World's Most Beautiful Ferry Rides
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.
Chile: Patagonian Fjords between PuertoMontt and Puerto Natales
This epic ferry ride spans 800 miles over four days, treating passengers to views of isolated estuaries and gulfs, tiny cypress- and lenga beech–covered islands, massive ice fields, and fjords slashed into the Andes. The boat even approaches the dramatic face of Pío XI or Brüggen Glacier, which, at 488 square miles, is the largest glacier in South America. Toast your adventure with pisco sours made with iceberg ice the crew collects from Pío XI.
(Navimag Ferries; navimag.com; from $300 per person one-way.)
Turkey: Along the Golden Horn in Istanbul
Thirteen civilizations left their marks along the route of this three-mile voyage from the Haliç (Golden Horn) Dock near the Egyptian Spice Market to Eyüp, where Ottoman princes ascended to the throne. The Genoese built the imposing Galata Tower on the northern shore in the 14th or 15th century, while Bulgarians constructed the ornate cast-iron Orthodox Church of St. Stephen in 1871. The boat also passes Balat, formerly a Jewish neighborhood, and Hasköy, where muezzins’ musical calls to prayer reverberate across the water.
(Golden Horn Ferry; ido.com.tr; $1 per person one-way.)
Australia: Between Sydney and Manly
Within 30 minutes, the ferry breezes past Sydney’s blockbuster sights—the Sydney Opera House, Harbour “Coathanger” Bridge, and downtown skyscrapers—and greener ones. You’ll see botanical gardens, tiny islands with Victorian homes and cottages, innumerable coves, little bays, hidden beaches, and imposing brown sandstone cliffs topped with native gum trees. With a little luck, a bottlenose dolphin or southern right whale might pop up nearby.
(Sydney Ferries; sydneyferries.info; $7 per person one-way.)
Hong Kong: Between Kowloon Peninsula andHong Kong Island
This short, sweet, and cheap ferry ride transports you across Victoria Harbour from one shore of dazzling skyscrapers to another. Set out at dusk, when the office towers glow in multicolored lights that rival the soft blues, pinks, and purples of the sunset sky. Linger to admire the view from the rooftop Pier 7 Café & Bar at the Central Star Ferry Pier 7 while sipping lychee coolers made with fresh lychee, pineapple juice, and mint leaves.
(Star Ferry; starferry.com.hk; $1 per person one-way.)
British Columbia: Between Port Hardy andPrince Rupert
Ferries ply the Inside Passage from Port Hardy on the northern end of Vancouver Island passing rugged mountains, islands covered in coastal Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, quarter-mile-wide Grenville Channel, and small First Nations’ communities such as Bella Bella. Along the 15-hour, 250-mile journey to Prince Rupert, passengers may see orcas, porpoises, black bears, bald eagles, and the scenic Boat Bluff lighthouse on Sarah Island.
(BC Ferries; bcferries.com; from $105 per person one-way.)
Croatia: Dalmatian Coast between Splitand Vis
Among the Adriatic Coast’s thousand islands and 250 miles of ferry routes, this two-and-a-half-hour ride stands out for its exceptional scenery. You’ll be transfixed as the panorama of Split’s red-tiled roof buildings—framed against the Kozjak and Mosor mountain ridges—recedes and your boat slips through the narrow pass between the islands of Šolta and Brac. Your destination is Vis, the most remote large inhabited island from the mainland, where olive groves and vineyards brush up against layered limestone cliffs.
(Jadrolinija Ferry; jadrolinija.hr; $10 per person one-way.)
New York: Between Manhattan and Staten Island
About 65,000 riders board this orange commuter ferry every day. When you get on, head upstairs to snag a seat on the starboard (right) side—the best vantage point for admiring Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The free 25-minute ride also delivers unobstructed views of the Manhattan skyline, stretching up and out from Wall Street. Complement the view with a classic city snack, a bagel or pretzel, and some of the city’s cheapest beer, all sold at the onboard bar.
(Staten Island Ferry; siferry.com; free.)
Alaska: Inside Passage from Ketchikan toHaines
Locals in these rugged mountains rely on the 3,500-mile Alaska Marine Highway—the only U.S. maritime route designated as a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road. For joyriders, the 22-hour, 364-mile Ketchikan-to-Haines segment among the islands of the Inside Passage offers a casual, nature-oriented experience. You can book a cabin or camp on open decks for better views of villages and hanging glaciers. Onboard U.S. Forest Service interpreters discuss native culture, history, geology, and wildlife. Bring binoculars.
(Alaska Marine Highway System; ferryalaska.com; from $134 per person one-way.)
Utah: Glen Canyon National RecreationArea between Bullfrog and Hall’s Crossing
Ravens, gulls, and red-tailed hawks flying overhead are about the only interruptions during the tranquil half-hour ride across incredibly blue Lake Powell. The still, clear water reflects the surrounding orange-and-red layered Navajo sandstone formations. Forty miles to the south, you can make out the isolated Navajo Mountain, a peak sacred to the Diné (Navajo) and other native peoples.
(Charles Hall Ferry; lakepowell.com/ferry-service.aspx; from $10 per person one-way.)
India: Kerala between Alappuzha and Pulincunnoo
Rivers flowing from the mountains of the Western Ghats continually flood Kerala’s coastal backwaters, canal-systems, and rice paddies. So ferries are an essential mode of transport, carrying locals and visitors alike past coconut palms, banana trees, and houses lining the water’s edge with green fields behind them. You can witness the everyday rituals of rural Indian life from a ferry deck: children bathing in the river; women washing colorful laundry and laying it on rocks to dry; kids riding bicycles and performing handstands for the entertainment of passersby.
California: Between San Francisco and Sausalito
After exploring the art galleries and shops of Sausalito, catch this 30-minute ride across San Francisco Bay. You’ll check off landmarks like wooded Angel Island State Park (the “Ellis Island of the West”), the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and the Oakland Bay Bridge before docking near the Ferry Building, a gourmet marketplace. It’s the perfect spot to break for lunch, pick up some artisanal olive oil, or just enjoy a really good cup of coffee.
(Golden Gate Ferry; goldengateferry.org; $9 per person one-way.)
New Zealand: Across the Cook Straitbetween Wellington and Picton
Departing from the North Island’s charmingly urban Wellington, which claims to have more restaurants per capita than New York City, passengers see Mount Victoria frame the city. Smooth hills change to rocks and cliffs along the increasingly rugged coastline of the Wellington Heads. In the open-water stretch of the three-and-a-half-hour journey, travelers might see whales or dolphins frolicking alongside the boat as it makes its way through the labyrinthine Malborough Sounds toward the South Island’s wine-country.
(Bluebridge Ferry; bluebridge.co.nz; from $33 per person one-way.)
Southern California: Between Long Beach (Los Angeles)and Avalon on CatalinaIsland
Exit the hustle-bustle of mainland SoCal life while the ferry glides 26 miles across the sea toward Catalina Island. Along the way watch for fin, minke, sperm and blue whales, and gray whales during their December–May migration, as well as dolphins—and even flying fish. The island’s main town, Avalon, cuts a nice figure from the sea: a small curved harbor filled with rows of sailboats and yachts, a historic circular casino, rows of palm trees along shore, and Mediterranean-style red-tile-roofed homes that sweep up the hillside.
(Catalina Express; catalinaexpress.com; from $35 per person one-way.)
Montana & Alberta: Between Waterton in WatertonLakes National Park in Canada and Goat Haunt in Glacier National Park in theU.S.
The ferry cruises seven-mile-long Waterton Lake, which fills a narrow, half-mile-wide slash in the glacier-carved mountains, which rise up to 5,000 feet above its surface. Deer, otters, beavers, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, and bears might splash in the water or wander along shore. A formal “no-tree zone” defines the U.S.-Canadian border, and a visitor center at Goat Haunt helps travelers discover more about local plants, animals, and history. Remember to look up during the one-hour trip; you’ll see waterfalls and possibly an osprey or bald eagle swooping by to pluck trout from the deep blue lake.
(Waterton Shoreline Cruise Company: watertoncruise.com, $24 per person one-way.)
U.S. Virgin Islands: Between St. Thomas and St. John
It’s fitting that the passenger ferry to tranquil St. John, a lush island that’s 60 percent national park, departs not from bustling St. Thomas Harbor, one of the busiest Caribbean cruise-ship ports, but from quieter Red Hook on the eastern end of the island. After passing a number of tiny tree-covered islands during a calm four-mile 20-minute trip, the ferry pulls into Cruz Bay, a quiet village of one- and two-story buildings painted in pastel yellows, pinks, and sea-foam green and built in traditional island style with railings, doors, and shutters in bright and contrasting yellows and royal blues.
(Virgin Islands Ferry; vinow.com; $6 per person one-way plus $2.50 per piece of luggage.)
Michigan: Between St. Ignace and MackinacIsland in Lake Huron
Taking the “classic ferry”—designed to remind passengers of steamers that crossed the Great Lakes’ waters in the past—sets the mood for visiting the island that wants to stay old-fashioned with its Victorian homes and horse-drawn carriages—and no automobiles. During the half-hour voyage travelers enjoy views of the modern four-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, the only physical link between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
(Arnold Transit: arnoldline.com; $22 per person round-trip.)
Minnesota & Michigan: Between Grand Portage inMinnesota and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan in Lake Superior
Wolves, moose, river otters, beavers, red foxes, red squirrels, minks, and martens all make the isolated north woods of Isle Royale their home, and passengers circling the designated biosphere-reserve wilderness island on the M. V. Voyageur II might get lucky and spot some of these rugged animal survivors. The two-day ferry voyage makes eight stops where passengers can get off for a closer look. This is not a boat for cars—the only modes of transport in the roadless park are hiking, backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, and kicking back on the ferry that plies these chilly waters.
(From Grand Portage, MN: Grand Portage - Isle Royale Transportation Line, Inc.; grand-isle-royale.com; $64 per person one-way, extra for canoes, kayaks, etc.)
Alaska: Between Homer and Seldovia
Along Kachemak Bay, steep, glacier-capped peaks rise up to 4,000 feet above the sea and are broken only by waterfalls and five steep fiords. Undisturbed forests of Sitka spruce reach all the way to the sea, and lucky visitors could see sea otters, sea lions, or humpback whales. Three classically shaped and active volcanoes—10,000-foot Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna and the 4,000-foot Augustine Volcano—may be 70 miles west across Cook Inlet, but it’s not uncommon to see them let off a dramatic show of steam.
(Alaska Marine Highway System: dot.state.ak.us; $33 per person one-way.)
Greece: Between Rhodes and Symi
The classical Colossus—a hundred-foot-tall statue of the Greek god of the sun and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—once stood guard over the harbor of Rhodes, but now crenelated stone walls surrounding the medieval “old town” are the primary hint that dramatic human history here stretches back dozens of centuries. Leaving this picturesque city, the ferry skirts the rugged coast of southwestern Turkey and enters a bay on the island of Symi, where well-kept Neoclassical homes with triangular pediments painted soft shades of peach, gold, and yellow line narrow paths twisting up the hillside.
(Anes Ferries: anes.gr, $17 per person one-way.)
Maine: Among six islands in Casco Bay
There’s no “running” in this mail run. Instead, sit back on the ferry (which also delivers letters and packages) and enjoy the three-hour tour past rugged cliffs, rocky coves, and cute cottages hidden along wooded hillsides on Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Long, Great Chebeague, and Cliff and Peak’s Islands—all an easy hop from Maine’s largest city, Portland.
(Casco Bay Lines: cascobaylines.com; $15 per person round-trip.)
Florida: Between Key West andDry Tortugas National Park
Leaving the southern charm of Key West with its delightful Caribbean architecture, the catamaran ferry heads west over 70 miles of open ocean toward the seven white-sand Dry Tortugas Islands. On-board naturalists give the lowdown on the park and its environment—shallow, clear turquoise water with shoals, corals, starfish, and queen conchs. Borrow fins, masks, and snorkels from the boat to get up close and personal (but not too close) with green sea turtles, loggerhead turtles, eels, rays, and many kinds of tropical fish.
(Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry: yankeefreedom.com; $165 per person round-trip.)
Alaska: Southwestern Alaska and theAleutian Islands
Not for the faint of heart (or stomach), this summer-only, three-and-a-half-day journey from Homer westward, over 750 miles of ocean to Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, can run into storms anytime. But clear-weather views along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Archipelago reveal rocky inlets, isolated coves, glacier-lined bays, waterfalls tumbling over cliffs, and, rising directly from the sea, cone-shaped volcanoes—some nearly 10,000 feet tall. The seven stops along the way include Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.
(Alaska Marine Highway System: dot.state.ak.us; from $351 per person one-way.)
Australia: Between Melbourne, Victoria, and Devonport, Tasmania
Melbourne’s skyline recedes as the ferry crosses 35 miles of Port Phillip Bay before heading 215 more miles across Bass Strait to the sandy beaches, bluffs, and green farmland of Tasmania’s north coast. Watch for the vertically striped red-and-white Mersey Bluff Lighthouse and for colorful hang gliders and paragliders near Don Heads escarpment. In the distance lie the rugged peaks of Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park.
(Spirit of Tasmania: spiritoftasmania.com.au; from $287 per person one-way.)
Washington State: Through Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands
Thick forests of Pacific madrones, red alders, big-leaf maples, and some stately old-growth Douglas firs cover much of the 172 lightly populated San Juan Islands east of Vancouver Island. The ferry stops at the four largest: Orcas, Lopez, Shaw, and San Juan. Watch for harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and pods of orcas and migrating gray, humpback, and minke whales. Passengers may even see bald eagles and double-crested cormorants soaring against glacier-capped Mount Rainier.
(Washington State Ferries: wsdot.wa.gov; from $12 per person one-way.)
Canada: Through British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands
Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, Ruckle Provincial Park, Mount Tuam Ecological Reserve, South Otter Bay Protected Area, a dozen large islands, scores of tiny uninhabited islets, and an abundance of wildlife fill much of the ferry’s route across the Strait of Georgia between Tsawwassen, near Vancouver, and Swartz Bay, near Victoria. During the 30-mile, one-and-a-half-hour voyage lucky passengers might see otters, elephant seals, sea lions resting on rocky points, porpoises, and whales.
(BC Ferries: bcferries.com; $16 per person one-way.)
Rhode Island: Between Newport and Block Island
Departing Fort Adams State Park, the ferry passes rocky bluffs, boulder-laden points, white-sand Narragansett Town and Scarborough beaches, and the Point Judith Light, an octagonal brick lighthouse built in 1857. After crossing 10 miles of ocean the boat approaches the bluffs and 17 miles of golden beaches that encircle almost all of the laid-back island known as the Bermuda of the North.
(Block Island Ferry: blockislandferry.com; $11 per person one-way.)
Greece: Between Athens and Santorini
On this eight-hour journey, passengers cruise past picturesque Paros, Naxos, and Ios islands—each dressed up with typical Greek homes painted white with vivid blue-tile roofs—en route to Santorini. The island’s bay—which is really a sunken volcano that exploded 3,500 years ago, destroying the Minoan civilization on Crete and possibly Plato’s Atlantis—makes for a grand entrance.
(Blue Star Ferries: bluestarferries.com; from $50 per person one-way.)
Maine: Between Rockland and North Haven Island
Hundreds of low, tree-covered islands, rocky islets, and colossal boulders are scattered through Penobscot Bay, and this two-hour, 12.5-mile ride weaves among them. Deep coves and narrow channels define the labyrinthine Atlantic routes, while white, gray, and red homes shaped like huge Monopoly-game houses line the rugged islands’ shores.
(Maine State Ferry Service: maine.gov; $17.50 per person round-trip.)
Norway: Through the fjords betweenGeirangerfjord and Valldal
Lacelike waterfalls cascade down vertical walls that rise up to 4,000 feet above the waters of three fjords: Norddalsfjord, Sunnylvsfjord, and Geirangerfjord, which together form a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tiny villages squeeze into flat areas by river mouths, and small farmhouses cling to ledges above. The two-and-a-quarter-hour summer cruise through the half-mile-wide fjords passes the Seven Sisters falls, which lies across the fjord from another waterfall called The Suiter. Not far away is Bridal Veil Falls.
(Fjord1: fjord1.no; from $39 per person one-way.)
Argentina & Uruguay: Between Buenos Aires and Montevideo
While the modern and comfortable ferry links these two chic and cosmopolitan capitals 125 miles across the mouth of the Plata River, one of the journey’s highlights is the approach to the historic Portuguese settlement of Colonia del Sacramento. There the boat passes several small islands, numerous white beaches, and the stark white lighthouse on tiny Farallon Island, only one-tenth of a mile across.
Massachusetts: Between Hyannis and Nantucket on Nantucket Island
Near Hyannis and off the white sands of Kalmus Beach, a quarter-mile-long spit separating Lewis Bay from the ocean, windsurfers dance on the sea. Twenty-five miles across Nantucket Sound, the ferry passes beaches lined with weathered Cape Cod–style cottages. Ferries have traversed this historic route in one form or another since 1818, and now visitors can choose a slow (two-and-a-quarter hours) or a fast (one-hour) boat.
(The Steamship Authority: steamshipauthority.com; traditional—that is, “slow”—ferry ticket begins at $18 per person one-way; high-speed ferry begins at $35 per person one-way.)
Spain & Morocco: Between Algeciras and Ceuta
On this ferry from Europe to Africa travelers see the dramatic Pillars of Hercules: the Rock of Gibraltar and both contenders for the African Pillar—Monte Hacho in Ceuta, the autonomous North African city, and Jebel Musa in Morocco. (Historians debate which of these is correct.) The people-watching is just as beautiful: Berber passengers from various tribes in Morocco wear colorful traditional dress and geometric tattoos—and usually ask not to be photographed.
Canada: Between St. John in New Brunswick and Digby in NovaScotia
The misty Bay of Fundy with its world-record tides and strong currents challenges captains as they navigate past the rocks and cliffs that line Digby Gut, the entrance to the bay called Annapolis Basin. At Point Prim look for the tidy red and white lighthouse, built in 1845. When you disembark, grab a cab and head to the most authentic local eatery, O’Neils Royal Fundy Seafood Market & Restaurant, and order a sampler of the local specialty—scallops—served three ways: breaded, pan-seared, or wrapped in bacon.
(Bay Ferries: acadiaferry.com; $41 per person one-way.)