By sea and by land: Rolling on and off the water on a drive and ferry trip to British Columbia

By Gary A. Warner

The Orange County Register (MCT)

Published: Saturday, Oct. 20 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

A totem pole at Victoria Harbor, Victoria, British Columbia, pays homage to the area's native population.

Leonard Ortiz, MCT

Land. Sea. Land. Sea.

Ferry. Road. Ferry. Road.

Fish for lunch. Fish for dinner. Pancakes for breakfast (yes, you can have fish if you really must).

A looping trip west out of Vancouver, British Columbia, means a lot of water and mountains that get in the way. But the Canadians have tamed their pockmarked geography with winding roads, deep tunnels and, most of all, ferries that link the once-isolated villages and big cities.

It's a fragmented trip. Just when you start rolling along the highway, you come to a stop at a ferry terminal. Just when you are relaxing on the deck of the ship gliding across a strait, it's time to hustle down to your car and follow the rest of the cargo hold back out onto the pavement.

Like Seattle's Puget Sound to the south and Alaska's Inside Passage to the north, Vancouver Island and the optimistically named Sunshine Coast of British Columbia are visited in a hop-skip-jump fashion that turns out to be manageable because you are surrounded by thousands of other people who have done all this a million (or so it seems to them) times.

Come along for a roll-on, roll-off trip around the southwestern edge of Canada's most southwestern province.

Airport to Tsawwassen

Distance: 20 miles by car

Quote: "The weather is about the same as in Southern California, except it's 20 degrees colder and raining really, really hard."

— Westjet pilot on flight from Orange County, Calif.,to Vancouver.

Along the way: Steveston, once dubbed "Salmonopolis," has changed from a onetime village with scores of canneries into a Vancouver suburb with a museum about cannery life in the early 20th century. The only thing that has stayed the same is you can eat the famous fish almost anywhere in town.

Good eats: Steveston Seafood House. We hit it on a quiet night when there were few diners. The chef wanted to cook my wild salmon a little too rare. I wanted it cooked through. The final result was a triumph of compromise. Tender and fresh with that meaty feel of nonfarm-raised salmon. A triumphant first meal on my first evening in Canada. 3951 Moncton St., Steveston district of Richmond; 604-271-5252; stevestonseafoodhouse.com

Why Tsawwassen: It's the ferry terminal for Vancouver Island. Sleeping at a hotel there was cheaper and meant we could catch one of the first departures across the Strait of Georgia the next morning.

To Swartz Bay

Distance 24 miles via ferry

Quote: "The cold, the space and the open seas — this is what we came to Canada to see."

— Nina Schopka, a tourist from Munich, Germany, as she cupped a paper mug of coffee to keep her hands warm.

Along the way: Active Pass, between Galiano and Mayne islands. The ferry pivoted, turned and churned a zig-zag course around rocky shoals, deep pockets of blue water and within sight of vacation homes with the maple leaf flag proudly flapping in the breeze. Orcas like the area for its Chinook salmon. We saw a pod of eight breaching and flapping their tails.

Good eats: The Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal has a surprisingly nice food court with excellent baked goods and fresh fruit. You can eat on the deck of the ferry as it heads to Vancouver Island.

Why Swartz Bay: It's the main ferry terminal for Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, at the south end of Vancouver Island. It's a short drive down the peninsula - stop at Butchart Gardens if you have a couple of hours to spend.

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