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BC Ferries: The Inside Passage

The Inside Passage, British Columbia, Canada
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The Inside Passage, British Columbia, Canada

We rode two of VIA Rail’s renowned scenic routes, the Canadian took us northeast from Vancouver to Jasper, in the Canadian Rockies. After a stay in Jasper, the Skeena brought us back to the Pacific coast in a northwesterly route to Prince Rupert.

VIA Rail map of Canadian (red) and Skeena (yellow) routes
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VIA Rail map of Canadian (red) and Skeena (yellow) routes

We considered the 90 minute flight back to Vancouver, but with a few days to spare, discovered a far more interesting alternative. We cruised along British Columbia’s majestic Inside Passage. We landed in Port Hardy in northern Vancouver Island, rode a bus from one end of the island to the other, and explored Victoria, the charming capital of British Columbia, before boarding another ferry to Vancouver.

BC Ferries

BC Ferries is a vital part of the British Columbia’s transportation system and is one of the largest ferry operators in the world. Its 39 ships travel to 47 terminals along the coast from Victoria, in southernmost Vancouver Island, to Prince Rupert, near the Alaskan border.

The 240 mile Inside Passage Route between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy travels past soaring mountains, picturesque fjords, narrow channels, and remote islands. The daylight sailing between late May and September on the Northern Adventure, one of the newest ships in the fleet, is BC Ferries’ most popular excursion.

This exceptional trip is a great value and there are a variety of discount plans. Snacks and meals are available at the outdoor barbeque café or in the cafeteria. The comfortable lounge has large windows and a big screen television. For added convenience during this fifteen hour journey we booked an outside cabin with berths, a private washroom with shower, and large picture window and relaxed in comfort after dark.

The Inside Passage

Inside Passage, British Columbia, Canada1
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Inside Passage, British Columbia, Canada1

The stunning vistas are windows into life along the coast. Moose and deer swim across Grenville Channel, the narrow waterway lined with mountains that soar to heights up to 3500 feet. Whales and dolphin emerge from the sea. History comes to life as you sail past one of the last of the old coastal cannery villages, mining and logging areas, and pulp mills.

The large eagle head painted on the Cultural Center marks the fishing and forestry community of Bella Bella, one of the largest First Nations villages on the coast. 10,000 year old artifacts were unearthed at the coast’s oldest known settlement, Namu, so named by the First Nations for the whirlwinds known as willy-waws.

Port Hardy, Vancouver Island

The ferry disembarks late at night in Port Hardy, the largest community in northern Vancouver Island. At the Glen Lyon Inn our morning view was a harbor coming to life. Fishing boats headed out for the day and bald eagles swooped from the trees. A baby black bear dashed across the yard.

We began our day in town with a hearty breakfast with locals and their dogs at Captain Hardy’s, across the street from the Greyhound Bus Station. Rotary Park, just down the street, is a good place to spot bald eagles.

The bus trip to Victoria, in the south end of the island, takes nearly ten hours. Vancouver Island is about two-thirds the size of England, but has only around 60 thousand inhabitants, compared to England’s 60 million. About 97% of Vancouver Island’s population lives in the southern half, about half of these in Victoria.

The first part of the ride along Highway 19 is through the vast timberlands and logging roads, a wilderness of forested mountains and lakes. There are some short stops in small towns like Port McNeill, a chance to pick up snacks, souvenirs, or perhaps a local Dude Beer. A quick café stop is made for lunch, and there is a transfer to another bus in Nanaimo.

Nanaimo, sometimes referred to as the “Hub, Pub,and Tub City” for its central location, taverns, and unique boat races, is best known for its coal exports. It was at the nearby Wellington mine that Robert Dunsmuir, who built a grand mansion in Victoria, discovered the richest coal deposit on the island and went on to become one of the wealthiest men in Canada.

There is time to visit the galleries or cafes of Nanaimo’s downtown and waterfront areas before boarding the bus to Victoria. The landmark three-story bastion, built in 1853, is the oldest Hudson Bay Company fort in North America.

Victoria: The Garden City

Parliament and harbor area, Victoria, British Columbia
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Parliament and harbor area, Victoria, British Columbia

The provincial capital is known as both the Garden and Retirement Capital of Canada. With plenty of sunshine—it is on the dry side of the mountains and hills—and mild winters, it is considered one of Canada’s best places to live. Orcas make their home in these waters year-round, making for great whale watching.

Much is within walking distance of the lovely Inner Harbor. Take the Big Bus Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour in front of Fairmont Empress for a good narrated overview of the area and surrounding neighborhoods like Oak Bay, said to be “under the tweed curtain”, or “more British than the British”.

There are many tea rooms and more restaurants per capita than in any other place in Canada. With fine museums, ethnic restaurants in the Old Town, unique shopping districts like Antique Row, and charming Victorian buildings designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, it is a vacationer’s delight.

Parliament, Victoria, British Columbia
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Parliament, Victoria, British Columbia

The impressive Capitol sparkles by night, outlined by 3333 glowing light bulbs. Beyond the golden lions and Gates of Harmonious Interest in Canada’s oldest Chinatown is its narrowest passageway, Fan Tan Alley, site of Mel Gibson’s motorcycle scene in Bird on a Wire.

Fairmont's Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia
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Fairmont’s Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia

The centerpiece of the Inner Harbor is the century-old landmark Empress Hotel, which epitomizes the steep-roofed chateau-style Fairmont hotels built to accommodate grand rail travel. The hotel of choice for royalty and celebrities, its notable guests include Katherine Hepburn, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Barbra Streisand, Harrison Ford, and Shirley Temple. Edward, Prince of Wales, waltzed in the Crystal Ballroom in 1919. A taste of grandeur and traditional elegance may be had for a pittance at the renowned afternoon tea or curry buffet in the Bengal Room.

The Fairmont Empress faces the harbor on the site where the leading fur and land business, the Hudson’s Bay Company, established Fort Victoria in 1843, naming it for the reigning monarch. The Hudson’s Bay Company was here to supply the tens of thousands who came through the area in the Gold Rush and grew to be the largest retailer in Canada. In 1921, they opened a $1.5 million state-of-the-art store that had fifty departments and that was decorated in gleaming brass and mahogany. The mezzanine level library featured a live orchestra.

In 2003, a new flagship store, The Bay Center, opened downtown in the main shopping district along Government Street. Also on Government Street are such tasty temptations as Rogers’ Chocolates and Murchie’s Teas.

Have a regal experience amidst some 300 wax figures and the Crown Jewel Theater in the Royal London Wax Museum. Dine by the grand chandelier in McDonald’s or see the world’s smallest operational sawmill at Miniature World, billed as “The Greatest Little Show on Earth”.

totem pole, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia
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totem pole, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

What distinguishes Victoria from other elegant cities is the rich aboriginal cultural and artistic heritage.

The crown jewel of the Royal BC Museum is the First Peoples Gallery, with such artifacts as Haida argillite carvings, shaman regalia, a Kekuli (pit dwelling), masks, and totem poles.

First Nation artifacts, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia
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First Nation artifacts, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

mask, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia
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mask, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

Kwakiutl House features ceremonial objects reflecting the rights Chief Kwakwabalasami inherited from his parents or obtained through marriage. From the Ice Age’s Wooly Mammoth to the pioneer’s frontier town, cannery, and 1890s gold mine, a visit is a trip through time.

First Nations clothing, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia
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First Nations clothing, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

shaman figures, Royal BC Museum Victoria, British Columbia
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shaman figures, Royal BC Museum Victoria, British Columbia

Helmcken House, adjacent to the museum, home of fur trade doctor John Sebastian Helmcken, is one of the province’s oldest houses still on its original site.

Thunderbird Park, Victoria, British Columbia
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Thunderbird Park, Victoria, British Columbia

Around the corner, Thunderbird Park has Northwest Coast totem poles and a big house for carving built under the direction of Chief Mungo Martin. Beacon Hill Park, on land donated by Hudson Bay Company, has the second tallest totem pole in world. Mile 0 of the world’s longest continuously paved continental highway, the 4862 mile long Trans Canada, is on Victoria’s shore.

Craigdarroch music room, Victoria, British Columbia
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Craigdarroch music room, Victoria, British Columbia

Craigdarroch Castle is a fine example of the extravagant bonanza castles built with the immense fortunes made during the rapid industrialization and expansion of the west at the end of the 19th century. This 39 room Victorian turreted sandstone mansion was built by Scottish immigrant, industrialist, and coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, the richest man in Western Canada.

Craigdarroch, Victoria, British Columbia
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Craigdarroch, Victoria, British Columbia

The latest refinements and finest materials were shipped by rail, including a notable collection of stained and leaded glass windows. Dunsmuir died months before the completion of the mansion. His wife lived there until her death in 1908.

Butchart Gardens, Brentwood Bay, British Columbia
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Butchart Gardens, Brentwood Bay, British Columbia

Robert Pim Butchart was a pioneer in the cement industry at the onset of Canada’s western expansion. He built a cement plant and home on nearby Tod Inlet, now suburban Victoria, near the Saanich Peninsula’s limestone deposits. His wife, Jenny, transformed the depleted quarry between the plant and their home into a lovely sunken garden that has expanded to what is now known as Butchart Gardens, a 55 acre National Historic Site of Canada. With concerts, fountains, holiday displays, and special illuminations, it is considered one of the best floral displays in the world, and draws over a million visitors a year.

Victoria to Vancouver

From downtown Victoria, Pacific Coach connects to BC Ferries for service to the city of Vancouver or the Vancouver International Airport. The ferry passes the scenic gulf islands, a haven for bald eagles, seals, or whales.

Vancouver

Our vacation began and ended in Vancouver, the “Crown Jewel of Western Canada”. This harbor city with gleaming glass skyscrapers is surrounded by mountains and has lovely parks and gardens. Terraced waterfalls filter out noise in the busiest part of the city.

Canada’s third largest city is consistently named one of the world’s best places to live. Little wonder half of British Columbia’s population chooses to live here. Vancouver has been chosen to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.

As in Victoria, there is a narrated Hop On Hop Off City Attractions Loop Tour, convenient transportation between the highlights. Browse the shops, galleries, and markets of Granville Island. Explore the second largest Chinatown in North America. Ride the free shuttle around Stanley Park, where you can stroll the gardens, visit Vancouver Aquarium or take a horsedrawn carriage ride. Enjoy the view from the 3 km sea walk.

When Captain Vancouver arrived to map the coast in the 1790s he was met by wary natives and confrontational Spaniards. However, timber, furs and waterways made this remote colony a treasure of the expanding British Empire.

This was a wild and rowdy frontier town of lumberjacks and sailors when John Dayton arrived in the 1860s. He offered his barrel of whiskey to anyone who would build him a saloon and had one in a day. “Gassy Jack”, so named for his propensity to tell tales, is credited with founding the community of Granville, unofficially dubbed Gastown. Tourists now flock to the cobbled streets and Victorian buildings of Vancouver’s oldest section, where the landmark clock steams every 15 minutes.

The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is known for its classic refinements like afternoon tea. The modern Fairmont Waterfront has spectacular views of the busy working port and is conveniently linked to the cruise ship terminal. Guests include former President Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and Princes William and Harry.

From the wilderness to afternoon tea fit for the Queen, it’s all here and linked by a range of convenient modes of transportation. Simply choose your own adventure and sit back and enjoy the ride.

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