Passengers toast beer and wine on B.C. Ferries

Ryan Kelly of Tacoma, Washington, couldn’t believe it Thursday as he rode Coastal Celebration to Vancouver while enjoying a surf-and-turf buffet and a beer while watching breaching whales.

“I think it’s cooler than hell,” said Kelly, who was returning to Tsawwassen after delivering elevator parts in Victoria.

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On Thursday, the first day alcohol was available on B.C. Ferries between Vancouver and Victoria, Vancouverites Matt Vanewyck and Bryce Rickabay called being able to enjoy a Phillips Blue Buck craft beer on the ferry “a great idea.”

For Kelly, however, it was nothing short of mind-blowing.

“Friends told me they have fries and gravy on the ferries,” said Kelly. “I get here and they have a buffet, cafés and several decks. I was real happy.” He said he’d be lucky to get a vending machine on some U.S. ferries.

The American said he thought having a beer on the ferry was the ultimate cake-topper until someone said “killer whales.”

Just as Kelly dug into his tamarind and black pepper pork ribs, washed down with a Parallel 49 Lager, B.C. Ferries staff announced a pod of breaching killer whales on the port side.

This wasn’t just a show of black fins. One whale was seen breaching at least three times.

For now, alcohol service is limited to passengers age 19 and older travelling between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen. The one-year trial allows passengers to drink a B.C. craft beer or B.C. VQA wine with a Pacific Buffet meal in the buffet restaurant, with a limit of one drink per customer.

The buffet is available on Spirit of Vancouver Island, Spirit of British Columbia and Coastal Celebration.

The with-food limit of one per customer is a condition of the licence granted by the B.C. Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch. Alcohol is sold only during the first hour of the 90-minute trip.

B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Astrid Braunschmidt said passengers on the 11 a.m. ferry to Tsawwassen were “pretty pleased to have the option” of beer or wine with their Pacific Buffet.

“But if you weren’t aware it was the first day a glass of wine was served with the Pacific Buffet, you wouldn’t have known,” said Braunschmidt.

“It was just a seamless part of our service.”

Rickabay, who works in interior construction, called the beverage service “a nice luxury.” He and Vanewyck were returning to Vancouver from working in Victoria. If a passenger is paying for a buffet meal, it’s reasonable to be able to enjoy a beer or wine with it, Vanewyck said.

Buffet prices for adults range from $14 for the midday soup, salad and dessert to $26 for the full hot-food dinner.

B.C. Ferries expects alcohol sales could mean a $500,000 boost to its bottom line.

Jackson Cousineau, who travels by ferry between Victoria and Vancouver a couple of times a month for work, said having a beer was “awesome. It’s just nice to have the option.”

When the idea of offering beer and wine was floated this year, concerns were raised that it would promote drinking and driving, and change the atmosphere of the Pacific Buffet.

On the first day, on Coastal Celebration to Tsawwassen at noon and returning to Swartz Bay at 2 p.m., the buffet was quiet, with conversations barely breaking through the low-volume recorded classical music. Customers seemed more excited about second servings of food and desserts than beer or wine.

Dolores Elliason of Duncan said there was no Kahlúa in her coffee, but “if someone wants to eat and have a glass of wine or beer at the same time, so be it.”

The one-drink limit alleviates any concern about over-consumption, she said.

On the 11 a.m. sailings between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen, five drinks were sold on the way to Tsawwassen and nine drinks on the way to Swartz Bay, B.C. Ferries said. On the noon sailing to Tsawwassen from Swartz Bay, four beers and one glass of wine were sold, and on the return trip, three beers and five glasses of wine were sold.

The two 12-ounce beers being offered are Blue Buck Ale and Parallel 49 Lager, each for $6.99.

The five-ounce red and white wines are: Tinhorn Creek Gewurztraminer and Poplar Grove Pinot Gris or Gray Monk Merlot and See Ya Later Ranch Pinot Noir for $9.99.

Lisa McKim, Nadia Cauvin and Mara Humphries — who took a day off mom duties and work to for a shopping trip — capped off their outing on the way home with a glass of wine each and some healthy salads and soups.

Normally, they wouldn’t take in the buffet, but with wine on the menu, they thought they’d celebrate an idea whose time had come. “It makes it a different experience,” said McKim.

Susanne Davidson, who was travelling with husband Richard, called the additional service “very, very civilized.” The Davidsons, married 40 years, travel often and say being able to have a libation with a meal is the norm in Europe.

Returning from Vancouver, where she saw The Who at Rogers Arena on Monday and the Wailers’ 40th anniversary tour at the Imperial on Wednesday, Susanne was not up to a glass of wine with her meal. However, she said she will next time.

The Davidsons don’t believe overconsumption or drinking and driving will be a problem, suggesting if a problem occurs, it is more likely to come from people drinking in their vehicles.

The trial will be evaluated next year and take into account feedback from employees and customers.

B.C. Ferries already offers beer and wine for sale on northern routes sailing to and from Port Hardy, Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii and ports on the central coast.

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