The ferry cruise along British Columbia's Inside Passage combines the best scenic elements of Norway's rocky fjords, Chile's Patagonian range, and Nova Scotia's wild coastline. While many people experience the Inside Passage as part of an expensive Alaska cruise, you can see the same scenery for far less money on a BC ferry.
BC Ferries (tel. 888/BC-FERRY [223-3779] or 250/386-3431; www.bcferries.com) operates the Inside Passage ferry between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert, with stops at the small Discovery Coast communities of Bella Coola, Ocean Falls, Shearwater, McLoughlin Bay (Bella Bella), and Klemtu. These stopovers became so popular that in 1994, the company added the Discovery Coast ferry to its schedule, which is dedicated to serving these remote villages. The ferry system also connects Prince Rupert to the remote Queen Charlotte Islands, the ancestral home of the Haida tribe.
For information on the region, go to the Northern BC Tourism Association website at www.hellobc.com/nbc or contact Tourism Prince Rupert at 110 1st Ave W., Prince Rupert, BC V8J 1A8 (tel. 800/667-1994 or 250/624-5637; www.tourismprincerupert.com).
The Inside Passage
Fifteen hours may seem like a long time to be on a ferry. But you'll never get bored as the MV Northern Adventure noses its way through an incredibly scenic series of channels and calm inlets, flanked by green forested islands. Whales, porpoises, salmon, bald eagles, and sea lions line the route past the mostly uninhabited coastline. This 491km (305-mile) BC Ferries run between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert follows the same route as expensive Alaska-bound cruise ships, but at a fraction of the cost.
The ferry from Port Hardy initially crosses a couple hours' worth of open sea -- where waters can be rough -- before ducking behind Calvert Island. Except for a brief patch of open sea in the Milbanke Sound north of Bella Bella, the rest of the trip follows a narrow, protected channel between the mainland and a series of islands.
The actual Inside Passage begins north of Bella Bella, as the ferry ducks behind mountainous Princess Royal and Pitt islands. The passage between these islands and the mainland is very narrow -- often less than a mile wide. The scenery is extraordinarily dramatic: Black cliffs drop thousands of feet directly into the channel, notched with hanging glacial valleys and fringed with forests. Powerful waterfalls shoot from dizzying heights into the sea. Eagles float along thermal drafts, and porpoises cavort in the ferry's wake. Even in poor conditions (the weather is very unpredictable here), this is an amazing trip.
Mid-May through September, the 117m (384-ft.) Northern Adventure ferry crosses every other day, leaving Port Hardy (or southbound, Prince Rupert) at 7:30am and arriving in Prince Rupert (or, Port Hardy) at 10:30pm. In midsummer, with the north's long days, the trip is made almost entirely in daylight. The ferry carries up to 600 crew and passengers and 101 vehicles. You can wander around the ferry and lounge on inside and outside deck seating. On board you'll find a cafeteria, snack bar, playroom, and gift shop. Midsummer one-way fares between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy are C$170 per adult car passenger or walk-on, C$390 for a normal-size vehicle. A car with two passengers adds up to C$730; fuel surcharges are sometimes added. Reservations are mandatory. The ship's cabins rent for between C$75 and C$85 for day use. Ferry service to/from Prince Rupert and Port Hardy continues at least once weekly the rest of the year, with somewhat lower fares; service, however, runs overnight, not during the day, as in summer. See the BC Ferries website for dates and prices. In summer, the ferry leaves both Prince Rupert and Port Hardy at 7:30am, so under normal circumstances, you'll arrive at your destination at 10:30pm -- thus you probably won't need a cabin to sleep in. You should, however, make lodging reservations at your destination in advance; by the time the ship docks and you wait to drive your car off, it can be close to midnight.
At Prince Rupert, you can also catch an Alaska Marine Highway ferry (tel. 800/642-0066; www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs), which stops here on its run between Bellingham, Washington, and Skagway, Alaska. Passenger fare from Prince Rupert to Skagway is US$171 per adult; a car and two adult passengers costs US$730. The trip can range anywhere from 30 to 50 hours, depending on the number of stops.
The Discovery Coast Passage
Also departing from Port Hardy, the Discovery Coast's Queen of Chilliwack connects small, mostly First Nations communities along the fjords and islands of the northern coast, including Namu, Bella Bella, Shearwater, Ocean Falls, and Klemtu. The most popular part of this run is the summer-only service to Bella Coola, which links to Hwy. 20, a paved and gravel road that's a day's drive from Williams Lake, in central British Columbia's Fraser Valley.
In summer, a direct ferry runs on Thursday to Bella Coola, a Tuesday circular run goes north to McLoughlin Bay and Shearwater before returning to Port Hardy via Bella Coola, and a Saturday circular run goes to the above ports as well as Klemtu and Ocean Falls before returning via Bella Coola (there's a map on the BC Ferries website to help you make sense of the different routings). The Tuesday and Saturday departures require a night on the boat. In high season, fares between Port Hardy and Bella Coola are C$170 per adult passenger and C$340 for a car. Note that there is no reason to take a car to any of these destinations except for Bella Coola, as there is otherwise no road system to drive on.
For sleeping, you might snag one of 110 extra-wide reclining seats. Otherwise, BC Ferries recommends bringing a tent or cot, which you can set up on the leeward side of the boat. You can rent pillows and blankets for C$5; lockers and showers are available. Pets are allowed on board, but must remain in vehicles on the car deck; owners can descend to those decks to tend to their pets' needs.