Sailing through the Inside Passage to Alaska is one of the world's most popular cruise vacations. It's a high-profile route in a booming industry, and many of the big cruise lines have been summering their flagship vessels here.
Vancouver, British Columbia, has been the popular home-port for Alaska sailings for many years. Other sailings, embarking from Seattle or San Francisco, call at Victoria, BC's provincial capital. Some cruise lines are opting to call at such lesser-known BC ports as Nanaimo, and Prince Rupert.
In 2013, 812,000 passengers on 235 sailings passed through Port Metro Vancouver’s two cruise terminals, Canada Place and Ballantyne, posting a 23% increase in passengers over the previous year. . The Port will also welcome back the Disney Wonder, the Norwegian Sun, and Oceania’s Regatta, , which will again be homeported in Vancouver for the season. With more than 450,000 passengers visiting Victoria on ports of calls in 2013, as well as few thousand more calling on Nanaimo and Prince Rupert, more than a million people visit British Columbia as part of an Alaska cruise each summer.
Alaska cruises depart from Vancouver — one of the world's most beautifully situated cities — and make a seven or 14-day sailing up the tranquil east coast of Vancouver Island and past the fjords and islands of BC's Inside Passage to the glaciers and outports of coastal Alaska. Visitors wishing to spend more time exploring the frontiers of Alaska have the option of one-way itineraries, which are exclusive to Vancouver sailings.
Luxury liners call at ports large enough to accommodate them and sail some distance from land. Smaller cruise ships, or "pocket cruise ships," with up to a hundred, rather than a thousand or more passengers, explore the coast more intimately, sometimes mooring in remote coves and beaches.
Either way, and despite the inevitable focus on Alaska, the time spent in British Columbia is -- often to the surprise of the visitors themselves -- a large part of the experience.
The secret may be out, but here's another: As cruise lines look to diversify their offerings, more and more British Columbia ports of call are appearing on the cruise itineraries. From the gardens and Edwardian architecture of Victoria, to the rich First Nations Heritage of Prince Rupert, little-known Canadian ports are adding a whole new angle to the Alaska cruise experience.
Here's a port by port guide:
Vancouver is the leading embarkation point for Alaska cruises and many passengers opt to spend time here before or after their cruise. In 2014, Vancouver will welcome more than 800,000 passengers.
The city and port are rich in accolades and in 2014 Vancouver was recognized as the top city in North America and fifth “Best Place to Live in the World” by the Mercer Worldwide Quality of Living Survey. .
A leader in sustainability, Vancouver is committed to becoming the greenest city in the world and Port Metro Vancouver became the first port in Canada and only the third in the world to offer cruise ship shore power (a measure that all but eliminates air emissions while a ship is docked) at its Canada Place Cruise terminal.
Most ships calling at Vancouver dock at the Canada Place cruise-ship terminal on Burrard Inlet, in the heart of the city’s downtown core. (Some vessels depart from the Ballantyne cruise-ship terminal, a 10- to 15-minute drive from Canada Place.)
Originally a cargo pier, Canada Place was first developed as the Canada Pavilion for the Expo '86 World's Fair. Transformed once again post-fair to house Vancouver's main cruise ship terminal, it has become a symbol of the city's skyline. Extending four city blocks into Burrard Inlet, with exterior promenades, open deck space and a dramatic roof of five white Teflon-coated sails, its design echoes that of the luxury cruise ships it hosts.
The terminals are conveniently located and only 30 minutes away from the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) by car, taxi or rapid-transit, making it easy to get where you need to be. Canada Place, Vancouver’s premier cruise facility, is located in the city centre, near excellent hotels, shopping, dining and entertainment. Canada Place is walking distance to many of the city's main sites, including Gastown and Chinatown. It's also linked to Stanley Park by about 1 1/2 kilometres (one mile) of Vancouver's car-free seaside path. Ballantyne, the Port’s second facility, is located on a heritage-designated site, near the city centre and just minutes from Canada Place.
Victoria, British Columbia's capital city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, is one of Canada’s busiest port of call, welcoming 203 cruise ship visits and more than 480,000 passengers in 2013 . Between May and September, about 11 ships a week arrive in Victoria, docking at the Ogden Point cruise ship terminal, 2.4 kilometres (1.4 miles) from the downtown Victoria's Inner Harbour.
The cruise ship industry in Victoria supports many jobs including longshoremen, pedicab drivers, tourism operators and many more. Passenger spending is well-distributed among small businesses. The cruise lines also support local businesses including waste, wastewater and recycling removal and ship retrofitting at the ship yard.
Ships typically arrive in Victoria either mid-day, allowing plenty of opportunity to indulge in lengthier sightseeing excursions such as wine-touring, or in the early evening, which is a perfect time for a stroll around the Inner Harbour and into the pedestrian-friendly Government Street and Old Town shopping areas. Besides city tours, one of the most popular shore excursions is a trip to Butchart Gardens, a 22-hectare (55-acre) horticulture site in Brentwood Bay, 30 minutes north of town.
In 2014, 210 ports of calls are expected with more than 460,000 cruise passengers having the opportunity to visit Victoria.
Nanaimo, a former coal mining town of 87,000 on Vancouver Island's east coast has been referred to as the “Hub City,” due to its unusual street layout around the picturesque harbour. In May 2011, Nanaimo opened its new floating cruise terminal, which can now accommodate the largest cruise ships plying the west coast, including a uniquely designed arrivals centre to welcome visitors to the Central Island region. The Port welcomed eight ships and more than 12,000 passengers in 2013.
Shore excursions are provided to locations throughout the region and include visits to the historic Milner Gardens; Cowichan Valley winery tours; steam train expeditions to Port Alberni's McLean Mill National Historic Site; and visits to the 800-year-old trees of Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park. Self-exploration of the historic downtown of Nanaimo and the local crafters market are also popular options and are both open during cruise visits.
In 2014, Nanaimo will greet four cruise ships with an estimated 5,000 visitors having the opportunity to experience the community.
Port Alberni, a mill town not far from Nanaimo, is actually — thanks to the deep incursion of Alberni Inlet — accessible by water from the west coast of Vancouver Island. The town welcomes cruise ship passengers mooring at Nanaimo. The MacLean Mill National Historic Site, the Alberni Valley Railway, and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve are among the potential attractions.
Prince Rupert, the largest community on BC's north coast, is just 66 kilometres (40 miles) south of the Alaskan border. Home to the Tsimshian people, this laid-back town of 13,000 sits on Kaien Island at the mouth of the Skeena River, surrounded by deep fjords and coastal rainforest.
Large cruise ships dock at the Northland Cruise Terminal, while pocket cruise ships moor at the Atlin Terminal next door. Both terminals are in the city's Cow Bay district, a historic neighbourhood of fishing boats, art galleries, boutiques and cafés. Nearby is the Museum of Northern British Columbia, with an excellent collection of First Nations artifacts.
Popular shore excursions include cultural performances at the Museum of Northern British Columbia, whale-watching and fishing charters, visits to First Nations villages and archeological sites, and trips to the North Pacific Cannery in nearby Port Edwards. Between May and August, it may also be possible to take a boat tour to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, north of town.
In 2014, Prince Rupert will welcome 11 cruise ships with approximately 5,000 passengers having the opportunity to explore the city and surrounding area.