The little islands off Vancouver are relaxing hideaways, writes Rachel Ward.

The only thing better than having a qualified pilot at the controls when you're in a sea plane over water has got to be having a qualified pilot who is also an Olympic rower.

So thank goodness for Gavin - a former Canadian silver and bronze medallist - who steers our 1950s deHavilland Beaver into the skies for a scenic flight around Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, as part of a 10-day tour of the amazing west coast of Canada.

The deHavilland made its name as a forestry aircraft, and while these planes are famously reliable they also sound like tractors, especially when they are taking off. Cue nervous hyperventilation as the old bird gains altitude and I think about having to make use of the pilot's rowing skills.

After some calming from Gavin, however, I open my eyes and take in the spectacular view.

From the skies above Salt Spring - the largest of the many islands that lie in the Strait of Georgia, between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island - one can clearly see Vancouver City to the east, the state capital of Victoria to the south, and the United States to the southeast.

This is a beautiful spot. It's hardly surprising the population swells from its usual 10,000 to 18,000 in summer.

We'd actually arrived on Salt Spring by ferry from Vancouver Island that morning, and almost immediately noticed the striking similarity to New Zealand.

Maybe it was the presence of sheep and farmland - a welcome change from the endless stands of evergreens and firs on the mainland - or perhaps the little stalls at the end of driveways selling local produce, organic lamb, flowers and vegetables.

It definitely has that island feeling: relaxed and friendly. Everyone knows everyone and there isn't much crime. At least that's the line from Phillip Reece, local businessman and co-owner of Salt Spring Airways, who takes us to lunch.

Salt Spring is a romantic place, and boutique hotel Hastings House confirms it. It's reminiscent of a old English manor house and from the beautifully kept gardens to the wonderful sculpture trail around the property, it's definitely a place to relax. The urge for a cup of tea and a lie down is almost overwhelming.

But you have to get up for dinner because the hotel's restaurant is considered one of the best in British Columbia, offering food that is seasonal and, wherever possible, locally produced. We opted for the island's famous Salt Spring lamb, cooked to perfection by chef Marcel Kauer, and accompanied by Canadian wines.

Hastings House takes a real pride in all its food. A wake-up hamper of muffins and coffee arrives outside your room early each morning, and if you've got an early start you get a care package of water, muffins and fruit.

Our 5am wake-up was required so we could take a short ferry ride to nearby Pender Island, nearby geographically that is, but in every other respect a million miles away.

The contrast amazes. Where Salt Spring was all well-manicured fields and roadside stalls, fir trees predominate on Pender. Avenues of evergreens give the island both a feeling of mystery and a sense of isolation. Names such as the Magic Lakes and the Enchanted Forest add to a fairytale forest feeling.

Pender Island - permanent population about 2500 - is actually made up of the North and South Pender which are linked by a one lane bridge.

After our early start we meet Jay Raichura from Pender Island Kayak Adventures with our energy levels at a low ebb. Luckily, his enthusiasm soon wakes us both up. That and the prospect of having to launch ourselves into our kayaks from the dock.

Unfortunately for us, the weather put paid to any plans we had of doing one of the whale watching trips which is usually a highlights of any Pender holiday

But fortuitously it turns out Jay spent a year in New Zealand, and had such a nice time, he wants to show kiwis some hospitality in his country.

We jump at his offer of a home-cooked meal, prepared by his American friend David, a successful architect who moved to Pender for the laid back lifestyle, and shared by a half dozen other Pender residents.

And it's a meal to die for - sockeye salmon, scallops and snapper, plus a trifle.

It's a fairly international gathering but the topics of conversation are resolutely Canadian - bears, cougars and salmon - all of which provides a pleasant reminder that we're in a foreign land.

It's true that a lot of Canada looks like New Zealand but we don't spend a lot of time chatting about bears back home in Pt Chev.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Vancouver.

Getting around: BC Ferries runs regular sailings to Salt Spring and Pender from Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Where to stay:

On Salt Spring Island try Hastings House.
On Pender Island try Poets Cove Resort.

Further information: See the Tourism British Columbia website.

Rachel Ward travelled to Salt Spring and Pender Islands courtesy of Tourism British Columbia and Air New Zealand.