Coming from the landlocked state of Colorado, boats (and the ocean in general) have always been fascinating to me and any excuse for a boat trip is a good excuse. That’s why when I was planning my route through British Columbia, my eyes lit up when I learned about the ferry service between mainland Canada and Vancouver Island.
The route is run by BC Ferries, the largest passenger ferry line in North America and the second largest in the world. BC ferries has a fleet of 36 boats and serves almost 50 locations up and down the coast of British Columbia. The ferry service provides a transportation network between the communities on the west coast of Canada.
The ferry service was founded to provide government controlled ferry service after a strike on the privately held Black Ball Line ferries (the largest ferry operator in British Columbia at the time) left many without essential transportation. The idea was that with a government controlled ferry line, they’d be able to provide some stability and predictability that Black Ball was not able to offer.
It must have worked well, because Black Ball now only operates one ferry line – between Victoria and Port Angeles, Washington – and BC Ferries has become the dominant player in the market.
Booking the Ferry Trip
The booking process was fairly simple and straightforward. I booked our ferry passage the day before we left and there were vehicle spots still available on all departures. Though it is possible to arrive at the ferry terminal without reservations and still make it on the boat, there is no guarantee there will be space on the boat without reservations, and passengers could be left waiting several hours for the next ferry departure if there isn’t enough space on the boat they had originally planned on taking.
The ferry is reasonably priced for walk-on passengers at $14.25 a piece, however, adding a vehicle can be pricey. With one small car and two passengers, the total came to $79.50 CAD, or approximately $77.90 USD (conversion rate at the time of this article posting). While it was hard at first to stomach paying that much for a boat ride, it was reassuring to know I’d have a vehicle upon arriving in Victoria, and it would still be significantly cheaper than renting a car once I arrived, even with the round trip fare.
Boarding the Ferry
Getting to the ferry terminal from Vancouver took a little longer than I initially expected. The terminal is not in the city, but rather in a southern suburb of Vancouver, almost to the United States border. The ferries depart from piers at the end of a man-made two mile (three km) long causeway jutting into the Strait of Georgia.
Since it was my first time ever taking a vehicle onto a ferry, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. With all the logistics and security concerns involved with loading several hundred cars onto a massive ship carrying thousands of additional passengers, I was prepared for the worst. But I found the experience to be much easier than I expected.
I arrived at the terminal 45 minutes before our departure and within about 30 minutes, I was driving onto the vehicle deck of the ferry. It was fast and easy to get on the boat – it is a very smooth running operation. After parking, I locked up the car and headed up to the passenger deck to enjoy the trip from the comfort of the cabin.
The ferry itself is clean, modern, and comfortable with all the amenities I would have expected on a ferry and more. Several seating options are offered with views on all sides of the ship, including an impressive lounge at the bow. A quick service restaurant, gift shop, and arcade provide escapes for people looking for a bite to eat or a wanting to spend a little money while onboard.
There is a big sun deck on the top of the ship but due to the near freezing temperatures and high winds blowing, it was not particularly popular on my crossing. I can imagine it being the most popular spot on the ship during warm summer days though.
One of the most impressive features of the boat is all the cubicle-like workspaces offered. Though there were plenty of these desks, they were snatched up quickly by 9-5ers eager to catch up on their email on the ride over. Since it was my first time seeing the waters off the coast of British Columbia, I opted to leave my computer (and emails) in my bag and pull out my camera instead.
The scenery visible from the ferry is spectacular – and worth the price of a walk-on admission alone. After leaving the Tsawwassen terminal outside of Vancouver, the ship enters the open waters of the Strait of Georgia. Curiously, due to the unique layout of the Canadian-American border in these waters, the ship actually crosses into American waters before entering Canadian waters once more on the other side of the strait (no obnoxious border crossing here though).
Gulls ride the waves of air created by the ferry as it plows forward across the strait and enters the small islands around Vancouver Island.
This is by far the most scenic portion of the trip, with small, densely wooded islands dotting the sea on either side of the ferry. Small sea-side cottages and lighthouses are visible on the islands as they pass.
In addition to the sea and land scenery, wildlife viewings can be abundant during the crossing. I was lucky enough to spot a harbor seal bobbing in the water off to the side of the ship, though others have witnessed the incredible shows put on by the resident orca whales.
Disembarking the Ferry
As the ferry approached Swartz Bay (the primary ferry terminal for Victoria), a notice for all passengers to return to their vehicles came over the loud speaker. After a short wait, the vehicle deck was opened and the cars all drove off the deck and onto Vancouver Island. The process was even easier and faster than getting on the ferry.
The BC Ferries are the most popular way for visitors to get between the city of Vancouver and the cities and sights on Vancouver Island. However, for those not looking to take a ferry, flights are available. There have been ongoing discussions over a proposed bridge that could connect the island to the mainland, though it has been met with plenty of resistance from groups concerned about the ecological impact and the negative urbanization effects it would have on Vancouver Island.
As the largest ferry provider in North America, BC Ferries has their offering down to a science,\ and has made the trip to the island as fast and comfortable as possible. Though the idea of flying or (someday) driving to Vancouver Island may be attractive, the ferry is not a bad way to make the journey. It may take a little longer, but the experience and sites along the way are well worth it.