Top 8 ferry trips

Get your open-water fix, fast and cheap, from an all-day ferry trip amid breaching orcas to a 10-minute ride on California's last family-owned operation.

A day of wonder: Inside Passage, British Columbia

Onboard: The 315-mile route from Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, to Prince Rupert, in northern B.C., is the same one that Alaskan cruise liners follow. And B.C. Ferries' newest vessel, the Northern Expedition, offers a decidedly cruise-ship-like experience: 55 staterooms, buffet with linen napkins, and a lounge with plush recliners stationed by picture windows. Skip the ship's movie theater and watch the nature show outside: rain-forest islands, white-sand beaches, snow-clad peaks, orcas, porpoises, and bald eagles.

On land: Spend a few days poking around Rupert, with its small inns and cafes. From $187 U.S./person plus $425 U.S./vehicle; bcferries.com
> Related: Escape to Cowichan Bay, B.C.

90 minutes to a secret San Juan: Anacortes to Shaw Island, WA
Onboard: Pick Shaw, the smallest of the ferry-served San Juan Islands, for a crossing as glorious as the others-past islets with glassy coves, Pacific madrones, and harbor seals-yet with a fraction of the crowds once you get there. If the ferry slows in the middle of a channel, it's probably pausing to let an orca pod cross, and to give you time to catch a glimpse. To skip the lines at Anacortes terminal, swap your car for your bike.

On land: The island is just 7.7 square miles. There's no town, but the Shaw General Store has picnic supplies and freshly baked cinnamon rolls. It's 2 cyclist-friendly miles to Shaw Island County Park and its quiet, sandy beach. $43/ vehicle and driver, $16/bicyclist, $12/passenger only; wsdot.wa.gov/ferries

1-hour rite of passage: Catalina Island Ferry
Onboard: The ride from the busy mainland to sweet Catalina is as classic a Southern California pleasure as screaming on the Matterhorn or eating a Double-Double at In-N-Out. For the true experience, take the original ferry route from San Pedro to Catalina's unofficial capital, Avalon. Four of the fleet's eight vessels are high-speed catamarans.

On land: Soak up the sun on Descanso Beach, rent a bike (from $8/hour), or try a guided kayak trip ($48). From $35; catalinaexpress.com
> Related: 18 great California fall trips

45-minute sea safari: Maui to Lanai
Onboard: The best time I ever had on the water in Hawaii was on a regular ol' water bus to Lanai, with pods of spinner dolphins leaping alongside and humpback whales breaching and spouting nearby. The ferry crosses the 'Au'au Channel, the warmest in Hawaii and a favorite of humpbacks from November to April.

On land: Skip the $10 shuttle and walk 10 minutes to the Manele Bay public beach, the same one Four Seasons guests pay big bucks to enjoy. $30; go-lanai.com

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