BC Ferries MV Northern Expedition travels along the Inside Passage from northern Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, just south of Alaska.
Nearly the entire cruise takes you through the Great Bear Rainforest, an area National Geographic Magazine called "The Wildest Place in North America" in its August 2011 issue.
You cruise pass Princess Royal and Gribbell islands, home of the Kermode or Spirit Bears, a variant of the black bear, which have white coats. As of October 2014, only 200 Spirit Bears remain on earth.
The Northern Expedition brings you through waterways too narrow and shallow for larger vessels giving an intimate view of everything. You may see deer and moose swimming across narrower channels.
This ferry provides a remarkably upscale experience that you may not associate with a ferry operator.
I loved this ship and its route through the British Columbia portion of the Inside Passage.
Of course, scenery is king in the Inside Passage, and that’s what you get uninterrupted for some 15 hours during long summer days this far north.
The route of the Northern Expedition is simply beautiful, one of the most scenic experiences in Canada.
From Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, the Northern Expedition passes just one small settlement and a few lighthouses.
In the Great Bear Rainforest, there are bears, whales, waterfalls, and other joys to see, but virtually no people living in this part of North America. You experience nearly no clear cutting of forests or other human activity.
Everything about the Northern Expedition radiates quality.
The door in the photo above closes on its own without a sound. Those seats in the Raven lecture, film, and television lounge are as comfortable as can be.
Built in Germany by FSG Shipyards, the Northern Expedition entered service in time for the 2009 summer season. It can handle up to 600 passengers and 150 vehicles.
Kudos goes to the interior design team at Steen Friis in Denmark. The Northern Expedition may be the most tasteful public ferry ever to operate in North America.
Above: Perhaps only the Coca-Cola sign lets you know that the area is the less expensive dining option.
Above: Canadian First Nations art in Canoe Cafe snack bar.
An upscale dining option serves buffet style at breakfast and dinner, with in my experience excellent service.
I enjoyed the variety and quality of the evening meal, which compared quite favorably to buffet food on better cruise ships, though not necessarily in presentation.
Seafood lovers should be especially pleased, as BC Ferries dining rooms are known for this. Even the fish burger in the snack bar contained not the all-too-typical frozen mystery fish encased in a greasy batter, but instead delicious freshly broiled halibut.
The basic fare includes unreserved comfortable seats with views from large windows.
Unfortunately, you can see out to just one side. The Northern Expedition appears much more designed for a typical European sailing than the type of stunning viewing possible in all directions during an Inside Passage voyage.
Unlike the two dining areas, where you can easily walk to the opposite windows when the crew announces a scenic highlight, you have to find your way to the opposite outside deck or to one of the dining areas in order to see out the other side, which may be complicated by not wanting to leave luggage out of sight.
I do not mean to make an overly big deal of this. Not many people will want to sit in one place for 15 hours.
Above: A play space in one of the seating areas.
From May through September, paying just a little more books you a reserved seat in the first-class Aurora Lounge, the only public area, inside or outside, that lets you see all of what is in front of the ship. You also enjoy unencumbered views to the left and right.
Seriously consider this option.
Being very tired, I booked a cabin once aboard, which you can do if still available.
An outside cabin on the Northern Explorer comes with most of the amenities found on regular cruise ships, including a shower and a small desk area large enough for any laptop.
The beds are not fancy, but they are comfortable. I also found the washroom in considerably better condition than on some cruise ships.
Cabins feature tasteful decor,
As well as flat screen televisions, which in my case showed the final game of the 2011 Stanley Cup live, as well as its troubled after-party in Vancouver.
Interestingly, in the cabins and in the Raven Lounge, Northern Expedition passengers enjoy perfect television reception, but except for very near the start and end of the sailing and while passing the one small village en route, mobile phones do not work in this unpopulated region.
The 35 outside cabins go for a surprisingly small supplement during the summer. Inside ones are offered at less cost but are simply unthinkable on this beautiful route.
Most people will easily do without a cabin during the summer.
Timings on this route usually significantly change during winter seasons missing most scenery sailing at night. Contact BC Ferries for details.
You can drive, fly, or take a bus to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, in order to board the Northern Expedition, but accessing this cruise may be your greatest hurdle.
Because of either the very early northbound check in time or late arrival southbound, you’ll need to book an overnight hotel or hostel in Port Hardy. You will also have to arrange transfers if not traveling by car.
In this small town, many rooms may already be set-aside for tour operators in peak season. Even those who normally set up trips on their own may want to use a travel counselor familiar with this area if having trouble.
I recommend at least two nights in Prince Rupert, in order to experience the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary and other sights. You will need one at the minimum due to ferry timing.
Most passengers without cars connect in Prince Rupert either to Via Rail Canada trains to Prince George and Jasper National Park, as part of a trip that may include Banff National Park, or to the Alaska Marine Highway, the state ferry system, in order to continue up the Inside Passage.
Below are links that help with these tasks.
Above: The Northern Expedition waits ready for boarding at Port Hardy.
Passengers on foot or with bicycles board first and then comes a rush of cars and trucks. Be sure to check in on time, as the boarding process is carefully structured.
Under its former governance structure, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, at least symbolically owned BC Ferries. The Queen, whose photos grace all BC Ferries vessels, can be especially proud of the Northern Expedition.
I urge you to take this trip soon. As of October 2014, 50% percent of the Great Bear Rainforest remains available for logging. The loss of this much old growth forest would be devastating. The Rainforest Solutions Project and others are fighting to raise the protected area to 70%, while importantly preserving the livelihood of those who live there.
I highly recommend this ship, its crew, and the fantastic route it travels.
The Prince Rupert Visitors Bureau and Vancouver Island North Tourism sponsor a morning lecture and question and answer period in the Raven Lounge.
During my cruise, the advice given by Gerd Brockelmann was extremely thorough, helpful, and unbiased. Be sure to attend.
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