Susan Alcorn of Oakland, CA, planned an entire vacation around a ferry ride—although, granted, this isn’t your average ferry. She still gets poetic when she recalls that 800-mile voyage through Chile’s Patagonian fjords: “Dolphins jumping alongside the boat and red-orange sunsets illuminating narrow inlets and weathered wooden houses in Puerto Natales.”
Savoring the unobstructed scenery, taking time to relax, and going back and forth at a pleasant pace give ferries big appeal among travelers and commuters (even bona fide poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay). The boats vary widely, from passengers-only to three-car auto-ferries to the world’s largest, with capacity for 3,200 passengers and 1,060 vehicles. And so do their trips, from epic journeys like Alcorn’s through Chile to a breezy nine-minute trip on Hong Kong’s Star Ferry.
Urban ferry rides—short, sweet, and cheap—have their own rewards and can become a daily ritual. “Enjoying the sea breeze crossing Victoria Harbour at sunset makes me feel much better than being packed up inside a train,” says Dennis Law, 33, of Hong Kong. The office towers glow in multicolored lights that rival the sky’s soft blues, pinks, and purples, with lush mountain peaks as a backdrop and the occasional historic junk sailing by.
Like Law, commuters around the globe are ditching traffic-clogged roads for the open water. In New York City, more than 100,000 people ride ferries daily, according to Seth Solomonow, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. Every day, 80,000 people navigate the coastal backwaters of Kerala, India, on ferries. From the deck, passengers witness kids riding bicycles and workers harvesting bananas and coconuts or laying laundry out to dry.
Indeed, riding a ferry is a great way to get a feel for the rhythms of a place and even get to know some fellow passengers. “Because no roads connect towns in southeastern Alaska, the ferry system is the water highway for Alaskans,” says Kay Hathhorn, now of Bozeman, MT, but formerly a resident of Homer, AK. “When you travel on the ferry, you meet the locals. Everyone has a story about how they came to the state or how proud they are if they were born there.”
You’ll understand why locals are so proud after you, too, admire their home turf from the unique perspective of a ferry.