Getting to Vancouver Island

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Are you planning a visit to Vancouver Island?

Our Island is only accessible by either air or sea. However, within those two ways of getting here, there are a great many options available to you. This article will attempt to provide you with an understanding of getting to Vancouver Island by boat (or rather, ferry).

If you plan on flying to Vancouver Island, please read our subsequent article.

On a recent trip across we witnessed this spectacular sunset view

Ferry Services to and from Vancouver Island

Whether you are planning on bringing a car, truck, RV, motorcycle, bike, or nothing but a backpack, one of the more popular ways to arrive on Vancouver Island is by ferry. While on the ferry, as tempting as it is to catch up on social media, make sure you enjoy the view. It’s not uncommon to catch a glimpse of whales, dolphins and/or porpoises while on route.

Ferry Services from Vancouver, BC

BC Ferries is the main connection between Vancouver Island and the mainland (Vancouver). When coming from Vancouver, you have a few options available to you: West Vancouver (Horseshoe Bay terminal), Tsawwassen terminal, or via the Sunshine Coast (Powell River).

Vessels serving customers on BC Ferries between Vancouver and Vancouver Island offer a wide range of passenger services. The mix varies from one ship to the next, but you can typically find the following amenities on your trip across the water.

Ferry Amenities

  • An All Inclusive Buffet (Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay only) offering a wide selection of hot
    and cold items, a salad bar, a decadent dessert bar and more
  • Self-Serve Restaurant offering pre-packaged Bread Garden Sandwiches, Wraps, Sushi and Salads, as well as White Spot Hot and Cold Entrees, Burgers and every kids favourite – the Pirate Paks.
  • Coffee and Snack shop
  • Retail Shop

Insider Tip: The food on the ferries is not the same quality as you would expect at a regular White Spot or Bread Garden, and it’s also not cheap! We always try to eat before or after crossing the water.

Ferry Cost

Please visit the BC Ferries Website for current rates (they are forever changing, and as well, sometimes offer specials throughout the year). However, there are a few great tips with regards to cost:

  • Group rates: Discount rates are available for groups of 10 or more travelling together, as walk-on passengers or in one vehicle. To qualify you must book at least 7 days in advance. Not applicable on all routes. You need to call BC Ferries for information: 1-888-223-3779
  • Seniors rate: BC Seniors travel is free Monday through Thursday, except for holidays, on presentation of a BC Services Card, a BC Driver’s License, a BC Identification Card, or a Birth Certificate. If you are presenting a Birth Certificate, proof of residency in BC is required. The BC Seniors discount applies only to the passenger fare.
  • BC Ferries only accepts cash or credit cards (no debit card use). This applies to all ticket purchases, as well as purchases made while on board.

Horseshoe Bay Terminal (West Vancouver) – Nanaimo

Crossing Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes

If you decide to board the ferry in West Vancouver (Horseshoe Bay Terminal) you will land in Nanaimo at the Departure Bay Terminal. Due to location, this is a great choice if you are planning to explore:

  • Nanaimo
  • Parksville and Qualicum Beach (Oceanside area)
  • Tofino and/or Ucluelet
  • Comox and/or Courtenay
  • Campbell River
  • Vancouver Island North (anywhere north of Campbell River)

Horseshoe Bay – Sunshine Coast – Vancouver Island

If you really have time to explore our beautiful coastline, then I suggest taking the circle route through the Sunshine Coast. It’s quite a lot of ferry rides, but if you are up for the adventure, it’s totally worth it!

  • You would first take the quick 40-minute passage to the Sunshine Coast (Horseshoe Bay to Langdale ferry).
  • From there you would leisurely make your way up to Earl’s Cove and board the Sechelt to Powell River ferry (Earl’s Cove to Saltry Bay). This is a 50-minute crossing.
  • You would then drive to Powell River (and, of course, spend some time there).
  • Once in Powell River, you would board yet another ferry bound for Comox (on Vancouver Island). This is a 1 hour and 30-minute crossing.
  • From there you can head north to see the wonders of Campbell River, Telegraph Cove, Port McNeil, etc., or head south towards Nanaimo and Victoria.
  • To complete the circle and make it back to the mainland, you would board either a Nanaimo – Vancouver ferry, or a Victoria – Vancouver ferry.

Horseshoe Bay Amenities

The Horseshoe Bay Terminal has no real amenities to speak of within the terminal (unless vending machine snacks is your thing). As long as you have your ticket in hand, however, you can walk over to the shops and restaurants in the bay itself, where there are quite a few options. You will just need your BC Ferries ticket to re-enter the terminal (so make sure you hang on to it!).

Tsawwassen Terminal

If you decide to head to the Tsawwassen terminal, there are two options for a landing destination: Victoria (Swartz Bay), and South Nanaimo (Duke Point).

To Victoria

If your plan is to tour around Victoria, then the Swartz Bay ferry is the obvious choice. The 1 hour and 35-minute route to Victoria, in my opinion, is the most scenic. This passage over the Salish Sea is dotted with several small islands, which gives you ample opportunity to glimpse sealife and wildlife. So I advise you to sit back and enjoy your mini cruise!

To Nanaimo

If you hope to explore the Island a bit, then I highly recommend taking the Tsawwassen ferry to Duke Point and slowly making your way to Victoria. There is a lot to see in the small towns between Nanaimo and Victoria.

The Tsawwassen to Duke Point (South Nanaimo) ferry crossing takes 2 hours.

Insider Tip: Even though it’s a bit of a longer trip, many mid-island locals take the Tsawwassen to Duke Point ferry, due to it typically being less busy than the ferry arriving in Departure Bay.

Tsawwassen Terminal Amenities

The Tsawwassen Quay Market features a variety of food offerings to tempt your taste buds including (but not limited to) Starbucks, Sushi, Pizza, Chinese food, BBQ fare, Salad bar, Sandwiches, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, bakery, Ice-cream shop, and more.

There is also a variety of unique merchant stores.

BC Ferries Insider Tips:

  • Make a reservation!

This is especially true if you are planning on touring Vancouver Island in the summer. While the off-season (late October – early March) sees limited ferry traffic, if you are wanting a specific route and time, it is strongly advised that you plan ahead. On long weekends and especially during July and August, it is not uncommon to sit in the terminal for hours on end waiting for your chance to board the ferry. Those with reservations and assured loading passes will always bump the poor suckers who decided to just take their chances. Trust me when I say, it’s NOT worth it!!

Please note: Even with a reservation, you have to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to boarding. And Vancouver traffic can be much like any other big city – hectic at the best of times. So make sure you leave yourself enough time. It’s always better to be early than late. (Your reservation is completely voided if you miss your designated ferry time).

  • Luggage Service is available

Hand baggage service is available for walk-on passengers on all major routes between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. The maximum weight for each item is 50 lbs.

  • Parking is at a Premium

This point is only relevant if you are walking on the ferry.

Again, especially during the summer months, it is not uncommon to discover the terminal parking lots completely full. (This is especially true for the Horseshoe Bay terminal). Due to the cost of driving onto the ferry, as well as the guarantee that you will get the ferry you want (walk-on passengers get priority too) many people decide to walk on. This, however, causes major parking lot issues (something BC Ferries has yet to address).

Being dropped off by either a friend, cab or bus is always the best option. Which brings me to my next point…

Getting to Vancouver Island by Bus (via BC Ferries)

If you would rather not have to bring a vehicle across on the ferry, then taking a bus might be a good choice for you. There are several options to consider.

  • BC Ferries Connector (Vancouver – Victoria) – This is a direct service to the ferry terminals without any transfers. Arriving on the other side, there are many drop off locations to suit your travel plans.
  • TransLink – is Metro Vancouver’s transportation authority responsible for bus, rail and SeaBus transit services. Check out their website for transit schedules, maps and information on getting to and from the ferry terminals at Tsawwassen and Horseshoe Bay. This option requires you to walk on and off the ferry, plus you will have to arrange your own transportation once on the Vancouver Island side.
  • Pacific Coach Lines – Departs from Vancouver International Airport and downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria. For further information call, 1-800-661-1725.
  • Tofino Bus – This line provides regular transportation to various locations on Vancouver Island. They also have a Vancouver – Horseshoe Bay route. You board the bus at the Vancouver bus depot (Pacific Central Station – 1150 Station Street) and they will bring you to the Horseshoe Bay terminal. Once there, you will disembark the bus and walk on the ferry. You will then meet the coach on the other side.
  • IslandLinkBus – provides passenger express bus service between most Vancouver Island points and BC Ferries’ services at Nanaimo Departure Bay.
Victoria Harbour

Ferry Services from Washington State

There are three ferry services available to bring visitors to Vancouver Island from Washington state: The Black Ball Ferry, the Anacortes ferry, and the Clipper.

The Black Ball Ferry Line

The Black Ball Ferry (Coho ferry) provides daily service between downtown Victoria and Port Angeles.
The 90-minute crossing is a scenic journey through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with spectacular views of the Olympic Peninsula.

Ship amenities include a gift shop, featuring an array of unique gifts that reflect the essence of the west coast, and a cafeteria that serves a wide variety of hot and cold food and beverage items, including speciality sandwiches and soft-serve ice cream.

Anacortes Ferry

The Anacortes Ferry is operated by the Washington Department of Transportation and connects Sidney, BC with Anacortes, WA.

San Juan Provisions provides food service on board the ferries and inside the Anacortes passenger terminal. The Anacortes Terminal Café also offers beer and wine.

Airport Shuttle
When travelling from Sea-Tac Airport to Anacortes there is a shuttle from Sea-Tac Airport to the Anacortes Dock. For schedule and fare information call 1-866-235-5247 or check Bellair Airporter.

Island Airporter is another service that provides transportation from Sea-Tac Airport to Friday Harbor. To contact them for fare and schedule information, call (360) 378-7438 or check Island Airporter.

The Clipper

The Clipper is a passenger-only catamaran service from Clipper Vacations and runs between Victoria and Seattle.

The Victoria Clipper ferry ride to Victoria takes 2 hours and 45 minutes, travelling directly between Pier 69 in downtown Seattle and the Belleville Terminal in downtown Victoria, BC’s Inner Harbor.

The ferry features two classes of service including Economy and a Comfort Class upgrade available on the upper deck, featuring panoramic views and spacious seating along with complimentary snacks, coffee and tea.

As you can see, even when deciding to travel by sea to Vancouver Island, there are many available options. We hope this article helps you decipher which option is best for your needs.

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Travel Tips on the best ways to get to Vancouver Island.
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About the Author

on Apr 11, 2019

Comments (2)

  • Steve

    I live in Nanaimo but this article is very useful for helping figure out how best to get a big family group across from Vancouver Airport to Nanaimo. Thank you 🙂

    • Kim Parcher

      That’s wonderful to hear, Steve. Thank you for letting me know!

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