Riding the ferry for fun, and for the buffet


We had some birthday gift money to spend, so we did something that we haven’t done in a couple of years.

Three of us went to Swartz Bay terminal and boarded the ferry to Tsawwassen, ate at the Pacific Buffet, didn’t get off the ferry when it docked, and stayed on for the return trip.

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It was an enjoyable outing because the scenery was terrific, it’s nifty to be out on the water, the weather was great, and we are sort of ferry nerds (but far short of the true ferry nerds who know everything about passenger capacity, horsepower, vessel origins, top speed, mandated crew size, etc.).

It was a mini-cruise — a chance to feel the sea breeze, chat with tourists, and have a nice, leisurely meal. The journey was enhanced by the fact that we didn’t have to be anywhere by a certain time.

Out on the deck of Spirit of Vancouver Island ferry admiring the scenery.
On an outdoor deck of Spirit of Vancouver Island, enjoying the scenery.

What we did, it turns out, isn’t that unusual. B.C. Ferries expects people like us, and sells return fares in the gift shop to those who want to make the return trip without getting off.

On pretty much every trip, some people stay on for the trip back, crew members told me. Some are like us — going for a ride because we want a sea journey and a meal. Others are parents delivering children, or picking them up. Still others are looking after or accompanying adult friends and relatives.

We started our journey by driving to Swartz Bay and walking onto the ferry.

Without pushing and shoving, we were first in line at the Pacific Buffet, which is near the ferry’s entrance when you board at Swartz Bay. We easily got a coveted window-side table. About three-quarters of the buffet room was eventually filled.

From the buffet, I liked the pumpkin and flax fritters, roast potatoes and butter chicken. The chicken was especially good — moist, tender and infused with flavour. It was better than the butter chicken I've had at some Indian restaurants. But the fish, chunks of steamed cod in one tray and salmon filets with orange basil butter sauce in another, was overcooked and needed sauce to be palatable. One of my companions disagreed, and deemed the salmon to be just fine.

After my first buffet helping, I went to the gift shop to buy our return fares. If you do this, don’t leave the task to the last moment; the gift shop sometimes closes 10 or 15 minutes before the ferry docks.

I had a second, more modest helping from the buffet, and then waited a while to see if I would have room for dessert. The verdict: not really. There were plenty of choices — cakes, chocolates, cookies, and more. I had a few pieces of fruit salad and a cookie.

We lingered in the buffet room until the docking announcement, then went to the seating area near the exit for Tsawwassen terminal. A crew member doing a security sweep checked on us. We then sat down and watched the ferry fill up.

On the journey back, we wandered the ferry, and spent quite a bit of time on the outdoor decks, looking at scenery and people. Everyone else was doing pretty much the same thing.

[Update: B.C. Ferries offers a light buffet for the 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. sailings on the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay route, aboard Spirit of Vancouver Island, Spirit of British Columbia and Coastal Celebration. The cost in 2019: $14 for an adult. Salads, hot soup and desserts only. No butter chicken or salmon in cream sauce. I have seen people ask for a refund and leave after they found out that the light buffet was on offer, instead of the full one. Me, I've tried to time some of my trips for the light buffet. The salad bar is quite substantial.]

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Spirit of British Columbia ferry in Active Pass
Spirit of British Columbia ferry in Active Pass, as seen from a buffet room window on sister-ship Spirit of Vancouver Island.

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Entrance to the Pacific Buffet on Spirit of Vancouver Island ferry.
Entrance to the Pacific Buffet on Spirit of Vancouver Island.

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Prices for Pacific Buffet on Spirit of Vancouver Island ferry.
The Pacific Buffet price list.

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The Pacific Buffet's lunchtime hot dishes.
The Pacific Buffet's hot dishes for lunch included cod, salmon, vegetable ravioli, chicken enchiladas, Indian butter chicken, pumpkin and flax fritters, roast nugget potatoes, rice, and steamed broccoli, cauliflower and carrot.

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Pacific Buffet's cod and salmon.
Pacific Buffet's cod and salmon.

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Pacific Buffet's pumpkin and flax fritters
Pacific Buffet's tasty pumpkin and flax fritters; the roast potatoes in the adjacent container were more popular.

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Pacific Buffet's chicken enchiladas.
Pacific Buffet's chicken enchiladas.

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Part of Pacific Buffet's salad bar
Part of Pacific Buffet's salad bar.

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An odd slogan in the Pacific Buffet.
An odd slogan in the Pacific Buffet.

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Parking payment instructions at the Swartz Bay terminal long-term parking lot.
Parking payment instructions at Swartz Bay terminal's long-term parking lot.

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The logistics:

If you drive to Swartz Bay terminal, park in the long-term lot. It’s $6 for six hours, which should be enough time. Make a note of your parking stall number, go to a payment machine, punch in your stall number and time required and pay. Cash or credit cards accepted. Or catch bus route 70 (express) or 72.

The one-way walk-on fare between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen is $16.25 per adult, plus a 50 cent fuel surcharge.

From Swartz Bay, the Pacific Buffet is usually available on Spirit of Vancouver Island, Spirit of British Columbia, and Coastal Celebration. You can check the B.C. Ferries website to see which vessels are sailing at what time. If you pick an odd-hour sailing to Tsawwassen, you have a decent chance of encountering a buffet.

Updated for 2019: Adult buffet prices are $21 for breakfast, $22.25 for lunch, $14 for mid-day light buffet (soup, salad, desserts, beverages; no hot dishes), $26 for dinner.

B.C. Ferries describes the Pacific Buffet on its website.

We arrived in the parking lot at 10:30 a.m., bought our ferry tickets, and boarded the 11 a.m. sailing for Spirit of Vancouver Island. It arrived at Tsawwassen about 12:40 p.m., left again at 1 p.m., and arrived back at Swartz Bay at 2:40 p.m.

For people reading this outside Greater Victoria and Metro Vancouver. Victoria’s main ferry terminal is at Swartz Bay; it’s at Tsawwassen for Vancouver. Ferries with passenger capacities up to about 2,000 people run daily between the two terminals.

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My previous posts are here.


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