For a visit to Canada’s islands and inlets on the west coast of British Columbia, you can cruise on a small vessel. There really isn’t any other choice.
The big cruise ships hurry out of Seattle and Vancouver, headed north to Alaska from spring to fall, churning past Washington’s San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands and the wilds of coastal British Columbia where whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions eat their fill and play to visitors’ cameras.
Ferries run to BC’s islands and coastal towns, and plenty of boats will take you fishing or whale-watching for the day. For something more, a longer tour with nature guides, you’ll need to book with one of the Seattle or Vancouver companies that put together trips of varying degrees of adventure, isolation, and comforts.
One of the best is the oddly named Un-Cruise Adventures. Un-Cruise, a growing company formerly known as InnerSea Discoveries and American Safari Cruises, operates expedition vessels, yachts, and a coastal steamer in Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico’s Sea of Cortés, the Columbia and Snake rivers, and coastal Washington and British Columbia.
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In September, Un-Cruise’s 22-passenger Safari Quest took me and 18 others from Seattle as far north as isolated Princess Louisa Inlet, a National Geographic favorite where the closest town, Egmont, is 35 sea miles away.
You couldn’t call our floating home a ship, at least not with a straight face; some cruise ships have lifeboats nearly as large as the Safari Quest. It certainly is no speedboat, with a top throttle of about 10 knots, which barely matched the current in some inlets during the force of change between high and low tides.
The best description of the 120-foot-long vessel is a touring yacht.
As we meandered in and out of the Inside Passage for six days and seven nights, we ate well from the tiny kitchen of a chef and his assistant (a pastry chef), who fed us lots of salads, seafood and pastry wizardry at three open-seating tables, which were mixed and matched at random each meal. We slept at peaceful anchorages in 11 comfy cabins spread about three decks. The roomiest four cabins have big windows that open onto French balconies, while the smaller cabins have portholes at water level. Some cabins have a queen-size bed, others twins.
Though most of our first day was in citified Victoria so passengers could see famed Butchart Gardens, the rest of the itinerary was based on getting close to nature in a part of the world where people are in the minority.
Safari Quest is outfitted with kayaks, two motorized skiffs, and — for the well-balanced — a stand-up paddle board. The skiffs were easy to board from a wood platform at the vessel’s stern, so all passengers and some of the staff of nine could move quickly to isolated islands for exploring beaches and nature trails. We stopped at Buccaneer Bay, Malibu Rapids, Jedediah Island, Ganges Harbor, and Friday Harbor.
The fleet of Un-Cruise Adventures numbers eight, with vessels of 22 to 88 passengers for trips in three categories — active, heritage, and luxury. The active tours offer tighter cabins, some with “showlets” (combination showers and toilets), and more strenuous opportunities ashore, while heritage tours include historical presentations and re-enactments.
Safari Quest is considered a luxury experience, not so much on the typical scale of big cruise ships that put far more thread counts in the sheets, set a more gourmet table, and offer a brand of elegance that would not fit the Safari Quest. But among expedition vessels, the Quest stands out with its decent-sized cabins, its price inclusiveness (all excursions, all activities, all beverages) and topnotch service.
“My idea of luxury is the size of our small group and the friendly, personal attention from the crew,” said a passenger on Safari Quest. She noted that there was always a kayak and help available, always fresh muffins or a glass of fine bourbon (Henry McKenna Single Barrel) in the lounge.
As Un-Cruise Adventures is selling the notion that its trips are not typical cruises, passengers could make perfect sense out of the fact that our best day aboard Safari Quest was un-sunny.
At Princess Louisa Inlet, we awoke to a steady rain that continued through breakfast and threatened to last until dinner. That didn’t stop expedition leader Brock Munson, who knew what wonders lay outside. He readied the kayaks with mate JD Leahy. They offered extra rain gear for those who had not brought their own, and sent us off that morning into a natural world that none of us ever had seen or imagined.
Princess Louisa Inlet was alive with the sounds of rushing water, forming 100, or maybe 200, waterfalls that filled the mountainsides surrounding us. Water whooshed toward the sea in paths not used since the last great rain. We kayaked as close to shore as we dared, mindful that the cascading waters could cause avalanches of rocks and mud.
On that rainy Monday, nature provided a dazzling, private show that drenched us all, without complaint. Excited by our adventure, we were no hurry to return to the comfort and warmth of Safari Quest.
After lunch, we boarded the skiffs to get close to bloated Chatterbox Falls, which escaped the mountains in torrents through clouds of mist. On land, we walked a short path to the edge of the falls, to feel the powerful force of untamed water on its furious way to sea. That evening at dinner, conversation was about our good fortune to witness such natural wonders.
We all agreed that those un-sunny hours were the un-worst moments on our un-cruise.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com