The pandemic has made us adept at workarounds. So why not a sail-around?
With Vancouver sailings of Alaska-bound cruise ships halted until November because of COVID-19 regulations, I stayed in Canadian waters and sailed the scenic Inside Passage northward route in August on BC Ferries‘ spacious Northern Expedition.
The 16-hour trip sails on alternate days from Port Hardy, on the northeast tip of Vancouver Island, to Prince Rupert on the British Columbia mainland, not far from the Alaska panhandle.
I’d done this route several years ago on the way to Ketchikan, a southern Alaska town, aboard a seven-night cruise on Celebrity’s Millennium.
Instead of the late-afternoon departure with cruise-ship fanfare from the landmark sails of Canada Place in Vancouver, we drove into the maw-like open bow of the Northern Expedition for the 7:30 a.m. sailing on a dark and drizzling Port Hardy morning.
It rained all day. It didn’t matter. Overcast skies and drizzle on the windows somehow heightened the impact of the scenery and the feeling of coziness on board as swirling mist drifted across dense rainforest crests. And just to even things out, the sun was shining on the return sailing from Prince Rupert.
Immersive Coastal Beauty in British Columbia
The Inside Passage route travels some of the most inspiring, wild, and remote scenery in Canada. If you want to appreciate the vastness of British Columbia’s landscape, this is the way to do it. The ferry passed uninhabited islands and rocky shoreline rising to densely packed, towering conifers. The slow passage through the narrow, mountain-lined Grenville Channel near Prince Rupert was so dramatic, it seemed to deserve its own soundtrack.
Whether sailing from Vancouver or Seattle, not all Alaska-bound cruise ships take the Inside Passage. The ferry guarantees you get to see it.
My two ferry trips were part of a weeklong getaway. On reflection, I spent too much time driving and sitting relative to hiking and exploring. I wish I had resisted the temptation to see as much as possible. Wiser travellers will build in more time.
I booked a BC Ferries Vacations package, including five nights of hotel stays. Advertising promises “the best deals” but my booking documents didn’t break down hotel costs to explain savings, so I’m not sure if I came out on top.
It wasn’t cheaper to go by ferry than cruise ship.
The Celebrity website lists prices for May 2022 sailings from Vancouver to Alaska starting from $1,010 (all figures in Canadian dollars) per person for an ocean-view cabin. We paid $3,005.45 for our BC Ferries trip for two, including lounge passes, hotels and ferry: $179 per person each way and $407.80 each way for the car.
The cost included $40 passes to the spacious Aurora Lounge. They were a smart buy. The lounge has key-card access, wide reclining leather chairs, three large bathrooms, and a curved wall of windows over the bow, as well as floor-to-ceiling side windows.
Cabins are available for an additional $100 for an interior cabin and $130 for an exterior.
With fewer people travelling and no international guests, there were no more than two dozen people in the Aurora Lounge. We had an entire row of seats to ourselves. It felt like a private club.
I watched out the windows directly in front of my chair for hours, using binoculars to scan the shore and tracing the narrow ribbons of waterfalls and bridal veil cascades.
A windy walk around the decks or a seat on the stern-facing sundeck offered changing views.
I read a book and often took impromptu naps, lulled by the quiet and the gentle movement of the ferry.
Poster-size route maps posted along the passageways and inside the Aurora Lounge helped me follow along and spot sights like historic lighthouses. The ferry is also a commuter vessel. We made a brief stop at Bella Bella, home of the Heiltsuk Nation, where robust salmon leaped vigorously in the harbour near a weathered wooden fishing platform.
Built in 2009, the Northern Expedition holds more than 600 passengers and crew and 115 vehicles. My sailings had just over 120 passengers on each trip.
COVID-19 measures were in place, with passengers required to wear masks when moving around the ferry. There were lots of sanitizing stations and distancing wasn’t a problem. Unlike my Millennium cruise, which had plentiful and often-excellent gourmet fare included in the fare, the Northern Expedition stumbled a bit with pandemic-times challenges. Understandable and not unexpected, but still worth noting.
The bow-facing Vista Restaurant, with hot and cold buffet and linen-covered, ocean-view tables, was shut because of public-health restrictions. So was the sun deck barbecue I’d read about and hoped to have. The Canoe Café cafeteria-style dining room was clean, with lots of tables and colourful images on the walls of Indigenous arts and culture.
Menu choices were limited, mostly hamburgers, veggie burgers or chicken burgers and fries. Supplies of salads, sandwiches and cartons of milk in the coolers quickly ran out. A passenger who asked for milk was told he couldn’t be helped.
“There is still a limited menu because of COVID restrictions in place. Some salads and sandwiches are on display and usually made to order upon request,” said BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall.
Marshall said I should have been told the Vista Restaurant was closed when I booked my passage. The agent may have done that, but I don’t recall hearing it.
Pandemic-era travel has taught me to always pack snacks, sanitizer, and patience along with my mask, so we never went hungry. And the White Spot burgers were pretty good.
The restaurant staff were cheerful, polite, and did their best, as did the personnel on board, from the purser to cashiers.
Like a cruise ship, we even had entertainment, including two movies on each sailing in the Raven Lounge and, even better, orca and humpback sightings. The scenery was the best show we could have asked for.
The purser detailed points of intertest along the route over the ship’s loudspeaker.
“We have some orcas breaching off the port side,” she announced, setting off a rush for the outdoor decks and plenty of discussion of whether port was right or left. It’s left.
I had some lively conversations with passengers and a former flight attendant who was working in the Passages gift shop.
As we ate our burgers and chatted with a fellow passenger in the café who was commuting from Prince Rupert, we had a surprise visitor for dinner. Outside the large window, a humpback whale languidly surfaced. It dove, the white underside of its magnificent tail shimmering in the late-day sun.
MORE ABOUT BC FERRIES SAILING TO ALASKA
Where to Eat
In Prince Rupert: Fukasaku of Prince Rupert overlooking the marina in colourful Cow Bay serves exceptional sushi made with only B.C.-sourced seafood. Owner-chef Dai Fukasaku prepares outstanding rolls, sushi, and sashimi from an open kitchen with great attention to detail with the freshest local fish and freshly grated Nanaimo-grown wasabi. Simple, locally made cedar tables and chairs using Japanese joinery techniques add to the aesthetic. The standout roll was made with Haida Gwaii cod belly, avocado, and walnuts. Perfect service and a warm welcome.
In Port Hardy: We only had one meal at Nax’id’ Pub in the Indigenous-owned and -operated Kwa’lilas Hotel and it was so good, it made me wish we had time to return: signature Eggs Benedict with shards of smoked wild salmon, braised kale, fry bread, and togarashi hollandaise was excellent.
The Sporty Bar & Grill serves great halibut and chips and — here’s a surprise — duck confit. Like the Nax’d’ Pub, friendly staff and genuine hospitality.
Where to Stay
The Kwa’lilas Hotel – Port Hardy: Located in the traditional territories of the Kwakiutl people, the hotel name means “a place to sleep.” There’s great attention to detail here, including First Nations art and culture referenced in the room design and décor and a magnificent collection of art in the gathering place lobby, including a wall-filling hammered bronze piece that tells local history, stories, and legends. The staff is exceptional.
The Crest – Prince Rupert: From the extensive collection of Indigenous art to the comfy beds, this quiet hotel on the harbour was a great stay. There’s a lounge and restaurant off the lobby overlooking the harbour.