Ferries were created as basic transportation for water-bound communities, but they can offer a great experience — and great value — to the traveler.
When it comes to cruising, January is a hot month. Snowbound Americans start thinking about sunny holiday cruises, while the cruise industry touts the arrival of new, bigger and better ships.
According to the folks at CruiseCritic, no fewer than 15 new vessels are expected to hit the waves in 2010.
This time, though, I want to bring up one of the more overlooked aspects of water travel, but one that can offer a traveler some serious value.
I’m talking here about ferry travel.
When many of us think of ferries, we see something small, slow, ungainly-looking, a barge to get you and/or your car from one side of the river or bay to the other, and not much else. Strictly utilitarian. The working man’s (or woman’s) cruise. A floating city bus, with seats to match. And you’d be right.
You’d also be wrong.
Many of the world’s ferries — and at last count, there were more than 240 ferry lines around the world — ply sea routes covering hundreds of miles. Increasingly, they are state-of-the-art vessels, some of the fastest and most technologically advanced in the world.
The larger ones often come with cabins, restaurants and shopping arcades that surpass those found on cruise ships only one generation back. In fact, you may have a hard time distinguishing some of them from cruise ships — until their bow opens up and the cars, trucks and buses start pouring out.
In many parts of the world, ferries often take you to interesting, picturesque destinations that can only be reached by water. They also may take you deep into a country’s heartland without the need to resort to planes, trains and automobiles.
At the same time, even on some of the big seagoing ferries, fares can be comparable to or cheaper than what you’d pay on a cruise ship to visit the same places.
The fringe benefit — some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth.
I found that out in British Columbia, on a ferry crossing the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver to Victoria.
Prior to this, my ferry experience had been limited to crossing the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans to the suburb of Algiers, and later the old bay ferry between Oakland and San Francisco. Both those runs, lasting only minutes, were delightful to a child, but neither of them prepared me for that crossing in British Columbia.
Blue Pacific waters stretched to a horizon dotted with craggy islands of every size, virtually all of them mantled with thick pine forests that covered them almost to the water’s edge.
Back then, bald eagles were an endangered species in the United States. If you saw one at all, it was usually on a TV commercial, or a postage stamp. Now, up here off western Canada, you could see them perched on tree limbs in two’s, three’s and half-dozens. And when they stretched out their wings to soar overhead, your spirit soared with them. It was magical.
But it’s only the smallest taste of what you can see from a ferry.
Norwegian fjords. Whitewashed Italian and Aegean cliffside villages. Thousands of tropical islands. Go from a coastal desert of Baja California to coastal jungle on the Mexican mainland in one hop.
My friend, former colleague and fellow blogger Anna Cearley recently did just that, and you can read about her experience here.
Ferries can give you all of that, and without leaving you stuck on a cruise ship for a week or more. For some folks, a day or two on the water is enough.
So if you’re planning to spend some time on an overseas trip that’s going to take you to multiple destinations, consider the ferry as a more relaxing and scenic option for traveling between points.
And while you do, consider another of those fringe benefits: You can quietly gloat over the fact that most of your fellow passengers are commuting…while you’re vacationing.
Whoever thought a bus could be so much fun!
Ocean-going ferries are generally quite safe, but seagoing ferries in the developing world demand extra precautions. Some ferry lines dangerously overload their vessels. Others have been known to sail in bad weather, usually packed with locals anxious to get home.
In recent years, the “capsized ferry tragedy in the Philippines” has become almost an annual event.
Being relatively high vessels with shallow draft, ferries are not the best boats to ride out turbulent seas. So if the forecast along your route looks ugly, consider delaying your sailing until the storm passes. And always try to schedule your passage when the ferry is less packed. You’ll embark and debark a lot quicker, and with fewer safety concerns.