Monthly Archive: July 2015

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to the BC Ferries Inside Passage

After Nanaimo, I decided to go north. My initial idea was to go west to Tofino and Ucluelet, but when I looked at the map and saw isolated towns and wilderness stretching all the way to Alaska, my travel instincts kicked in and I wondered: How far north could I get?

The answer is: Pretty far. I discovered I could take a Greyhound bus to isolated Port Hardy at the north end of Vancouver Island. From there, I could board a BC Ferries voyage through the Inside Passage along the Canadian west coast to Prince Rupert, a small city near Alaska. And then I could visit a grizzly bear sanctuary even farther north.

I wasn’t sure how these puzzle pieces would fit together, so I called BC Ferries Vacations, and they helped me book hotels that were otherwise sold out on my travel dates (there aren’t many Airbnbs in Port Hardy) and coordinate my stays with the ferry departures and arrivals. The cost was reasonable: probably about the same as if I’d booked on my own, but with greater hotel availability.

Port Hardy

So, after a six-hour bus ride from Nanaimo to Port Hardy through coastal towns and pine forests flanked by mountains, I caught a quick sleep at the Airport Inn (no-frills but clean hotel, with a surprisingly good sushi restaurant) and then headed to the ferry at 4 a.m.

Aurora Lounge on BC Ferries Northern Expedition(Traveler’s tip: There’s only one taxi company in Port Hardy, and it has two taxi cabs running at any given time. So if you don’t book ahead, you could end up with an ungodly early departure time like 4 a.m. Book ahead by calling Town Taxi!)

Around 5:30 or 6 a.m., I boarded the ferry along with the other passengers and settled into the Aurora Lounge at the front of the ship, which has a panoramic 180-degree view. I bought some organic snacks from the gift shop (better than the cafe food) and settled in.

Ship Delay

Shortly afterward, the captain announced that one of the ship’s main engines had malfunctioned and we would be delayed while a replacement part was airlifted from Vancouver. I was relieved that we were going at all, though I understood their caution: A previous ship, the Queen of the North, sank in 2006. Waiting for the part seemed like a better idea than sailing on only one engine.

So, whereas our previous schedule was to depart at 7:30 a.m. and arrive by 11:30 p.m. in Prince Rupert, we now would try to leave by 3 p.m. and arrive around 7 a.m.

My first action after the revised schedule announcement was to rush to the Purser’s Office and book myself one of the remaining cabins on-board. It was the second-best decision I made on the trip.

The best decision was booking with BC Ferries Vacations in the first place, because I gave them a quick call and they rearranged my itinerary, refunding my first night at the hotel in Prince Rupert and calling the grizzly bear tour operator to see if they would wait for my arrival. I couldn’t have gotten the hotel refund myself on such short notice, so they saved me about $150 USD right out of the gate.

Inside Passage Voyage

Sun on water in the BC Inside Passage We left around 2 p.m., a little earlier than expected, and the journey itself was amazing. There’s something about being on open water that echoes in my soul. I can’t explain it, but I feel like I could go to sleep with the rocking of the water and be entirely at peace. Much of the Inside Passage is a sheltered trip between mostly uninhabited islands, but my favorite part was the unsheltered part, open to the Pacific and rocking with the small waves.

The views on the voyage are beautiful and all nature: sea, sky, clouds, islands and trees. Sometimes travelers see whales and orcas, but nature offers no guarantee.

If you take the voyage, here are my recommendations:

Sun through doors on the BC Ferries Northern Expedition1.) Cabin – It’s so nice to have a place to stow bags, change into pj’s for a little while, and take a nap or shower (each cabin has a private bathroom with shower). Inside cabins are $90 CDN and outside cabins are $120 CDN.

2.) Salmon barbecue lunch – The lunch is on the back deck on Level 6, open to the air, and it’s delicious and affordable at only $12 CDN. Bratwurst is something like $4 CDN, I think. Nice atmosphere.

3.) Buffet dinner – Somewhat pricey ($29 CDN) but I did it because there are few other eating options in the middle of nowhere. The dinner was good and they had a lot of choices. Especially on the out-bound voyage, which was delayed, this meal kept me from being hungry all night. Much better than the cafe food. Worth the difference in cost.

Other On-Ship Tips

There are a few things to keep in mind:

Sunset on the BC Coast in the Inside Passage1.) There’s no Wi-Fi on-board, and cell service is mostly nonexistent. You’re alone with the ship, your fellow travelers, and the wilderness surrounding you. It’s awesome, but don’t plan to catch up on email.

2.) Cafe food is not that great, but the gift shop has organic snack bars and organic dark chocolate.

3.) There are many lounges scattered throughout the ship. You can come and go from all of them except the Aurora Lounge (which requires a separate key).

4.) Going outside is the best way to take photos. It can get a little chilly, even in summer, so bring a jacket. (It can also be hot out, so bring a T-shirt! The weather is quite variable.)

5.) The ship’s notification of arrival gives you 30 minutes to prepare to disembark. This is fine if you’re already dressed and in a lounge; not so great if you’re asleep in your pj’s and still need to re-pack. We arrived an hour earlier than expected, so this was a bit of a scramble.

Prince Rupert and Grizzly Bears

Once in Prince Rupert, I dropped my bags at the hotel and caught another cab to the grizzly bear tour. The taxi company, Skeena Taxi, has lots of cabs. I arrived right on time (and fairly well-rested, since I slept for about six hours in my cabin).

Eagle near the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear SanctuaryThe Prince Rupert Adventures boat tour to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary was amazing and worthwhile. We saw four grizzly bears near the inlet, eating sedge grass (apparently, they are omnivores: It’s sedge grass early in the year and salmon later). They are surprisingly adorable for creatures that I know would kill me with zero consideration.

We also saw eagles relaxing on a rock in the middle of the water, and some orcas. The tour operator feeds the eagles a couple of times a week, which I don’t love even though they’re not a main food source for the eagles. It is, however, a great photo opportunity.

We arrived back in Prince Rupert in the afternoon. The next day was Canada Day, so most things in town were closed, replaced by celebrations at the waterfront and fireworks at night.

Return to Port Hardy

Wilderness and water on the BC coastThe next morning, I hopped back on the ferry around 6 a.m., booked another cabin and enjoyed the feeling of being on the water all the way back to Port Hardy.

There’s something about being away from civilization, away from cellphone service and Wi-Fi and constant interruptions, closer to nature and good food and slow time, that’s good for the soul. As we cruised through the Inside Passage, watching orcas and whales, I looked at pine-covered hillsides overlooking the ocean and realized, “No one lives here.” Just the sea, the sky, the trees and the animals.

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The Solo Traveller’s Guide to Nanaimo: Say What?

Nanaimo, British Columbia, isn’t a typical destination for solo travelers. It’s a small city on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. So you might ask why I’d write a guide for it. The answer is that I spent three days in Vancouver before taking a ferry to Nanaimo, and Vancouver and I just didn’t click. I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go, despite reading travel tips, so I don’t have much of a guide to write. In short: I wandered all over downtown, went to Stanley Park (beautiful), the aquarium (cool but pricey at $34 for adult admission) and Granville Island (a large market with food stalls and shops). I also explored West Vancouver and the delicious Savary Island Pie Company at 15th and Marina — if you go, try the lemon-buttermilk pie!

Then I caught the ferry to Nanaimo. I wondered if I should have gone directly to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island instead, because everyone I met raved about Tofino.

But I loved Nanaimo. I’d read lackluster reviews of the city online before arriving and thought I’d probably spend most of the time inside, reading and writing and waiting to go north. Instead, I spent time with the hotel window thrown wide open, letting the sea air in, and wandering the harbor side, feeling wavelets lift the docks.

On the Water

On the first day, I took a ferry to Protection Island for lunch at a floating pub, but decided to take a walk around the island first. I found a residential enclave of houses and roads, feeling entirely safe despite its utter isolation with no help available on short notice. I wandered down to the beach on a trail that turned out to be someone’s private property, despite the markings on my map, and had a near run-in with a small fierce dog before its owner came out and invited me on to the porch. We shared stories, looked for eagles, and then she walked me to the wooded trail that led to another beach. I felt half like I was in a children’s book, half like I was in a fairy tale, and a little lost and found.

When I got to the Dinghy Dock Pub I was thirsty and downed a cider and two large glasses of water while enjoying yam fries and clam chowder, then took the ferry back to Vancouver Island.

Wind and Music in the Air

The next day was windy and warm; in fact, wind howled around my hotel room almost constantly. I was unable to figure out exactly where the sound came from, though I heard it through a vent above the foyer and saw the curtains blowing in the air when it was loudest.

At first I relaxed in the morning, listening to the wind and the sound of bagpipes that went on for hours. When I finally went downstairs to ask where the musician was, the doorman pointed me to a dockside plaza with two cannons on it. He said they play every day and then fire the cannon at noon. I walked to the plaza and watched for a few more minutes until the cannon fired, then explored the old Bastion and walked along the dock, enjoying the unusually warm weather and the sea birds that were everywhere, soaring and swooping and landing on piers and posts. A crow followed me from a dock all the way down a path toward the Newcastle Island Ferry, which I found I’d missed by one minute, so I returned to the main street and then had lunch.

Food and Gratitude

In my wanderings, I found a chocolate shop called Cherub Chocolate that surpassed anything I found in Vancouver. I enjoyed the rosemary caramel, spiced ginger and passion fruit chocolates most. I also found a good breakfast cafe, Mon Petit Choux, and an organic juice bar called Power House Living Foods.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend time here, and the unexpected surprise of a town with an interesting history and a little bit of magic near the edge of Canada. My biggest tip would be: If you go, stay downtown.

Next up: I go north.

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to Seattle: Neighborhood Edition

A week in Seattle is nowhere near enough. But I could distill my Seattle tips for solo travelers into a single recommendation: Get outside of downtown. Preferably, stay outside of downtown too.

Downtown Seattle is not terrible: There are gorgeous views of the harbor, and Pike Place Market is worth a visit with its food stalls and fishmongers. The Piroshky Piroshky bakery was a delicious stop for lunch, which I enjoyed in a secluded courtyard behind the shop. The 20-minute wait to enter the shop wasn’t terrible even in direct sun, and the potato-and-mushroom pastry was quite good (I also ordered a cabbage-and-onion pastry and a whole baked apple with frosting).

But the highlights of Seattle are in its neighborhoods, not the chain stores and high-end restaurants that dot the streets downtown.

I stayed in Greenwood in a beautiful house with a welcoming host, just down the block from a coffeeshop and within walking distance of many more. A bus line stopped at the corner and took me just about anywhere I needed to go.

Neighborhood Journeys

Throughout the week, I visited several Seattle neighborhoods. Here are my recommendations:

Wallingford is possibly my favorite Seattle neighborhood, with shops, restaurants, and the great Fainting Goat gelato made with organic milk. The goat milk flavor is delicious and simple, and the biscotti was amazing with a giant chocolate cookie in the middle of my scoop.

Ballard is the it-neighborhood right now in Seattle, and while I liked it, I’m not sure why it’s got such an outstanding reputation versus other neighborhoods. It’s totally worth a visit, and the breakfast I had at Portage Bay Cafe was wonderful, but while wandering the streets I didn’t notice anything that truly set it apart.

Greenwood Avenue was a great little street with a surprising amount of cafes, bookstores (yes!) and restaurants. I enjoyed strolling here, mainly because I was staying nearby.

Greenlake was a fantastic place for a brisk walk that doubled as a light workout. I stopped at Fix Coffeehouse after circling half of the lake, and enjoyed a yam-and-kale wrap followed by a brownie and tea. Delicious food, welcoming staff, ample table space and outlets, fast Wi-Fi, one side open to the air — Fix is a digital nomad’s dream.

I also visited the university area (though not the UW campus) and downtown Redmond.

Seattle Sum-Up

I don’t feel I’ve more than scratched the surface of Seattle, and I’d love to go back.

The people in Seattle, without exception, were welcoming and friendly, and the city’s focus on outdoors life really came through in the low-key dress code (mainly casual sportswear or just-plain casual wear). I felt at home in my traveling clothes and never once pulled my dress out of my bag.

In Nature: Olympic National Park

The highlight of my trip to Seattle wasn’t in Seattle at all: It was a day tour with Evergreen Escapes to Olympic National Park west of Seattle. The park is on a peninsula, and when you go there, your cell phone thinks you’re in Canada. But you aren’t. You’re in the U.S., in one of the most beautiful national parks.

Inside the park, there are two places that really deserve your time:

Hurricane Ridge and Hurricane Hill

Sub-alpine meadow near Hurricane RidgeDrive up 5000 feet from the shore road to Hurricane Ridge. Get out and snap a few shots of the breathtaking views, then get back in the car and drive a short way past the visitor center to the Hurricane Hill parking lot.

The Hurricane Hill trail is surprisingly wide (I’m not a fan of precipitous drops next to narrow trails, and I was fine on this trail) and offers gorgeous vistas on all sides. The hills beside the trail are steep but not cliffs, so it’s easier to enjoy the landscape around you and pause to take pictures. On our hike, we saw mountains wreathed in clouds, snow-capped peaks against bright blue skies, and evergreen trees on meadows carved out by avalanches. This trail is usually open only from June through September, but this year it opened in May, thanks to unseasonably warm weather. In the winter it’s covered by tens of feet of snow, a dangerous but appealing paradise for backcountry skiers.

A mountain in clouds from the Hurricane Hill trailThe weather is chancy — you never know what you’re going to get. We got lucky, since the ridge was not socked in by clouds. Instead, they were drifting in the valleys below us. When we drove up the mountain, I felt disheartened by the mist until I saw it thinning, and we kept climbing out and out into the sunshine.

There’s also a small picnic area between Hurricane Ridge and Hurricane Hill, which is a perfect spot for lunch in an alpine meadow. While eating here, my group was approached by a herd of small deer that seemed almost entirely unafraid. We also were approached by a cloud that drifted over the mountains, chilling the air and providing a rare experience.

Lake Crescent and the Hoh Rainforest

Tree in the Hoh RainforestAfter the rush of heights and clouds, we returned to sea level and drove to Lake Crescent at the border of the Hoh Rainforest. Olympic National Park is home to two of the only temperate rain forests in the world. We hiked a wide, broad trail into the Hoh Rainforest, one of the world’s quietest places. With deciduous and evergreen trees coated in moss and hanging plants, it’s prehistoric, ethereal and strangely welcoming. We hiked to a small waterfall — a steep climb up stairs carved into a hill. Railings help a lot with the descent, so give it a try if you’re wearing good shoes.

Lake CrescentAt the end of the trip, we watched waves break on the shore at Crescent Lake, a blue-purple paradise with few boats or people in sight. The Lake Crescent Lodge is one of the only inns on the shore, and I’d love to return to canoe or kayak amid the silence and the sun.

Back in Seattle, I packed my bags and got ready to travel to Vancouver. I’m excited for the trip but sad to leave Seattle. I could spend a month here just wandering the neighborhoods, exploring the countryside and never getting bored. I hope I’ll be back to see more of this northwestern city.