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Travel: Cross-border docking on the M.V. Coho

A 90-minute trip between Victoria and Port Angeles provides a panorama of convergences

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Photography by Louise Christie

Southwestern B.C. sits at a crossroads of natural convergences. The Cascade Mountains, which run between California and Washington State, line one side of the Fraser Valley while from the other the Coast Mountains lead north to Alaska. Offshore, the interface of the southern end of the Alaskan marine species range and the northern end of the California varieties accounts for a staggering abundance of biodiversity. To top things off, three sweeping straits - Georgia, Haro, and Juan de Fuca - meet up in the waters that separate the Lower Mainland and Victoria.

Looking for a thrill? Get out on the water and witness these forces at play for yourself. One of the best places to do that is aboard the M.V. Coho, pride of the Black Ball Ferry Line.

Based in Port Angeles, Washington, on the shores of the Olympic Peninsula, the Coho and its crew have been making daily traverses across Juan de Fuca Strait to Victoria for the past half century. When reached on the bridge of the Coho as it was about to make its 50th birthday voyage, Captain Elmer Grasser admitted that he viewed the anniversary as quite an accomplishment. "It's a humbling feeling," he said.

"When I think of all the crews that came before us, we can be very proud of what's been accomplished. The community support, both in Port Angeles and Victoria, is outstanding. This celebration is about keeping the link between our two countries going, especially given the ups-and-downs of international travel lately. It's something to be very thankful of."

Out on deck, two travellers who would heartily agree with the captain's assessment were preparing to cycle to Baja California in Mexico. Maxime Bruneau of France and Craig Jones of New Zealand, having just wrapped up winter in Whistler, were now intent on experiencing some warm-water surfing. The two were kitted out for camping. This was long-haired Bruneau's first experience entering the U.S.

"The American customs officer was quite pleasant," he admitted with astonishment. "She said we needed to put an address of where we'd be staying on our entry form. When we told her we planned to bike the coast, she put down Olympic National Park and wished us well."

Port Angeles lies at the foot of the Olympic Mountains' Hurricane Ridge, a towering landmark. One reason to take a vehicle across on the Coho is to drive a 27-kilometre route up the slopes behind the mill town to a viewpoint of the wall of snowy peaks as well as a panoramic look back across the strait to both Victoria and Vancouver's North Shore mountains.

Otherwise, travel as a foot passenger. For a small fee, bring along a bike to explore the waterfront trails - including the 45-kilometre Olympic Discovery Trail - which fan out from the ferry slip. Unlike B.C. Ferries, where cyclists must park bikes on the lower car deck, passengers push their bikes aboard the Coho's top deck to handily-placed racks.

The two ports share much in common. A wealth of public art is displayed on city streets, such as Port Angeles' Avenue of the Peoples and Victoria's Signs of Lekwungen interpretive walkway. As well, murals soar on the walls of historic brick buildings. Both harbours feature hands-on displays of marine life. In particular, the volunteer-run Fiero Marine Life Center, a public aquarium on Port Angeles's City Pier, is a must-see.

No matter which harbour you frequent, a potent combination of salt air and stimulating exercise will have you searching out places to placate your appetite. If you want to dine with the locals, try the First Street Haven Restaurant in Port Angeles, a classic slice of Americana whose menu complements but in no way mirrors Victoria's grass-roofed, outdoors Red Fish, Blue Fish.

If you visited Victoria on the B.C. Day long weekend, you might have heard the M.V. Coho's distinctive B flat ship's horn to sound the note that anchored the Victoria Symphony Splash performance on Aug. 2. A throng of 40,000 spectators converged on the inner harbour - where plaques honour distinguished ships and sailors who have made Victoria a port of call - to catch North America's largest annual symphony event.

On the summer breeze, Captain Grasser could be heard offering the classic mariners toast, "Clear horizons."

Access: Crossing time between Victoria and Port Angeles is 90 minutes. For information on the Black Ball Ferry Line's Victoria-Port Angeles route, including sailing times and fares, visit www.cohoferry.com. Until Dec. 31, complimentary fares are offered those who travel on their birthdays. In addition, the Black Ball Ferry Line's online contest awards a free Vancouver Island or Olympic Peninsula getaway every month during 2009, including round-trip transportation on the M.V. Coho and overnight accommodation.

The First Street Haven (107 East First Street; 360-457-0352) lies just uphill from the Black Ball ferry slip. Red Fish, Blue Fish (250-298-6877; www.redfish-bluefish.com) lies at the foot of Broughton Street adjacent the Victoria seaplane base.

For information on the Fiero Marine Life Center, call 360-417-6254 or visit www.olypen.com/fierolab/. Note: The centre is closed on Mondays.

In Port Angeles, Sound Bikes and Kayaks (120 East Front Street; 360-457-1240; www.soundbikeskayaks.com/) offers tours and rentals.

Tourism information is available from the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce (121 E. Railroad; 360-452-2363; www.portangeles.org/) and from Tourism Victoria (812 Wharf Street; 1-800-663-3883; www.tourismvictoria.com/).

Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book (Greystone Books). Visit jackchristie.com to learn more.

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