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Explore the Gorge on a fun pickle boat with Victoria Harbour Ferry

Please only travel when it’s safe to do so.

Welcome aboard our little happy boat!” greets our cheerful, silver-haired “Captain Buzz” as we step into the green pickle-shaped vessel for our tour of the Gorge in Victoria, BC.

Victoria has a collection of pickle boats (carrying a maximum of 12 passengers) that traverse the Inner Harbour and waterways.

Dubbed “happy boats,” they’re run by Victoria Harbour Ferry (also known as Harbour Ferries Victoria).

Harbour Ferries Victoria, BC
When visiting Victoria, you must take a ride in one of these cute pickle boats!

We’ve picked the one offering a one-hour narrated cruise of the historic Victoria Gorge Waterway.

And with the sun shining and blue-bird skies this beautiful day, it’s impossible not to be happy on this happy boat.

Indeed, going on a Gorge tour is one of the best things to do in Victoria, BC!

Harbour Ferries Victoria
Little pickle-shaped boats like this offer tours and water taxi services (Credit: Victoria Harbour Ferry)

Victoria Harbour Ferry route map

See where the pickle boats take you below.

The yellow dotted lines show the Gorge Waterway route.

Harbour Ferries Victoria map
(Credit: Victoria Harbour Ferry)
Download a PDF of the ferry stop map.

Harbour Ferries Gorge tour, Victoria

A Gorge Waterway tour boat
A Gorge Waterway tour boat (Credit: Victoria Harbour Ferry)

The Gorge Waterway (known simply as “the Gorge” to locals) is a narrow, tidal ocean inlet stretching four miles between Victoria’s famed Inner Harbour to Portage Inlet.

At the Tillicum Narrows section, the amount of water being forced through the narrow rocky gap (only 45 feet wide) causes whitewater rapids, waterfalls or a surging channel, depending on the height of the water.

We start our boat ride by puttering out from the dock in front of the iconic Fairmont Empress hotel. (Yes, this is the place for an oh-so-elegant high tea!)

One of Victoria’s oldest hotels, the grand Fairmont Empress dates back to 1908 (Credit: Fairmont Empress)

Passing through the harbour, our Harbour Ferries Victoria tour first takes us by British Columbia’s 1897 neo-Baroque legislative building and the Clipper dock (where high-speed ferries whisk passengers to and from Seattle in under three hours).

Boats docked in the Victoria Inner Harbour in front of the Empress hotel

Then we enter the Gorge, gliding slowly past working shipyards, historic homes and kayakers paddling on the water.

Early history of the Gorge Waterway

For thousands of years, the Gorge area was an important First Nations spiritual, fishing, hunting and gathering site.

The Songhees, a Victoria group of aboriginal people, called the Gorge Camossung, after a girl who is said to have been turned to stone in the tidal rapids.

We learn that they fished for salmon and herring, harvested oysters, hunted deer and ducks, and gathered plants from the surrounding forest for medicine.

In 1994, an archaeological dig unearthed a 4,100-year-old midden, comprised of shells, fish bones, and different bone and stone tools used by the early First Nations people who lived here.

Our Victoria pickle boat heads out into the Gorge Waterway
Our pickle boat heads out into the Gorge Waterway

Point Ellice Bridge disaster

As we drift along, Buzz, who grew up in the area, also entertains us with tales of hitching rides on log booms as a child to get home and diving into the Gorge from some of the bridges we pass under, to his mom’s distress.

He tells us about the Point Ellice Bridge (now known as the Bay Street Bridge), which was the site of a terrible accident in 1896, when the midsection collapsed.

A streetcar crowded with 143 men, women and children, out to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 76th birthday, crashed through the bridge, killing 55.

gorge waterway - point ellice bridge disaster
This photo (taken on May 26, 1896) shows the collapse of the mid-section of the Point Ellice Bridge

Buzz passes around a faded sepia-colored photo showing the aftermath of the accident.

Today, 120 years later, it’s hard to reconcile the scene of that disaster with robins singing in the shoreline trees, the kayaker who paddles by, lip-synching to opera music, and the joyful feeling of spring in the air.

Another bridge we float under on this Victoria Harbour tour – the wooden Selkirk Trestle Bridge – we recognize as part of the 34-mile-long Galloping Goose multi-use trail we bicycled along the day before.

The wooden Selkirk Trestle Bridge, part of the Galloping Goose bicycling and walking trail, crosses the Gorge in Victoria, BC.
The wooden Selkirk Trestle Bridge, part of the Galloping Goose bicycling and walking trail, crosses the Gorge

Rival swim clubs and daredevil divers

Buzz also tells us about the rival swim clubs that operated along the Gorge in the early 1900s.

There were floating swimming pools made from logs, and floating clubhouses. They were a big deal – people from all over would come to watch the swimmers compete.”

Harbour Ferries Victoria - Captain Buzz Wilson
Captain “Buzz” waiting by his Gorge tour pickle boat (Credit: Victoria Harbour Ferry)

World champion swimmers were invited to the swim meets.

Johnny Weissmuller came as a guest athlete swimmer before becoming famous as “Tarzan.”

Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian surfer and Olympic gold medal swimmer, also competed – and entertained guests with his ukulele playing.

Then Buzz points out the large concrete platform which once served as the base for a 110-foot tall diving tower in the 1920s.

Two teenage friends would dive from the tower to the amazement of spectators. Can you imagine? That’s like diving from a 10-storey building! It’s a sad story though, because one of them broke his back and died later. Three days after that, the tower was taken down.”

gorge waterway - banfield park
Swimming today by the dock at Banfield Park in the Gorge Waterway (Credit: Gorge Swim Fest)

Feeling the heat? Check out these great Victoria beaches

Tillicum Bridge and the reversing rapids

When we reach the Tillicum Bridge, we see the water swirling around underneath, but it’s not as dramatic as we imagined. Buzz explains that the rapids were once more impressive though.

Tourists would flock to see the reversing falls. But boaters and kids who dived and jumped in at this spot often died. So one day in 1960, a man dynamited a big rock from out of the narrows here, and ever since the water flow has been less.”

This is as far as our little pickle boat goes, though the Gorge continues further.

Buzz turns the boat around and we head back to the Victoria Inner Harbour, delighted we’ve seen a legendary part of Victoria we hadn’t seen before.

Victoria gorge waterway - harbor seals
Harbor seals rest on logs in the Gorge (Credit: Victoria Harbour Ferry)

Map of the Gorge, Victoria

Google is always so helpful when it comes to maps :-).

Happy boats, with happy people

Like the “happy boats” with their happy passengers, the boat captains are all a happy lot too. Some were lawyers before they retired. One was the mayor of a local Victoria municipality.

They seem to work with Victoria Harbour Ferry for the enjoyment of it!

After Buzz told his wife Denise how much fun he was having, she joined the ferry company too, explaining tours to visitors and selling tickets at their booth on the dock (we discovered this tour when we stopped to chat with Denise about the colorful little pickle boats we saw traversing Victoria’s inner waterways).

Harbour Ferries Victoria
Don’t miss taking a ride with Victoria Harbor Ferries when in Victoria!

Booking a tour with Harbour Ferries Victoria

Season:

Water taxi rides to 10 stops and several sightseeing boat tours on little pickle boats are offered by Victoria Harbour Ferry (or Victoria Harbor Ferry, if you’re American) between March and October.

Times:

The Gorge Waterway tour runs several times a day, starting from 10:00 am.

Cost:

Ticket prices for the Gorge tour are $30 CAD (about $22 USD) per adult.

Where to book:

Tickets can be booked at the Victoria Harbour Ferry dock in front of the Fairmont Empress hotel.

Victoria Harbour Ferry website:

See here for more information on the Harbour Ferries Gorge tour. See here for other Victoria Harbour Ferry tours and services.

Experience more of Victoria, BC!

Read our posts on:

Gardens | It’s blooming at these 5 beautiful gardens in Victoria, BC.

Walks | Lace up your walking shoes and check out these 9 easy scenic walks in Victoria.

Where to stay | We’ve sussed out these 5 utterly charming Victoria AirBnbs.


Photo credits: 1, 5, 6, 8, 12 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the owners and founders of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, luxury hotel reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Dominique

Tuesday 3rd of May 2016

What pretty views from the boat! This looks like quite an experience, glad to see that you enjoyed it!

Janice and George

Tuesday 3rd of May 2016

Recommended if you visit Victoria :-)

Anda

Tuesday 19th of April 2016

I've never heard of a pickle boat and I wonder if it's the green color of the boat that generated the name. We have a very similarly shaped boat on Lake Arrowhead in California, but it's white. Your tour surely was beautiful. Seeing the city from the water is always very spectacular.

Leigh McAdam

Monday 18th of April 2016

For all the times I have been to Victoria I have never done this. What a great way to experience the city.

Janice and George

Monday 18th of April 2016

That's what we thought :-). A "mini-cruise" and Victoria sightseeing/history all rolled into one manageable tour.

Carol

Sunday 17th of April 2016

I'd never heard of a pickle boat - sounds crunchy. And fun. I did love staying at the Fairmont Empress - what a spectacular hotel.

Janice and George

Sunday 17th of April 2016

Yes, the Fairmont Empress is a grand hotel :-). It's currently undergoing a renovation, so it's going to be even nicer soon too.

Shikha

Friday 15th of April 2016

I love the idea of taking a ride on one of the pickle boats - what a wonderful way to spend a sunny day!! And it's so nice to hear that the staff working there do so wholeheartedly for the love of the work and it's so great to hear that Captain Buzz persuaded his wife to hop on board with it too (mind the terrible pun) :)

Janice and George

Friday 15th of April 2016

Pun accepted - very cute :-)