It was dark and wet when I arrived at the ferry dock in Prince Rupert on the VIA Rail service from Prince George. For the final three hours of my journey, I had been the train’s only passenger. In an era of COVID-19 restrictions, it felt like social distancing made easy.
I was in town to embark on the Northern Expedition, a public ferry that plies British Columbia’s Inside Passage from Prince Rupert down to Port Hardy on the northeast shore of Vancouver Island. While Transport Canada recently extended its ban on Alaska-bound cruise ships until February, 2022, due to COVID-19, BC Ferries is still running a twice-weekly Rupert-Hardy service. If you don’t mind forsaking on-board casinos and theatrical dinner shows for something less glittery, the Northern Expedition can take you through the same Canadian waters as the hulking cruise ships for a fraction of the cost. It might not be Alaska, but it’s close.
Due to COVID-related timetable cutbacks, I had a three-day layover in Prince Rupert before my ferry departed. What threatened to be a long, tedious wait turned into a hidden blessing. While the town is famous for being one of the rainiest places in Canada, the weather during my stay was pleasantly out of character. For two whole days, the sun shone as if I was in Southern California.
Located 50 kilometres south of the B.C.-Alaska border, Prince Rupert is redolent of a town in the Alaskan panhandle. Diminutive in size and dependent economically on cruise ships and fishing, it shares the same damp, balmy climate and deep-rooted Indigenous culture as Ketchikan or Petersburg.
Cow Bay Marina is the town’s hub, a working harbour crowded with mildewed fishing vessels and lined with ocean-to-table eateries offering the local specialty, halibut. There’s a well-curated history museum nearby and a small grid of wide, unfancy streets punctuated with striking maritime murals and Haida and Tsimshian totem poles. On my second day, I hiked to the summit of the town’s sentinel peak, Mount Hays, on a winding snow-covered track for an impressive Google Earth-like view of Prince Rupert and the forest-covered archipelago through which I would soon be sailing.
When the sunshine was replaced by snow on day three, I was glad to pack my bags and head to the ferry dock. I paid $124 as a walk-on passenger for my 22-hour overnight voyage, adding a private cabin for an extra $95 in a last-minute, devil-may-care splurge. To say it was a bargain would be an understatement. Built in Germany in 2009, the Northern Expedition looked positively plush compared to other B.C. and Alaskan ferries I have travelled on. Soft reclining seats were juxtaposed with tasteful decor accentuated by bright Haida First Nations motifs. Most importantly, in this era of germaphobia and social distancing, the ship, only half full, was spacious and kept surgically clean. When I got tired of my face mask, I retired to my two-bed cabin with its en suite bathroom, hot shower, desk, wardrobe, climate control and TV.
Embarking in snow at 5 p.m., we sailed south along the Grenville Channel, a narrow waterway hemmed in by 1000-metre-high mountains. Bar two tiny coastal villages where the ferry briefly stops, the landscape of the Inside Passage is roadless and uninhabited, a gorgeous patchwork of lonely islands, thick rain forest and snow-dusted peaks, bereft of cellphone coverage.
The snow was turning to rain as I hit the cafeteria for dinner. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, meals had been pared back to burger-and-fries options or cold sandwiches and salads (there are breakfast options too), but it was nice to eat something not dispatched by a door delivery service for once. As darkness closed in, I relocated to my cabin and fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the ocean.
When I awoke, we were pulling away from the Heiltsuk Nation community of Bella Bella through a roiling carpet of waves and whitecaps. After braving a quick blast of Pacific Northwestern air on deck, I spent the rest of the morning exploring the ferry’s lounges and corridors, talking to congenial crew members and looking out for wildlife. Orca and humpback whales are common in these waters and rare white “spirit” bears prowl the surrounding forests. By 2 p.m., we were crossing the choppier waters of Queen Charlotte Sound to reach Port Hardy, whose drippy rain forest and mellow harbour looked like a smaller version of Prince Rupert.
With travel slowly restarting after a year of restrictions and lockdowns, I found my trip on the Northern Expedition to be safe, comfortable and excellent value for money. It was refreshing to reacquaint myself with life’s simple pleasures while finding new significance in things I once took for granted: the buzz of conversation inside the cafeteria, shadowy mountains silhouetted in rain-splattered portholes, the feeling of spontaneity and liberation as you drift through island-speckled seas. As the world edges its way back to normalcy post-COVID, B.C.’s Inside Passage is a great place to reset your compass.
If you go
BC Ferries’ Northern Expedition switches to a summer schedule in June. Prices go up to $172 and the ferry runs during the daytime three to four times a week. However, you can still book private cabins ($100) for comfort, privacy and a siesta. Visit bcferries.com for more information.
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