald eagles, and sea lions can be spotted in number as they feed on the herring.

Denman Island, one of Canada's offbeat islands Deer on Denman Island

Morrison Marsh Nature Reserve

A forested reserve that is home to marshland and is crisscrossed by old logging roads, Morrison Marsh is a great spot for bird watching and hiking. The trails of Morrison Marsh connect to Boyle Point Provincial Park if you are looking for a longer hike.

Sandy Island Marine Park

As I mentioned in the main attractions section above, Sandy Island is the perfect place for a hike with sandy beaches, grassy meadows, and a forested interior.

The trails are unmarked but you can just wander at leisure. It’s not the largest island so it would be hard to get lost. If you visit on a weekday in the shoulder season, you might just have the place to yourself.

Sand Island hiking Denman Island coastline

Morning Side Park

Located at the northern tip of Denman Island, Morning Side Park is a stretch of windswept coastline strewn with driftwood and pocketed with rock pools. The park is the perfect spot for beach-combing and is where you access Sandy Island Marine Park at low tide.

Explore Denman Island by Kayak

A fun way to explore the Denman Island coastline is by going kayaking, and Denman Hornby Canoes & Kayaks offers half and full-day tours to different spots around the island.

Canoeing on a lake in Denman Island Kayaing on the marsh in Denman Island

I haven’t done this but when I was volunteering on the island in 2013 I borrowed a canoe from my host and spent a couple of hours canoeing on Morrison Marsh. I loved the peaceful experience and seeing otters and beavers in the marsh.

Plan Your Trip to Denman Island

Getting to Denman Island

The closest major airport to Denman Island is in Vancouver, but alternatively, you can also fly into Victoria on Vancouver Island which is much closer.

From Vancouver, you can catch the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo and from there it is a one-hour drive to Buckley Bay, where you catch a ten-minute ferry to the island. From Victoria, it is a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Buckley Bay.

If you don’t have access to a vehicle, then getting from Vancouver you will need to take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, then you can catch a local Island Link bus to Buckley Bay, or from Victoria there are direct buses.

There is no public transport on Denman Island so it would be beneficial to have a car if possible but it is definitely still doable without one, although you will need to be willing to hitch, which is common on the island, or to walk long distances.

Getting around by bike if you have one would also be pretty easy. You can rent them from the Earth Club Factory Guesthouse.

Seagull on Denman Island Denman Island beach

The Best Places To Stay on Denman Island

If you are traveling on a budget, your best bet is to stay at the excellent Denman Island Guesthouse and Hostel which has affordable private rooms and dorms as well as camping, or camp at beautiful Fillongley Provincial Park. Book in advance if you can because there are only ten sites.

For something a bit more luxurious, stay at one of the self-contained units at oceanfront Manna House or this oceanfront one-bedroom cottage on a peaceful beach, or this oceanfront luxury guest suite with a sauna.

If you have more time than money and are open to trying something new, you should consider doing a help exchange/volunteering through Work AwayHelp X, or WWOOF.

This is a great way to experience life on the island by staying with a local. You are expected to work for around 5-6 hours per day for 4-5 days per week, and you usually get room and board for this. It’s a great way to “live” on Denman for really cheap.

Earth Factory Guesthouse on Denman Island Graham Lake on Denman Island

Where to Eat and Drink on Denman Island

There aren’t a lot of options on Denman Island to eat out. There are no pubs or bars and at the time of writing there is only one Restaurant, the Earth Club Factory Bistro, which serves a fairly basic but delicious menu of coffees, sandwiches, salads, and homemade cakes. They even roast their own coffee beans on-site. It’s a great spot for people-watching and the seating out in the rambling garden is perfect on a sunny day.

For delicious baked goods try Ima’s Kitchen and Abraxas Cafe has a selection of cafe fare like sandwiches and baked goods.

The weekly Farmers Market on Saturdays has stalls selling food with different vendors each week. The last time I went there was a French crepe stand, an espresso stand, and a stand selling homemade baked goods.

You can pick up basic provisions at the General Store to make simple meals but it would be best to bring food onto the island if you can unless you are volunteering and meals are included.

If you are a seafood lover, pick up some fresh seafood from Fanny Bay Oysters Seafood Shop beside the ferry terminal in Buckley Bay before catching the ferry to the island.

Denman Island reflections Denman Island wharf

Tips For Visiting Denman Island

  • Pick up a free brochure and map from the ferry building in Buckley Bay or the Denman Island General Store on arrival
  • Denman is a great spot to see bald eagles and deer – they are literally everywhere
  • Hitching is common on the island
  • There are generally no bears on the island although they have been known to swim over on occasion
  • There is an ATM in the Denman General Store
  • There is nowhere to get gas on Denman Island so make sure you fuel up in Buckley Bay before heading over. You can also get gas on Hornby Island.
  • The nearest supermarket to the island is in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. The Denman Island General Store has basic provisions.
  • Book accommodation as far in advance as possible as there aren’t a lot of budget options and they book up fast in the summer.

The Best Insurance For Your Denman Island Trip

Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your trip, just to be on the safe side. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with. 

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