Tag Archive: canada

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.

Quebec City as a (Sort-of) Solo Traveller

I spent the past week in Quebec City, now one of my favorite North American cities.

Old Quebec (Vieux Quebec) is a walled city with buildings from the 1600s. A great benefit of this architecture is that a car isn’t necessary. I traveled from New York City on Amtrak, switching to VIA Rail in Montreal.

Upon arrival in Quebec City in late afternoon, cabs were waiting at the train station, and it was a quick trip and a reasonable fare (about CAN$8) to B&B de la Fontaine.

B&B de la Fontaine

The owner wasn’t there when I arrived, but her instructions were clear and I easily accessed the lobby and checked in to my room.

It was beautiful! Wood floors, high ceiling, stone fireplace with exposed-brick wall, a comfortable queen-size bed, artwork, a small refrigerator, table and chairs, wardrobe, and work desk. My bathroom was small but functional, with enough space to move around in and a beautiful blue-and-gold mosaic tile design. Plants decorated the ledge atop the bathroom, and a fan spun lazily (there was also AC). Because my room was on the first floor, I drew the drapes, which were heavy and sufficient to block out any light or street views.

B&B de la Fontaine - Quebec City

After getting settled, I wandered around the old city. The location of the B&B was terrific, one block away from a park behind the Chateau Frontenac, away from noise but central to old Quebec and a short walk to the Lower Town stairway. The owner, Victoria, served a full homemade breakfast every morning in the dining room, which was included in the price. On various days, breakfast included eggs, pancakes, french toast, multigrain breads, jam, berries and other fruits, cakes, juice, tea and coffee.

This helped me save money because I basically ate one large meal out per day, plus a late-day snack.

Quebec City: No Car Required

I didn’t have a car, although my parents visited by car for a few days and stayed at a different B&B (thus the “sort-of” qualifier in this post title!). While they were in town, we visited Ile d’Orleans, which requires either a bike or car. (If you bike, I recommend spending an entire day at least. There are also plenty of guest houses on the island.)

Other than that brief trip to Ile d’Orleans, I walked. And I discovered that Quebec City is made for walking — if you have comfortable shoes. With hills, cobblestone streets and stone-paved sidewalks, stiletto heels are not a good idea. I wore low wedge heels, and I was fine.

Quebec City cobblestones

Best of Quebec City

Here are some great treasures I discovered:

The small park behind the Chateau Frontenac: Beautiful, quiet, an escape from the tourist buzz in front of the hotel.

Quebec City Park behind Chateau Frontenac

Lower Town: Turn left instead of right at the bottom of the first set of stairs, and you’ll explore a less-trafficked, more local part of the city, with restaurants, antique shops and art galleries.

Le Lapin Saute: Right in the middle of a touristic street in Lower Town (turn right at the bottom of the first set of stairs) is this brilliant restaurant that serves rabbit as its specialty. I ordered rabbit liver-and-kidney salad and onion soup with local Quebec cheese, and also sampled rabbit rillettes (pulled rabbit pate) and rabbit liver and kidneys sauteed with onions and served with vegetables and potatoes. Everything I tried was amazing, five-star quality, and the setting is beautiful, with outdoor tables and chairs next to a wooded square with flower beds. This was the best meal I ate in Quebec City and possibly all year.

Erico: The best chocolates I found in the city. The shop is on Rue St-Jean, which stretches from Old Quebec out to a more commercial and then residential neighborhood. It’s about a 15- to 20-minute walk from Old Quebec, so don’t get caught in the rain like I did! Their pistachio chocolates are sublime. They also serve different types of hot chocolate and gelato that can be dipped in chocolate.

La Carotte Joyeuse: A store featuring local and organic foods. Excellent if you like to eat healthy and have a refrigerator, and if you’re on a budget that limits restaurant meals. It’s a few doors away from Erico. I bought food here for the train trip back to New York.

Paillard: Budget-minded bakery cafe on Rue St.-Jean in Old Quebec where you can get a reasonable, delicious lunch and dessert.

Tournebroche near the Hotel de Vieux Quebec on Rue St-Jean in Old Quebec: This restaurant specializes in local, organic food. I had a cheese plate (good but not spectacular) and one of the best salads I ever ate, with mesclun, beets, tomatoes and vinaigrette, topped with ricotta and some kind of fruit paste. It’s weird to be recommending a salad, but I am.

Quebec Summer Music Festival

I was lucky to be in Quebec during the annual Summer Music Festival (Festival d’ete de Quebec). I purchased a festival pass for US$72, which allowed entry to any event on any day, and saw several great shows ranging from Bonobo to the John Pizzarelli Quartet. It was a perfect opportunity to let my right brain soak in abstract sounds and neon lights after a month of left-brain, programming-focused thinking. I left feeling refreshed, inspired and fired-up for the summer of hard work ahead of me back in New York (more on that later).

On Safety

I found Quebec City very safe, although as in any place, I tried to be reasonably smart. At night, I stayed on streets where there were other people, I looked around before entering the B&B, and I didn’t get drunk at the music festival or stumble home at 3am. I made sure my cell phone was always charged.

On Solitude

I will say it felt weird to be travelling out of the country by myself, even for a few days after my parents left. I’ve travelled alone in the U.S. quite a bit, but always with others beyond its borders. This was an experiment.

I found I enjoyed the days spent alone differently and more intensely, wandering through neighborhoods, discovering restaurants and stores, and enjoying the flow of people in their own worlds. At breakfast, staying alone had huge perks because I met all the other B&B guests and the wonderful owner. Our conversations ranged from, “Where are you from?” to restaurant recommendations to a comparison of public-health issues to the prisoner’s dilemma in economics. I loved it.

A Friendly Place

Lastly, my experience was that the people in Quebec City are among the friendliest I’ve met anywhere. I don’t speak French. I can say, “Bonjour,” quite well, and “Merci,” and “Ou sont les toilettes?” That’s about it. I did my best, smiling and greeting people with my limited French and then switching to English.

Unlike in Paris, I was not shunned. Universally, every single Quebecois I spoke with was kind, friendly and welcoming, willing to share information about the city, its history, and themselves. At this point I would like to learn French, just to speak this beautiful, descriptive language that surrounded me as I wandered the streets.

I love Quebec City and plan to be back. I hope this post helps those considering it as a solo travel destination to feel comfortable with the idea and get a head-start on finding some great places.