There are some places, fortunately, that are still inaccessible by road. British Columbia’s Central Coast is one of them. Until BC Ferries launched its Discovery Coast Passage run, the Central Coast was also largely inaccessible by water as well.
Now, to the delight of adventurers and locals alike, from June to September, the Queen of Chilliwack connects the community of Port Hardy, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, with Bella Coola on the mainland. For kayakers and campers, RVers and backpackers, the Discovery Coast Passage service opens up a brand-new circle tour through some of the province’s most beautiful and largely undiscovered terrain.
From Vancouver, sail between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay, through the beautiful southern Gulf Islands. From the Swartz Bay ferry terminal travel south to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia at the southern tip of the Island.
After visiting Victoria, travel north along the highway over the Malahat, stopping at roadside pullouts – sweeping vistas at the Malahat Summit are spectacular. Beyond the Malahat lies the Cowichan Valley. Often called “The Little Town That Did”, Chemainus is now world famous for the series of over 40 murals depicting the area’s history that can be found on buildings and walls throughout the downtown area. This outdoor art gallery grew from a very successful revitalization project implemented when the town’s sawmill shut down in the early 1980’s. Now, almost half a million visitors a year come to view the murals and enjoy the other services that have sprung up.
From Chemainus head towards Nanaimo, known as the Harbour City. Nanaimo is second only to Victoria as Vancouver Island’s largest and most vibrant city. Famous for its varied landscapes and more than two dozen parks, this city possesses one of the most beautiful waterfronts in Canada. Stop again, this time at Qualicum Beach, nestled on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island. Qualicum Beach is a favoured year-round destination, accessible by road, rail and air. It is known for its spectacular setting of safe, sandy beaches and old-growth forests against a majestic mountain backdrop.
Your next stop should be the town of Courtenay, the urban centre of the Comox Valley. Join a studio or garden tour, or browse contemporary art galleries, craft shops and craft fairs that promote the talents of local artists, many of whom are known internationally. Continue towards Campbell River, historically renowned as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Campbell River is beautifully set between Strathcona Provincial Park to the west and the Discovery Islands to the east. Strathcona not only has the highest mountain on the Island, but also boasts the highest waterfall in Canada.
From Campbell River continue to the sheltered harbour of Port McNeill, home to many that work in the surrounding forests and out on the channels between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Just north of this quiet seaside port lies the world’s largest burl. Taken from an ancient spruce tree, this burl weighs over 20 tonnes and measures more than 12 metres around.
Like many towns of northern Vancouver Island, Port Hardy remains a logging, mining and fishing centre, although it is recognized as the “Gateway to the North Island” – a popular departure point for outdoor enthusiasts heading out into the wilderness. From Port Hardy, board the Queen of Chilliwack and cruise past sheltered inlets, thunderous waterfalls, long deep fjords and narrow channels – the most stunning scenery is between Bella Bella and Bella Coola.
With the setting sun behind you, the monolithic rock formations looming over the narrow Burke Channel give the cruise a European flavour. Weather permitting, the ships’ two upper decks are an excellent vantage point from which to watch for the logging camps, barge houses, and abandoned settlements that indicate a human presence on this rugged coastline. Wildlife viewing is another bonus of this trip, as the ferry slows for orcas, so don’t forget your binoculars.