This fascinating village is the only settlement on crescent-shaped Cormorant Island, which lies in Broughton Strait 45 minutes by ferry from Port McNeill. The island’s population of 600 is evenly split between natives and nonnatives.
Alert Bay holds plenty of history. Captain Vancouver landed there in the late 1700s, and it’s been a supply stop for fur traders and gold miners on their way to Alaska , a place for ships to stock up on water, and home base to an entire fishing fleet.
Today the village is one of the region’s major fishing and marine service centers, and it has two fish-processing and -packing plants. Half the island is owned by the Kwakiutl, whose powerful art draws visitors to Alert Bay.
All the island’s numerous attractions can be reached on foot or by bicycle. Start by wandering through the village to appreciate the turn-of-the-20th-century waterfront buildings and the colorful totems decorating Nimpkish Burial Ground.
For an outstanding introduction to the fascinating culture and heritage of the Kwakiutl, don’t miss the U’Mista Cultural Centre (Front St., 250/974-5403, Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat. noon–5 p.m., adult $7, senior $6, child $3). Built to house a ceremonial potlatch collection confiscated by the federal government after a 1921 ban on potlatches, the center contains masks and other Kwakiutl art and artifacts.
Take a guided tour through the center, then wander at leisure past the photos and colorful displays to watch two award-winning films produced by the center—one explains the origin and meaning of the potlatch. The center also teaches local children the native language, culture, song, and dance.
Also on the north end of the island you’ll find the Indian Big House, the world’s second tallest totem pole (it’s 53 meters/174 feet high—the highest is in Victoria ), and the historic century-old Anglican Church.
The island’s least expensive accommodation is Alert Bay Camping (250/974-5213, $14–22), overlooking Broughton Strait, with a cookhouse and barbecues. On my most recent visit to the Nimpkish Hotel (318 Fir St., 250/974-2324 or 800/888/646-7547, www.nimpkishhotel.com , $115–185 s or d), I was surprised to find a completely renovated property with nine beautifully furnished rooms, many with sweeping ocean views and some with luxuries such as jetted tubs and fireplaces. The hotel also has a restaurant, with tables that sprawl outside to a wide waterfront deck.
BC Ferries (250/386-3431) runs to the island from Port McNeill many times daily, with most sailings stopping en route at Malcolm Island. The peak round-trip fare is adult $9.20, child $4.60. You can take a vehicle over for $21.50 round-trip, but there’s no real point as everything on the island is reachable on foot.