A sea tour of the Southern Gulf Islands for a modest sum

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For not that much money, it’s possible to have a multi-hour meander by sea around the Southern Gulf Islands, enjoying the ocean breezes, drinking in the amazing views, and maybe spotting the occasional orca.

You can do this by going on a circle tour aboard one of B.C. Ferries’ Gulf Islands sailings.

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I did it with a friend on a recent Saturday, paying $13.05* for a return foot passenger ticket (discounted because of a fuel rebate). We boarded the 2:40 p.m. sailing of Queen of Cumberland at Swartz Bay. It sailed to Pender Island, about 45 minutes away, then 25 minutes to Mayne Island, and about an hour back to Swartz Bay. A few other people did the same thing.

(Another option that afternoon was the 2:50 p.m. sailing of the Mayne Queen, which goes to Galiano and Saturna, and gets back to Swartz Bay around 6:25 p.m.)

We boarded with insulated bags filled with snacks — cherries, apples, oranges, nuts, chocolate bars, doughnuts, cookies and bottles of tap water. We ate about half of what we took, so we’ll adjust for our next trip. Prepackaged food, such as sandwiches and salads, are sold on board. I knew from a previous trip that they weren’t appealing to me, so we brought provisions.

It was a beautiful, sunny, low-wind day, which allowed us to spend most of the trip on the outside deck picnicking, admiring the scenery, catching up on our lives, waving to people on boats, watching the loading and unloading (all sorts of stuff gets transported via these ferries), and chatting with strangers.

I’ve done the trip solo and in the company of others, and it’s been terrific every time. Just pick a day with calm seas and sunny weather.

Check the B.C. Ferries schedule for a convenient Southern Gulf Islands sailing.

Two vessels typically sail from Swartz Bay to the Gulf Islands — Queen of Cumberland and Mayne Queen. Queen of Cumberland is newer, bigger and has more facilities. You can check on which vessel is sailing at what time by clicking here.

B.C. Ferries has identified two trips in particular for people who want to go touring: a Monday through Friday sailing with a scheduled 9:10 a.m. departure that gets back at 12:48 p.m., with stops at Saturna, Mayne and Pender. There’s also a 10 a.m. trip on Sundays, returning at 1:34 p.m.; it goes to Mayne, Saturna and Pender.

These trips, at around 3.5 hours, are better value for your $13.05, versus the 2.5 hours for our Saturday trip.

The parking lot at Swartz Bay can get full on weekends and holidays. It was almost full when we went, and there was a brief moment when we thought we might miss the sailing for lack of parking, but then a spot turned up. (We paid $6 for six hours of parking, the minimum on offer in long-term parking.) You can avoid the parking anxiety by riding B.C. Transit to the ferry terminal, probably on Route 70 or 72.

Do the trip when you have loads of time. The schedules are a little loose. On one of my trips, we left about 15 minutes late and returned nearly an hour late because of delays at each stop. But I didn’t care.

(*I know that some regular ferry riders feel that $13.05 is too much for a Gulf Islands ferry ticket. It adds up when you need to ride the ferries a lot.)

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