10 Knockout North American Ferry Routes

Travel by boat

Photo: Bob Shrader/flickr

Back before large-scale bridge and tunnel projects made it possible for people to easily get from point A to point B, traversing a body of water aboard a boat was pretty much the only feasible option for 19th and early 20th century commuters.

While their numbers have declined since the rise of bridges and tunnels, numerous ferry systems across North America continue to shuttle commuters across stretches of water, with many serving as crucial lifelines to remote coastal and island communities where the only way in or out is via boat. In addition to acting as vital transportation links, some ferry systems, such as the extensive commuter ferry networks in the Puget Sound and the San Francisco Bay Area (pictured), pull double-duty as hugely popular — and hugely picturesque — tourist draws that offer singular, seagull-laden views of towering cityscapes and breathtaking natural scenery alike. Other ferry systems cater more to seasonal, island-bound vacation hotspots — far-flung locales where getting there is just as memorable as being there.

We've rounded up 10 of North America's most stunning ferry routes, each offering an experience unparalleled by other modes of transportation.

Alaska Marine Highway System

Photo: Jay Galvin/flickr

While regular passengers along the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) continue to grieve the loss of the service’s beloved floating dive bars earlier this year due to budget cuts, the views afforded from the ferries remain intoxicating as ever.

A unique hybrid between a budget cruise line, a commuter ferry system and a roving campground, the federally funded AMHS (it's part of the National Highway System and a designated Scenic National Byway) isn't just a tourist attraction geared toward glacier-peepers. It serves as a vital transport link for coastal — and often road-less — communities spanning from the fjord-heavy Alaskan Panhandle to the really far-flung Aleutian Islands. Stretching over 3,500 miles of rugged coastline with a total of 32 terminals including a couple in Washington and British Columbia, the AMHS functions as a (highly scenic) way in and way out. And considering the remote nature of many of the communities that it serves, getting in and out can take hours, even days. For example, the voyage from Juneau to Whittier — a truly fascinating community on Prince Edward Sound — takes 42 hours. Sailing along North America's most unique highway is the best way to take in the natural beauty of the Last Frontier. Shame about the bars, though.

Staten Island Ferry

Photo: Henning Klokkeråsen/flickr

Many visitors dismiss them as floating commuter buses en route to nowhere, but a 30-minute ride on one of the bright orange behemoths shuttling back and forth across Upper New York Bay from the tip of Lower Manhattan to St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island is actually the most scenic way to take in New York City — and without spending a single cent.

Running 24/7 and 365 days a year, the Staten Island Ferry is the busiest ferry route in the U.S. by passenger volume, carrying 22 million passengers annually with an average weekday ridership of 70,000. Fare-free since 1997, the ferry has also been sans motor vehicles since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Bicycles, however, are a-OK.) And while St. George isn't exactly a lively tourist destination, it's a neighborhood certainly not lacking in outer-borough charm. A bourgeoning arts scene along with new development adjacent to the ferry terminal that includes an outlet mall and a giant observation wheel will only bring more foot traffic to the once-sleepy North Shore of Staten Island. So go on, take a ride — and feel free to break out in song or crack open a beer while passing under the watchful gaze of Lady Liberty.

Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry

Photo: Russ/flickr

Please, don't bother trying to drive your car aboard a ferry servicing Mackinac Island since this 3.8 square-mile historic summer resort situated between Michigan's Lower and Upper Peninsulas in Lake Huron famously doesn't allow 'em. (In Michigan of all places!) It's proudly been that way since 1898 — but if you're from the Midwest you probably already knew that.

One of three ferry services between the mainland and Mackinac, family-owned Shepler’s has been merrily ferrying the fudge-scarfing, big band-dancing, nature-hiking masses (and their bikes) to the island, a National Historic Landmark in its entirety, since 1945. The pleasant ride over from Mackinaw City (Lower Peninsula) or St. Ignace (Upper Peninsula) across the Straights of Mackinac only takes a photo op-filled 16 minutes and has a similar effect as stepping into a time machine and traveling back to a simpler, slower time when horse-drawn carriages ruled the road.

Cape May-Lewes Ferry

Photo: Andy Grant/flickr

Sure, it’s a time-saving shortcut ... but what a beautiful, time-saving shortcut the CapeMay-Lewes Ferry is.

Cutting across the mouth of the Delaware Bay along a roughly 85-minute (17-mile) journey, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry links the Victorian resort town of Cape May, New Jersey, and other Jersey Shore communities with coastal Delaware including historic Lewes, home to beautiful Henelopen State Park, and the bustling boardwalk of Rehoboth Beach. (It's actually part of U.S. Route 9, one of only two highways in the U.S. with a ferry connection.) Beyond that, you'll find the "down ocean" beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland. Instead of a long and at times congested drive up and around the Delmarva Peninsula, the ferry ride — established in 1964, the Cape-May Lewes Ferry is more tourism- than transportation-minded these days — is a must for Mid-Atlantic daytrippers. Bikes ride for free (cars, however, will cost you extra), and frequent dolphin sightings are included in the base fare.

Washington State Ferries – Seattle to Bremerton

Photo: Jonathan Miske/flickr

Tacoma to Vashon Island. Anacortes to Friday Harbor. Mukilteo to Whidbey Island. It's no easy task deeming just one of the 10 routes serviced by Washington State Ferries as the most spectacularly scenic. It's legally designated as part of the state highway system, and it’s the most extensive ferry network in the U.S. with a fleet of 24 passenger and vehicle ferries.

However, for the best of both worlds — sweeping, skyscraper-studded cityscapes and the rugged, heavily forested coastline of the Puget Sound enveloped in nonstop mountain vistas — the Seattle-Bremerton route (SR 304) cannot be beat. The roughly hour-long journey is most dramatic going west to east, from the maritime hub of Bremerton to the foot of downtown Seattle. Winding through Rich Passage, a narrow tidal straight between the Kitsap Peninsula and Bainbridge Island, before entering the glistening waters of Eliot Bay, this approach offers an unforgettable introduction to the Emerald City — an introduction that you might never want to end. Added bonuses: Wi-Fi, hot-pink sunsets, primo people watching and the occasional orca sighting.

New Orleans Ferry – Canal Street to Algiers Point

Photo: Derek Bridges/flickr

Between the beignet binging, ghost hunting and nonstop letting down of hair, New Orleans can be an exhausting, overwhelming place. And what better place to sit still for a spell — five leisurely minutes, to be exact — than on a ferry ride across the Mississippi River?

A unique and oft-overlooked way to experience the Big Easy, the Canal Street Ferry is one of the oldest continually operating ferry services in the U.S.: it's been sailing between the foot of bustling Canal Street to the artsy and historic West Bank neighborhood of Algiers Point (aka the "Brooklyn of the South") since 1827. And New Orleans' ferries aren't just a scenic tourist diversion. The pedestrian-only Canal Street-Algiers Point route, along with the newer and vehicle-friendly Chalmette-Lower Algiers route, boasts the fourth highest ridership of any ferry system in the U.S. with more than 2 million passengers annually. An alternative to buses, the ferries serve as a lifeline for New Orleans residents who can't afford or would rather do without a car while keeping additional traffic off of perpetually packed Crescent City Connection Bridge.

BC Ferries – Vancouver to Victoria

Photo: Pete Spiro/ Shutterstock

Choices, choices, choices. With a fleet of more than 35 vehicle-carrying vessels, 24 routes and 47 ports of call, BritishColumbia Ferry Services — the largest passenger ferry system in North America — can be a touch intimidating to the uninitiated.

A solid place to start exploring is along Highway 17, home to the BC Ferries' oldest (established in 1960) and most heavily trafficked route. Sailing through the Southern Gulf Islands and across the Straight of Georgia (and briefly into American waters) from Swartz Bay, just north of the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, to the mainland where it terminates at Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal in the Vancouver suburb of Delta, Route 1 offers roughly 90 minutes of unparalleled scenic bliss. While many passengers choose to spend the full duration whale watching or taking in the stunning coastal scenery, there are plenty of other ways to pass the time aboard BC Ferries' comfortable, amenity-filled boats from sampling exotic new cuisine (Route 1 is where this writer first tried the Canadian culinary staple known as ketchup chips) to unwinding with a good book in the all-inclusive Seawest Lounge.

Golden Gate Ferry – San Francisco to Sausalito

Photo: David Veksler/flickr

Once largely forgotten and obscured by a double-decker freeway, the San FranciscoFerry Building, a 1898 Beaux Arts beauty topped with a soaring clock tower, has been reborn in recent years as both a bustling transportation hub and waterfront tourist hotspot. Lovingly restored, the historic building is now home to a lively marketplace packed with specialty shops and restaurants. Plus, three days a week the grounds around the building host the biggest and best farmers market in the entire city. Seriously, this is S.F. foodie ground zero.

While a visit to the Ferry Building is highly recommended without even stepping aboard an actual ferry, round-trip passage along the Golden Gate Ferry's San Francisco-Sausalito route is a breathtaking way to experience the City by the Bay as it was meant to be experienced: by the bay. Lasting 30 minutes, the voyage offers sweeping views of two of San Francisco's most photogenic landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. And once you arrive in the houseboat-heavy Marin County community of Sausalito, you'll probably want to stick around and explore for a few hours — or maybe even a couple of days.

Steamship Authority – Hyannis to Nantucket

Photo: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism/flickr

There are two ways to access the storied New England summer playground of Nantucket by water: fast or slow. And while there's nothing quite like leisurely slipping away from the stress and chaos of mainland life while aboard a scenic 2-hour-plus traditional ferry ride, there's also something to be said about getting there as fast as humanly possible.

Impatient types antsy to get their Nantucket beach vacation on will likely spring for that latter option, sailing aboard the Steamship Authority's high-speed, passengers-only catamaran, the M/V Iyanough. Completing the 26-mile journey from Hyannis Terminal on Cape Cod to Nantucket in a little under an hour dock-to-dock, the high-speed route is, to be expected, the more spendy option, costing $69 per adult head roundtrip. (Bikes and surfboards will cost you extra.) Still, it’s a bargain compared to bringing along your car on the slower, more traditional ferry given that roundtrip vehicle rates start at $280. (Please, just leave it on the mainland if possible as Nantucket is a pedestrian paradise.) Whatever the speed or cost, it's a gorgeous journey — and, if you're lucky, you might spot migrating right whales while en route.

Northumberland Ferries Limited – Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island

Photo: Martin Cathrae/flickr

Really, there's no better way to province-hop across the Canadian Maritimes than aboard a slow-ish moving ferry.

Serving as the final stretch along the Maritime Ferry Trail — the trail stretches from Portland, Maine, to Prince Edward Island with stops in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in between — the Caribou (N.S.) to Wood Islands (PEI) route aboard Northumberland Ferries' M/V Holiday Island or M/V Confederation is "aboot" as invigorating as it gets. The 75-minute journey, which carries roughly 475,000 passengers annually, is filled with an ample amount of fresh sea air, wildlife and local color (dine on poutine and listen to live music performed by local artists). Basically, a voyage across the Northumberland Straight is like sailing straight into the prettiest postcard imaginable. Bring along your childhood copy of "Anne of Green Gables" and shoes you can muck up on the beach — and don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for the legendary Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Straight. For longer Maritimes ferry voyages across Cabot Straight from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, a 6- to 8-hour (or 16-hour) trip about one of Marine Atlantic's four ships is the best bet.