The Alaska Marine Highway System describes the M/V Columbia as having the following statistics:
* 931 passengers
* 134 vehicles
* 44 four-berth cabins
* 59 two-berth cabins
* Dining Room (restaurant)
* Gift Shop
* Cocktail Lounge
* Forward Observation Lounges
* Public Showers
* Vending Machines
* 418 feet long
* 85 feet wide
* 17 knot cruising speed
Passenger accessible decks from top to bottom are:
* Bridge Deck
* Boat Deck
* Cabin Deck
* Upper Deck
* Car Deck
Alaska State Ferries are not cruise ships. We were reminded time and again. In fact, it has become a running joke between us. When service or passenger behavior got goofy at, we whispered to each other "this is not a cruise ship."
We arrived at the Bellingham ferry terminal around noon. The ferry didn't start loading until 4pm. We ate at the snack bar in the terminal building. Their food was surprisingly good. But before we ate, we checked in. Pretty easy process. They are getting like the airlines. No "official" picture ID, no boarding pass.
The ferry boards from the second floor of the terminal building. The ramp goes over to the Upper Deck, one deck above the car deck. This is also the deck where the Purser's Counter is. Convenient because elevators are crowded during boarding. The Upper Deck is the lowest deck that ferry passengers always have access to. There are three passenger accessible decks above it. By the way, Bellingham is the only location where walk on passengers board like this. Everywhere else, all boarding was done from the car deck (one deck below the Upper Deck).
Before you get to walk the ramp below, you have to present your boarding credentials (it's like a ticket) to a Purser's in the terminal. If you have reserved a cabin, you will walk on board and head straight to the Purser's' Counter for cabin assignment and key. If you don't have a cabin, you will race to the best camping spot and stake your claim. More about ferry camping later.
Ship time is on Alaska time which is one hour less than Pacific Time. That is, 6pm in Seattle is 5pm on the ship. I've never crossed a time zone on a gang plank before.
When riding this ferry, you don't have to have a cabin. In fact, cabins cost extra. Some passengers paid for cabins and others elected to sleep in public areas. We chose a cabin.
People without cabins can pitch tents on two of the ferry decks, sleep outdoors in the covered Solarium deck on plastic lounge chairs, or sleep in one of the four public lounges. Chose an option that matches your sense of adventure or your circumstance.
There are a variety of cabin options on board: 2 berth, 4 berth, and 4 berth with a sitting room. Some cabins have private sinks, toilets, and showers. We opted for a 4 berth with sitting room cabin for the two of us. We figured we would be much more comfortable if we could spread out. Yes, this is a bit piggy of us but we paid extra.
The top bunks have ladders which are removable. We put our big luggage (50 pound roller bags) on one bottom bunk and miscellaneous carry on type stuff on a top bunk. The luggage would have easily fit on the floor under the bottom bunks. But then we would have had to slide them in and out to get to our stuff.
Reasons this is not a cruise ship. No maid service. No one came to change our sheets, make our beds, replace our towels, or empty our trash can. There was a bar of soap. No shampoo. Towels, hand towels, and wash cloths were see-through from washing. Exactly four of each. Had we wanted to visit the Purser's' Counter everyday, we could have changed out the towels but that would have been too much hassle. This is not a cruise ship.
The sink and close hanging rods were situated to the left of the door. The toilet and shower were behind a door to the right of the cabin door. The bathroom door wouldn't stay open. While Spartan, the accommodations were certainly functional. No problems with water pressure or hot water. The toilet worked a little differently from a standard commercial toilet. It used the same type of lever to start the flow of water. Then there was a monstrous whooshing sound as the toilet bowl contents were sucked away. However, the toilet worked well. I had expected some form of yucky clogging marine toilet.
The sitting room was nothing like we expected. We had grand visions of a couch, comfortable chair, and end-table arranged around a window with a gorgeous view of the inside passage. While waiting for the ferry to start boarding in Bellingham, we got a brochure describing M/V Columbia that provided a detail map of the decks and cabin locations. We saw that the largest cabins (which we correctly assumed one would be ours) were on the upper deck facing the bow of the ship. We also thought that the Upper Deck would be higher than the Cabin and Boat Decks. Before boarding, we spent some time trying to match the deck maps to the ferry docked outside the windows.
What we got wasn't a cruise ship. The sitting room is somewhat cramped. There is a tiny round table bolted to the floor in the middle of the sitting room. The immovable table had three rather smallish uncomfortable chairs around it. Under the window was a small table that made it hard to look out the window. The floor of our cabin was lower than the deck our window overlooked so that the bottom of our window was nearly even with the deck in front of us. When the deckhands were outside on that deck, they could easily see inside our room. Kind of creepy when you are in your underwear. From our window, it was not possible to see over the bow deck railing. Large equipment is fastened to the deck in front of these windows further obscuring the view. At around sunset, all forward facing windows are shuttered off. The shutters are not removed until well after sunrise in the morning. The Purser's explained all this to us when we got our cabin assignment. To keep the ferry from running into things in the water, they post a lookout on the bow when the weather is bad and when it is dark out. Lights from cabins and observation decks impairs the lookout's vision.
Passengers without a cabin will find themselves living in the ferry's public spaces. We met a couple from Switzerland in the ferry terminal who planned to pitch a tent on the deck. This was their second trip to Alaska. On their first trip up the inside passage, they arrived on time for boarding. Unfortunately for them, on time meant they were at the end of the line. When they found a spot to pitch their tent on that first trip, is was a less than optimal. The second time around, they purposefully arrived at the ferry terminal early in the morning, well in advance of boarding. Needless to say, they were the first in line.
Passengers without a cabin may want to take the Swiss couple's approach. Line up early, maintain your place in line, and board the ferry as early as possible to secure the best campsite location. We had heard that people would pitch tents on the ferry. Seeing it is a whole other thing. The preferred tent and camping area is on the Bridge Deck next to the Solarium.
If you do plan to tent camp, bring your tent stakes. While you can't hammer the tent stakes into the steel deck, you can tape them down. This just goes to prove that Duct Tape can be used for anything. Don't forget to bring a number of rolls.
Almost every tent was taped to the deck. Tent stakes are run through grommets on the tent and then placed on the deck (parallel) and taped down. To further ensure that tents didn't fly off into the ocean, some campers tied cords from their tents to the railing.
Another option, that provides less privacy but more comfort is camping in the Solarium. Solarium campers don't pitch tents. They race up to Solarium and stake claim to one of the plastic lounge chairs. In a lounge chair, you can lie down or sit up comfortably. There are heat lamps in the Solarium area ceiling that help keep things warm. The solarium is open on the back. I would expect that folks sleeping in this area need to have sub-zero sleeping bags. When the weather turns bad at night, it can be pretty cold living out on the decks.
We recommend you get a cabin.