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.
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.
(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.
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
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:
1.) 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:
1.) 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).
The 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
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.