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A Canadian Ferry Tale

Plying the western pasmod inlets of British Columbia on a 'no-frills cruise' to isolated islands and enclaves of haunting Native art.


QUEEN CHARLOTTE CITY, Canada — There's a certain deeply rested, neither-here-nor-there look that people get on a long ferry trip when their sole occupation is gazing at the scenery. I saw it last month on the passengers' faces on every ferry I took along the coast of British Columbia in western Canada.

And I took many ferries on this trip from Vancouver to the Queen Charlotte Islands, where I visited the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. You could say that Gwaii Haanas, the eerily beautiful homeland of the native Haida people, was my destination. I had booked a two-day boat trip to see remnants of their art in the long-abandoned villages on cedar-and spruce-covered islets.

It took me four days to reach the Charlottes by ferry, through sunshine and fog, in fair weather and foul. As I sailed, I gradually came to appreciate that getting there can be a pleasure that's distinct from--but almost as good as--being there.

I had to wake before the sun to catch several of the BC ferries, and sometimes I was frustrated because I had little time to explore promising places like Prince Rupert, a cosmopolitan town of about 17,000 just south of the Alaska border. I napped on the floor of the ferry lounge or on deck when it was warm and sunny, ate institutional food from ferry cafes and often wished for an attendant to tuck a blanket around me on a chaise, so I can't say it was exactly like seeing Canada's Inside Passage on a cruise ship.

Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Totem pole photo--A photo of a totem pole in Skidegate, British Columbia, on the cover of the Aug. 19 Travel section was incorrectly credited. The photographer was Fred Gebhart.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 2, 2001 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Travel Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit: A photo of a totem pole in Skidegate, British Columbia, on the cover of the Aug. 19 Travel section was incorrectly credited. The photographer was Fred Gebhart.

But it was considerably less expensive than a cruise, totaling less than $150 for all the legs of my ferry journey: across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver to Victoria (where I caught a bus and rode 300 miles north to Port Hardy on the north tip of Vancouver Island), 300 miles north from Port Hardy through the Canadian Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, then west across Hecate Strait to the Queen Charlotte Islands and finally over Skidegate Inlet in the Charlottes to start my boat trip.

And, too, the U.S. dollar is worth about $1.50 Canadian, which meant I never had to scrimp to travel economically and could occasionally splurge without, of course, being ridiculous about it. I could order the most expensive entree and lodge at the best hotel in every town I passed through without breaking my budget.

Though I flew into Vancouver, the trip really started in Victoria, where I stayed at the 476-room Fairmont Empress, the very model of a grand hotel. My time there was too brief: I reached Victoria in late afternoon and left by bus for Port Hardy at 5:40 the next morning.

I was too late for the hotel's legendary tea, with scones and Jersey cream, and I didn't have time to tour the Royal British Columbia Museum across the street (although I saw the totem poles, many of them Haida, in the museum's front windows and strolled along the Inner Harbor, with its hanging baskets of petunias and begonias). But I did take time for a martini in the Bengal Lounge downstairs, which opened as a reading room for gentlemen in 1912, four years after the Empress began serving guests. A tiger skin hangs on the wall, and a curry buffet, excellent but milder than any I tasted in India, is served all day.

My generous-size room cost $160, unheard of for a luxury hotel in the U.S.

As a bonus, I found the bus station right next to the Empress' rose garden.

In the dim light of early morning I caught the bus to Port Hardy, the jumping-off point for my 17-hour ferry trip through the Inside Passage. A grueling 10-hour bus ride took me past the cockles and shoals of the Gulf Islands, through tunnels of trees and areas clear-cut by loggers, through towns like Nanaimo, where blue hydrangeas burst with color and a bus-station bacon, cheese and egg sandwich put Egg McMuffins to shame.

At Campbell River, two-thirds of the way up the island, I saw the first of many nutty, small-town B.C. monuments: a wooden logger atop a pole that decorated a local bus stop. At Woss, about an hour north of there, I saw what is thought to be the biggest burl, or lump, on a tree in the world. And in Port Hardy, at the north end of the road on Vancouver Island, I laughed over the carved carrot on the waterfront that commemorates a local campaign to get the Canadian government to build a road to this town instead of dangling carrots in front of its citizens.

Port Hardy has a vaguely down-at-the-heels air. Nevertheless, accommodations there get tight the night before a BC ferry departure, which is why I landed at the Thunderbird Hotel. It's near downtown, served by a shuttle to the ferry port and agreeably priced: $58 for a double. But the Thunderbird is no beauty spot; it's on a commercial intersection, and its shabby rooms smell of cigarettes.

Still, my brief stay in town was a trip highlight because of dinner at the Sportsman's Club near the bus stop. My plate of Vancouver Island oysters, lightly dredged in flour and pan-fried, was thoroughly memorable, and not only for its price of $12.40.

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