San Diego to Vancouver–By Ship

A West Coast Cruise: Catalina Island, San Diego, San Francisco, Victoria, Vancouver.

By Jason McKenney

Catalina fisherman. photos by Jason McKenney
Catalina fisherman. photos by Jason McKenne

My parents have always been travelers. When an opportunity came up recently to take a ship cruise with them near my new home in California I leaped at the chance. My parents still live in Kentucky and the West Coast isn’t an area they have seen much of so we signed up for a weeklong Princess cruise that ran from Long Beach, CA, to Catalina Island, down to San Diego, back up to San Francisco, and then on to Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada.

Catalina Island

Catalina Island is a small tourist spot just a few miles off the coast of California that used to be owned by the famous Wrigley family (of both gum and Cubs baseball fame). The island caters well to weekend warriors looking for either fun in the water or nature hikes. I went with my parents on a bus tour to the top of a small mountain range where Catalina’s airport sits at an elevation of about 1600 feet up. Bus tours run up to the airport on a regular basis where visitors will find wonderful views of the town and ocean below and on a clear day, one can see the port of Long Beach or San Pedro in the distance.

Catalina boats in the harbor.
Catalina boats in the harbor.

The main town of Avalon on Catalina has a quiet, touristy village appeal to it. There are local fishermen in the harbor, plenty of candy stores and coffee shops along the streets, and lots of activities taking place that are designed to be enjoyed by the whole family. My parents and I enjoyed our brief stop on Catalina and it’s a nice spot to get away for a short visit, but we had real cities to go to and we were all looking forward to our arrival in San Diego.


Cruise ship clientele has a tendency to skew older. I’m sure that’s due both to the price and entrapment factors. Travelers in their 20s usually aren’t willing to drop $500-$1500 to be locked up on a boat at sea. It’s unfortunate that some people think of cruise ships this way. A more accurate description of most cruise ships would be “mobile hotels.”

Typically cruise ships sail through the night and reach port in the early morning, and passengers awaken to a new destination to explore. Various activities are organized by the ship’s staff at each port of call: tours, shopping guides, or other cultural experiences representative of the local scene.

A set time in the afternoon is communicated on when passengers should return to the boat, and then in the evening the boat will depart and passengers will awaken the following day to find themselves in yet another exotic locale.

Warbirds at the San Diego Military Museum.
Warbirds at the San Diego Military Museum.

My parents enjoy cruises because it gives them the opportunity to see several cities or islands in a short amount of time without having to repack their suitcases every night. The fact that the food supply on board is virtually endless is a bonus. One does have to be careful about the caloric intake on these vessels especially if normal exercise routines are eschewed in the name of “vacation.”

San Diego

We arrived in the Port of San Diego on the second day of our cruise where we sidled in a couple docks down from the USS Midway. The Midwayis an aircraft carrier that was used in WWII but which now serves as a military museum offering a great opportunity for civilians to walk around on a flight deck, climb through its claustrophobic barracks, and to see several different kinds of jets, planes, and military helicopters up close.

Passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.
Passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.

After touring through the Midway, we took a bus tour over to the peninsula of Coronado. A couple years earlier, my sister and her husband spent their honeymoon at the Hotel del Coronado. This famous hotel is located on the peninsula that’s connected to San Diego by the long, arching Coronado Island Bay Bridge.

The bus tour continued on through Old Town San Diego and around Presidio Park and then returned to the dock. I had been to San Diego 3 previous times: once just to pass through on the way to Tijuana, another time to watch a Chargers-Raiders game, and a third trip to catch a rock show at a small club on one of the beaches.

This cruise trip made four trips down to San Diego for me and all four were totally different experiences. For a relatively small city it has a lot to offer due to its location, weather, culture, and well-kept environment.

San Francisco

I left my family in Kentucky in 2001 and moved to California with a college buddy of mine looking for fame and fortune. My parents had been out to visit me one time prior to the cruise but it was just a weekend visit and we spent most of our time in Orange County. This cruise gave all of us a chance to see different parts ofthe West Coast. Even after seven years of living in California I still had never been up to San Francisco, and the cruise afforded all of us a great opportunity to hit many of the Bay Area highlights in one jam-packed day.

I hit the front lido deck with my parents in the pre-dawn hours because that was when we were told we’d be cruising in underneath the iconic Gold Gate Bridge. The bridge itself crosses the entrance into the San Francisco Bay, linking San Francisco to Marin County. Our ship passed underneath the bridge around six that morning, just as the sun was beginning to crest. By the time we hit the docks (where Pier 39 was completely ensconced with lazy sea lions) the sun was shining brightly and had burned off most of the early morning fog.

Alcatraz, the former prison near San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz, the former prison near San Francisco Bay.

The first trip we made that morning after disembarkation was a short boat ride out to Alcatraz Island. This famous prison paradise operated first as a lighthouse then a military prison during the Civil War then eventually became the more recognized Federal prison bastion used for 29 years until 1963.

In 1969 it was occupied by a group of Americans Indians for nearly two years as a form of protest to American government oppression, and soon after it was taken over by the National Park Service and turned into a tourist spot for spoiled tender-palms like me.

I took the self-guided tour through the prison along with my folks and had as much fun learning about the aborted and failed escape attempts from the prison as I did from watching my parents trying to absorb the cold and harsh sights surrounding them.

Cold and harsh, that is, until one goes outside the prison again. From the decks outside the guard posts one is greeted with the beautiful San Francisco Bay glistening in front of the immaculate skyline that makes up San Francisco proper one and a half miles in the distance.

This sight must have been torture for prisoners. Guards said that on most evenings while the prison was active, the sounds of music, traffic, and even gleeful laughing and chatter of the nighttime club-goers could be heard, if even faintly, wafting across the water and into the barracks of the prison.

Craigdarroch Castle
Craigdarroch Castle, Victoria, BC.

The second half of our day in Frisco consisted of a bus trip through downtown, by the wharf, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into ritzy yet relaxing Marin County (home of both San Quentin Prison and George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch). The quaint little boating village we stopped in vaguely reminded me of some of the high-end beach towns along the Orange County coast such as Laguna Beach or Newport except with more green trees.

It also had many of the same type of independent candy stores, coffees shops, and small clothing stores that we found on Catalina. It’s a perfect place to drop into and visit for a few hours to shop, eat, and watch the boats. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay are spectacular, and as usual, the San Francisco skyline never ceases to amaze.


After leaving California we spent a day at sea on our way north to Canada. The full days at sea can sometimes be a bit stifling or claustrophobic. I spent most of my time chatting with my parents, wandering through the art gallery, sitting in a sports bar, and munching on the endless supply of hamburgers and hotdogs that are always available in the cafeteria. Most cruise lines do a good job of building in as many hotel-like amenities as possible on the ship, but for some of us one 24-hour period of not being able to disembark can begin to drive us stir crazy. All three of us were overjoyed to finally reach Canada and set foot in Victoria.

Victoria is the capital city of the province of British Columbia, and is located on Vancouver Island about 60 miles from the much larger city of Vancouver. The day’s plans in Victoria included another bus tour that went through the small capital city. Many of the apartment and office buildings were constructed in relatively old and boring architectural style that reminded me of the late 70s, but some of the wonderful landscaping and marvelous vistas more than made up for it.

Our tour ended with a visit to Craigdarroch Castle. This Victorian-era house was built in the 1890s for the family of the coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. It’s a bit creepy looking from the outside with its stony gray and maroon color scheme and sharp points poking out across various parts of the roof and windows.

The inside is setup as a walk-through tour of a bygone time with a Victorian decor, old wooden furniture on display, mannequins wearing well preserved dresses from the past, and lots of taxidermy in the halls. Even with its strength and girth, there is a very rigid austerity about the entire building, and it makes sense that it was built in a place called Victoria with influences froman era synonymous with “repressed.”


We sailed overnight again and woke up on our last day of the cruise in the Port of Vancouver. I walked out on deck in the crisp morning air to see a spectacular city skyline nestled within green hills in the distance and clumps of trees surrounding us with a beautiful blue bay beneath us. The sun’s reflection was beaming quite fierce off the water and overexposed a few of the photos I took.

Vancouver forest in Stanley Park.
Vancouver forest in Stanley Park.

Our first stop touring through Vancouver was in the popularthousand acre Stanley Park. Larger than New York’s Central Park, Stanley Park is great for biking, camping, boating, and skating. It’s also home to several iconic totem poles erected by local First Nation Indian tribes. The totems are brightly colored and easily accessible to tourists.

After leaving Stanley Park our tour bus took us out to the Capilano River Park, home of Cleveland Dam, an intricate fish hatchery, and a forest filled with tall, strong trees that are growing in an area with precious little soil. Many of the trees are growing straight out of other fallen trees. Our tour guide through the forest was a middle-aged German who described himself as an ex-hippie and he seemed to know the ins and outs of the forest very well.

Whenever I think of Canada it’s the images from Capilano that I envision first: clean air with a slight damp chill, tall fir trees, loud running streams stocked with fish, and middle-aged ex-hippies leading around American tourists. What a perfect vacation!

That ended the official cruise tour, but my parents had scheduled an additional night for us to spend in Vancouver in a downtown hotel so we had an extra day to explore the city on our own before taking a cab to the airport the next afternoon for separate flights back to Kentucky and Los Angeles.

I’m not sure if my parents really appreciate how much they have contributed to my love of travel, and it’s always fun to reminisce about our past adventures together.

This trip up the North American west coast is no exception, and I highly recommend to any traveler to spend time in any or all of the cities briefly profiled in this article. I have barely begun to scratch the surface of these rich and vibrant locales, and they all have much to offer to the tourists who take the time to visit.

More Resources
Catalina Island
Hotel del Coronado:
Craigdarroch Castle:
Capilano River Parkk:

Wanna Cruise?
Princess Cruise Lines:
Holland America Cruise Lines

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