Top 8 ferry trips

Get your open-water fix, fast and cheap, from an all-day ferry trip amid breaching orcas to a 10-minute ride on California's last family-owned operation

Inside Passage, British Columbia

Photo from Corbis; written by Leslie Forsberg

A day of wonder: Inside Passage, British Columbia

Onboard: The 315-mile route from Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, to Prince Rupert, in northern B.C., is the same one that Alaskan cruise liners follow. And B.C. Ferries’ newest vessel, the Northern Expedition, offers a decidedly cruise-ship-like experience: 55 staterooms, buffet with linen napkins, and a lounge with plush recliners stationed by picture windows. Skip the ship’s movie theater and watch the nature show outside: rain-forest islands, white-sand beaches, snow-clad peaks, orcas, porpoises, and bald eagles.

On land: Spend a few days poking around Rupert, with its small inns and cafes. From $187 U.S./person plus $425 U.S./vehicle; bcferries.com

Anacortes to Shaw Island, WA

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero; written by Sophie Egan

90 minutes to a secret San Juan: Anacortes to Shaw Island, WA

Onboard: Pick Shaw, the smallest of the ferry-served San Juan Islands, for a crossing as glorious as the others—past islets with glassy coves, Pacific madrones, and harbor seals—yet with a fraction of the crowds once you get there. If the ferry slows in the middle of a channel, it’s probably pausing to let an orca pod cross, and to give you time to catch a glimpse. To skip the lines at Anacortes terminal, swap your car for your bike.

On land: The island is just 7.7 square miles. There’s no town, but the Shaw General Store has picnic supplies and freshly baked cinnamon rolls. It’s 2 cyclist-friendly miles to Shaw Island County Park and its quiet, sandy beach. $43/ vehicle and driver, $16/bicyclist, $12/passenger only; wsdot.wa.gov/ferries

Catalina Island Ferry

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero; written by Sophie Egan

1-hour rite of passage: Catalina Island Ferry

Onboard: The ride from the busy mainland to sweet Catalina is as classic a Southern California pleasure as screaming on the Matterhorn or eating a Double-Double at In-N-Out. For the true experience, take the original ferry route from San Pedro to Catalina’s unofficial capital, Avalon. Four of the fleet’s eight vessels are high-speed catamarans.

On land: Soak up the sun on Descanso Beach, rent a bike (from $8/hour), or try a guided kayak trip ($48). From $35; catalinaexpress.com

Maui to Lanai

Photo by Dave Lauridsen; written by Lisa Trottier

45-minute sea safari: Maui to Lanai

Onboard: The best time I ever had on the water in Hawaii was on a regular ol’ water bus to Lanai, with pods of spinner dolphins leaping alongside and humpback whales breaching and spouting nearby. The ferry crosses the ‘Au‘au Channel, the warmest in Hawaii and a favorite of humpbacks from November to April.

On land: Skip the $10 shuttle and walk 10 minutes to the Manele Bay public beach, the same one Four Seasons guests pay big bucks to enjoy. $30; go-lanai.com

Oakland to San Francisco

Photo by Michael Halberstadt; written by Lisa Trottier

30 minutes for the kids: Oakland to San Francisco

Onboard: You’d think the highlight of crossing the bay would be the big finale, pulling up in San Francisco with the downtown skyline as backdrop. But the part that makes my kids fight for railing space is the slow chug past the enormous trans-Pacific cargo ships at the Oakland docks. From the ferry’s outside deck we watch the cranes stack shipping containers one by one into what looks like an oversize, patchwork-colored Lego fortress. Past the docks, the ferry picks up speed in the open water, then passes under the belly of the Bay Bridge.

On land: Walk off the boat and into one of the world’s great food courts, San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Noodles from the Slanted Door, the slow-cooked pork sandwich from Il Cane Rosso—no one gets back on that boat hungry. $6.25; eastbayferry.com  

Halls Crossing to Bullfrog, Lake Powell, UT

Photo by George Oates/Flickr; written by Steve Casimiro

30-minute ride to nowhere: Halls Crossing to Bullfrog, Lake Powell, UT

Onboard: An eclectic mix of dusty red-rock junkies shares the 22-car barge ride. The 3-mile trip allows just enough time to ponder the improbability of it all—a water ride amid the parched Martian landscape of southern Utah. But keep going: Following your nose into unfamiliar territory leads to unexpected treasures.

On land: To the south lies the archaeologically rich Cedar Mesa, while the north offers Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument and Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile sandstone crease. $25/car; lakepowell.com

Coronado Ferry, San Diego

Photo courtesy of Marine Group Boat Works; written by Peter Fish

15-minute therapy session: Coronado Ferry, San Diego

Onboard: Think of this quick cruise from downtown to Coronado Island as maritime Zoloft. There’s something about the ride—the sparkling bay water, the San Diego skyline glinting in the warm sun—that makes it impossible to stay in a bad mood. You could in fact be on your way to a root canal, and the Coronado Ferry would cheer you up.

On land: Bikes ride for free on the ferry, and flat, manicured Coronado is an idyllic place to pedal. $4.25; flagshipsd.com

Tiburon to Angel Island

Photo by Jennifer Martiné; written by Kirsten Smith

10-minute new take on a classic: Tiburon to Angel Island, CA

Onboard: We like the Angel Island–Tiburon Ferry, California’s last family-owned ferry operation, to this popular state park. Captain Maggie McDonogh, whose family has provided passage here since 1959, may point out harbor porpoises along the way.

On land: Hike or bike, or visit the renovated Immigration Station museum. Then do what, historically, hasn’t been possible on the island: Eat good food, like the pulled pork at the Cove Cafe, or Hog Island Oysters (pictured) at the Cantina & Oyster Bar. $14; angelislandferry.com

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