Cruising Indian Arm: Vancouver’s Backyard Wilderness

A lot of things make Vancouver special:  great beaches, Stanley Park and its incredible seawall, plentiful White Spots, etc.   But for me what truly sets the city apart is its backyard – the ocean and jagged mountains  that literally ring the downtown core.  And among the most spectacular of Vancouver’s natural wonders is Indian Arm, a secluded ocean inlet only minutes outside the city.

Carved during the last ice age by glaciers, Indian Arm is a 20-kilometer-long fjord that extends from the Burrard Inlet deep into the heart of the Coast Mountains.  Apart from the small community of Deep Cove, there are no towns along its length.  A few hardy (and wealthy) homesteaders have built weekend lodges on the banks, but the lack of paved roads and Indian Arm’s protected status have kept development at bay.

Because Indian Arm’s inner reaches are inaccessible by car, one of the best ways to experience the area is by boat.  This is where Harbour Cruises come in.  You could of course rent a kayak or puny little motorboat, but if you’re going to explore Indian Arm, why not do it in style – on one of Harbour Cruises plush party ships.  I did a four-hour lunch cruise ($65 plus tax) over the weekend aboard the MV Harbour Princess, a double-decker cruise ship with space for 190 passengers, a dining room and – importantly – a full-service bar.

Cruises depart from Coal Harbour and motor slowly past the steel and glass towers of downtown Vancouver, under the rusted spans of the Second Narrows Bridge and deep into Burrard Inlet.  One of the unexpected highlights: A glimpse of McBarge, the dilapidated remains of a floating McDonald’s, built for Vancouver’s Expo ’86 then dragged out here to rust in peace.

After an hour or so of cruising – past loaded freighters and busy wharves, solitary crab fishermen and unlucky speed boats snagged on sand bars – we take a sharp left and turn into Indian Arm.  Immediately, the scenery begins to change.  The cottages and condos of Deep Cove quickly give way to sheer granite cliffs and dense, dark forest stretching in every direction.  I join the passengers thronging the ship’s sunny top deck for photo ops.  The wild scene – mountains, water and scarcely a single sign of human development – feels a world away from downtown Vancouver.

But the action inside the boat is almost as interesting.  At the bar, Tim the bartender is busy mixing Caesars and Margaritas, while a soundtrack of rock classics plays softly over the speakers – The Beatles, Neil Young, even a little Jimmy Buffet.   Over the PA, an announcement is made: The lunch buffet has opened.  I make my way to the bottom deck where there’s a generous spread of wild spring salmon and roast chicken.

Inside the dining room, I get a better idea of who’s on board: families visiting from as close as Surrey and as far as India; an 82-year-old man celebrating his birthday; young couples holding hands; and a big group of women celebrating a bachelorette party.  After lunch, the bachelorette – making the most of her last minutes of freedom – gets a rare treat: a chance to step inside the ship’s wheelhouse and take the helm of the $1.5 million vessel.  While first mate Tony Dujmovic explains the intricacies of magnetic compasses and rudder control, she struggles to hold the course and avoid powerboats whizzing by.

The trip culminates with a glimpse of Silver Falls, a shimmering cascade of water tucked away in a protected cove on the shoreline.  Although Aboriginal legend warns that misfortune comes to those who look directly at the falling water, we spend a full five minutes snapping pictures before the captain blows his horn and the ship begins to chug back to port.   The calm ride back to civilization is highlighted by sightings of several seals, a million or so of the jellyfish that make Indian Arm home and a very brave girl who – prompted by the cheers of passengers – leaps from a 40-foot cliff on shore and into the icy water.

Interested in seeing the hidden wilds of Indian Arm for yourself?  Harbour Cruises runs lunch trips from Friday through Monday.  Boarding is at 10:30 a.m. at the docks along Coal Harbour.   You can learn about special promotions and discounts by visiting their Facebook page.

Remy Scalza

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