I’m planning a road trip from Oregon to mainland British Columbia, and I’d also like to visit Vancouver Island. I notice I have a choice of ferry routes. Can you tell me which route you would recommend for wheelchair-accessibility, as well as the general logistics of it all? Also, are advance reservations required?
The two main choices for ferry service to Vancouver Island are the Black Ball ferry from Port Angeles, Washington, or the BC Ferry from Tsawwassen, British Columbia. The access features at the terminals and on board the vessels are almost equal, so your best choice will depend on your itinerary. That said, if you don’t have an able-bodied person in your party, the BC Ferry would be the better choice.
The one wild card in this equation is the possible driving delay at the Canadian border, due to heavy traffic. Truly I have sat in that border crossing line for over two hours, and there’s no fast-track lane for U.S. citizens. So if you plan to stay overnight in British Columbia before your departure, then BC Ferry is your best choice; however if you will be coming directly from the U.S on your departure day I would recommend the Black Ball ferry instead.
The Black Ball Ferry (888-993-3779, www.cohoferry.com) terminal is about a two-to-three-hour drive from Tacoma, depending on the traffic. Although reservations aren’t required, they are highly recommended, especially if you have lodging reservations on Vancouver Island. Passengers with ferry reservations are loaded first, after which those folks without reservations are loaded on a first-come basis. If you don’t opt for the $15 reservation fee, then get there early so you will have a better shot at making the sailing.
If you use a wheelchair or have problems doing stairs, make sure and let the ticket agent know when you check in. There are no elevators from the car deck to the passenger decks, so wheelchair-users have to board with the walk-on passengers, while someone in their party parks their vehicle. Upon arrival, wheelchair-users will be directed to the passenger pick-up area, where they will wait for their ride. And as I mentioned earlier, this won’t work if you don’t have an able-bodied person to park the vehicle.
There is good access aboard the ferry, with accessible stalls in the restrooms. The crossing takes 90 minutes, and the ferry docks in downtown Victoria. Passengers clear customs after docking, and if you are last off (which is just really the luck of the draw, as attendants direct traffic) there might be a little back-up. Still, it’s much quicker than the land border crossing.
The BC Ferry (888-223-3779, www.bcferries.com) departs from Tsawwassen, which is about 24 miles south of Vancouver. Although this vessel is equipped with elevators from the car deck to the passenger decks, it’s important to tell the ticket agent that you are traveling with a wheelchair, so you will be directed to a parking spot close to an elevator.
People that require elevator parking are boarded first, and they are directed to turn on their emergency flashers as they drive aboard, so that the attendants can direct them to the appropriate spot. Slow walkers should also alert the ticket agent, so they can get a parking space close to the elevators.
Like the Black Ball Ferry, the BC Ferry has good on board access, as well as accessible restrooms. The crossing time is 95 minutes, and the ferry docks at Swatrz Bay, which is about 20 miles north of Victoria. Since it’s not necessary to clear customs upon docking, unloading goes a little faster. Reservations are not required, but are highly recommended. Priced at just $18.50 (Canadian), it’s a relatively low price to pay for peace of mind.
A limited number of loaner wheelchairs are available on board and at the BC Ferry terminals, for slow walkers who are traveling without a vehicle. You must reserve these at least 24 hours prior to the sailing.
In the end your ferry choice depends on your schedule, your disability and your traveling companions, but the good news is, you do have a choice. Either way, Vancouver Island is a must-see, so start making your travel plans today.