Orcas, fjords – and a frisky lighthouse-keeper – are just some of the sights on offer to John Lee on the Inside Passage journey in British Columbia

It's 6am on the silent outer deck of a BC Ferries ship in Port Hardy, a gritty resource town on the north-east tip of Vancouver Island. The sun has been up for an hour and my eyes are streaming against the dockside chill. Hands deep into pockets and face contorted with yawns, I try hard to forget the warm hotel bed I left an hour ago.

The harbour's steep sides bristle with sun-dappled trees and six bald eagles have chosen the highest perches to stand sentinel over us. At least, I think they're watching us, until one swoops down and plucks a fish from the glassy water. Breakfast suddenly seems like a good idea as the captain announces his intention to blow the ship's whistle. A sharp klaxon peel reverberates as we rumble away. Now I'm awake.

While colossal cruise ships routinely ply the British Columbia coastline to and from Alaska, West Coasters rely on the less salubrious - and much cheaper - services of BC Ferries, in this case the Queen of Prince Rupert, an old but well-maintained vessel carrying 300 passengers and a few dozen vehicles. Eschewing the pampering of the hi-tech floating hotels, this "ferry-cruising" alternative allows visitors to rub shoulders with locals and spy some breathtaking natural vistas - sans onboard casinos and all-you-can-eat buffets.

With an 18-hour Inside Passage journey ahead of me - 274 nautical miles of fjord-and-forest scenery culminating at the lively northern city of Prince Rupert - I blink into the sun as we slip towards a range of purple-hued mountains. But as soon as the wind whips up, I scamper in for breakfast: the clamorous cafeteria's bacon, hash browns and scrambled eggs works for me. I grab another petrol-strong coffee and deny all knowledge of healthy eating.

The next hour is spent checking out every inch of the ship, taking in the purser's desk, where free blankets are handed out, and the gift shop, where packets of souvenir hemlock seeds jostle for space with First Nations (Native American) arts and crafts. Once I realise this frenetic pace isn't going to work for the whole trip, I force myself to relax. Time is nebulous on the ferry. I can almost hear my brain shutting down.

In the forward lounge - complete with patterned carpets, pastel curtains and Formica tables that recall 1975 - I notice that several passengers are cocooned in sleeping bags after the early start. Aside from the locals who've seen it all before, there are dozens of giddily excited overseas visitors, many taking photos of the ship's interior.

A talkative, middle-aged English couple tell me they've been planning this trip for 10 years, while a wide-eyed Chicago husband and wife say this is their retirement gift to themselves. A band of smiling First Nations ladies regale me with details of the elders' conference they have been to on Vancouver Island as well as the northern BC region they're slowly returning to. This kind of convivial camaraderie enlivens the ship and encourages me to see who else is on board.

Stepping on to the outer deck, I expect to be buffeted. Instead, a light breeze whispers, while a balmy sun warms a crowd that has settled in for a relaxing day out. Young couples wrapped around each other are sharing iPods, a boy with a scraped knee is chasing his giggling siblings and a gaggle of shirtless, pot-bellied Germans are embroiled in a boisterous game of cards.

They tell me they saved a lot of money by choosing the ferry instead of the standard cruise experience. And, while being on this ship means they're missing out luxury amenities, they're thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere. "It feels like camping, but on a boat," says one.

We're slipping almost silently through velvety water while rocky peaks splay before us on either side, stubbled with broccoli-green trees. Sandy bays pass by, along with small, sometimes abandoned settlements. There are dozens of pretty, red-capped lighthouses. A crew member tells me how a lighthouse keeper's wife in the area once "flashed" them as they passed by - but there's no show today.

There is a performance in the water, however. Three orcas are spotted starboard. Awed into silence by the whales cresting the ocean less than 500 feet away, we take turns at the best vantage points. It's the day's wildlife highlight, although some lolling seals and a couple of porpoises that race the ship for a few miles add to the mass photo-shoot later in the day.

After a hot-dog barbecue on deck, I spend the afternoon tanning and feeling more relaxed than I can ever remember. By evening, the scenery becomes more rugged, with clouds casting mammoth rolling shadows over the forests and silvery waterfalls licking down looming cliffs. When the sun begins to sink, many passengers retreat inside. But some of us choose to stay and witness the grand spectacle of a panoramic gold-and-black sunset streaking across the evening sky.

Near midnight, we dock in a floodlit Prince Rupert. I take a taxi to my hotel for a very deep sleep. Ready to explore late the next morning, I survey the view from the hotel window: mirror-smooth ocean fringed by mist-covered forests and a waterfront of clapboard buildings.

At the mouth of the Skeena River, Rupert, as it's called, is known as a city where rain is as common as breathing. Tourism gurus have tried to turn this into a virtue by labelling it the "City of Rainbows", but the real upsides are a surrounding landscape dripping with life and a streak of independence among locals that fuels a quirky, positive approach.

Cow Bay - the town's bright-painted heritage area named after a herd imported by boat here in 1908 - proves the point. Strolling the waterfront, umbrella in hand, I arrive to find bobbing pleasure boats and briny-smelling fishing vessels adjoining one-of-a-kind eateries and artsy stores that showcase local glassmakers, jewellers and photographers. Stopping at the Friesian-patterned Cowpuccinos coffee bar for a suitably milky latte, the friendly young server recommends a nearby attraction.

The Museum of Northern BC occupies a handsome longhouse-style building and focuses on the region's rich First Nations and pioneer history. Wandering its silent galleries, I learn that although the native locals have lived here for thousands of years, the 19th-century pioneers envisaged a magnificent new coastal city soon after they arrived. Although a railway line eventually reached the area, the grand metropolis never materialised. But enough people stayed to develop Rupert's formidable fishing and logging industries.

Later, I head over to Cow Bay Cafe for dinner on its chatty, flower-lined patio. Savouring fresh-caught Coho salmon I gaze at the lapping ocean, spotting a couple of eagles eyeing the water from a gabled roof. Cracking open my timetable, I rummage for a pen: it's time to start planning my next non-cruise cruise around the region.


Getting there
The gateway for British Columbia is Vancouver, with plenty of direct daily flights from the UK. To reach Port Hardy you first need to cross to Vancouver Island, then drive or take a bus almost the length of the island. If time is an issue, you can fly from Vancouver to Port Hardy instead. From Prince Rupert you can fly or take a long bus trip back to Vancouver.

The BC Ferries Inside Passage service operates from 18 May to 30 September between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert (001 250 386 3431; www.bcferries.com). One-way tickets cost C$141 (£71) for adults and C$78 (£39) for children. Reservations are essential.

Visiting there
Museum of Northern BC, 100 First Avenue West, Prince Rupert (001 250 624 3207; www.museumofnorthernbc.com). Opens Monday to Saturday 9am-8pm, until 5pm Sunday; admission C$5 (£2.50) adults, C$1 (50p) children.

Eating & drinking there
Cow Bay Café, 205 Cow Bay Road, Prince Rupert (001 250 627 1212). Serving lunch and dinner daily, mains range from C$8 (£4) to C$25 (£12.50).

More information
Tourism BC: www.hellobc.com
Canadian Tourism Commission: www.canada.travel