Cruising in the Canadian North
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Cruising in the Canadian North

Last week came the rather unusual news that a cruise ship full of skiers was stuck in the ice in the St Lawrence River near Matane, Quebec. When thinking about cruising one rarely thinks about ice, but this particular ship, the CTMA Vacancier, has now been a year-round cruise-ferry fixture in the St Lawrence since 2002.
Meanwhile, Canadian owners have ordered another vessel for another St Lawrence route from Rimouski to the North Shore and Strait of Belle Isle and a third such ship operates along the coast of Labrador.
Meanwhile, a new cruise ferry left Germany on Friday bound for British Columbia. These four ships offer some unusual opportunities to cruise off the beaten track.

The CTMA Vacancier

The headline in Toronto's "Globe & Mail" last Wednesday was "Imprisoned in Ice, Passengers Opt to Party."
The 300 passengers were on a special ski tour from Montreal to ports in the Gulf of St Lawrence when they became entrapped in ice for nearly 36 off her usual winter terminal of Matane. Celebrating the 475th Anniversary of the arrival of Jacques Cartier at Gaspé in 1534, participants had paid $1,600 each to cross-country ski an average of 45 kilometres a day and stay on the ship at night.
Instead of skiing the Chic Choc Mountains, however, the skiers partied for 24 hours on board. A Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker eventually freed the Vacancier and two nearby ferries. The operator, CTMA Group, keeps extra provisions of food, beer and wine on board for such eventualities in the wintertime.

Built by J J Sietas in 1973 as the Aurella, the11,481-ton CTMA Vacancier (the name is French for Vacationer) worked for Viking Line, North Sea Ferries, DFDS, Stena Line, B&I Line, Sealink, Hellenic Mediterranean Ferries and Swansea Cork Ferries during her European career before being sold to Canada and can carry 500 night passengers. One concession that has been made to the Vacancier's year-round service is that her bridge wings have been totally enclosed against the elements; it was reported to be as low as minus 40 degrees Centigrade in the St Lawrence last week.

The Vacancier offers weekly cruises from Montreal by summer, as well as a vital supply service to the isolated Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence by way of Quebec and the Gaspé Peninsula, a route that was first opened by the Clarke Steamship Company in 1938.
Between June and October, she leaves Montreal on Fridays, passing Quebec on her way downriver (Quebec passengers having boarded the previous day inbound). The ship arrives at Chandler, on the Gaspé Peninsula, on Saturday night and at the Magdalen Islands on Sunday morning. She then lays over in the Magdalens until she sails again on Tuesday night, reaching Chandler on Wednesday morning for a six-hour stay. From noon until 8 pm on Thursday, she calls at Quebec to disembark inbound and board outbound passengers.

After an overnight passage upstream she then arrives in Montreal on Friday morning and Montreal passengers are given breakfast before going ashore. Fares in 2009 start at $969 (Canadian) per person in an inside cabin or $1,059 in an outside cabin, plus $80 port charges. By winter, she usually leaves Matane on Saturdays. This year a special cruise is also planned to Havre St Pierre on the North Shore, a port where Fred Olsen Cruises and Holland America Line have also recently begun calling.

Belle Desgagnés to replace Nordik Express

A ship that operates a similar out-of-the-way service is the 1,748-ton Nordik Express, with a capacity for 268 passengers, 72 of them in berths, a ship that also carries containers. Built at Todd Shipyards in Seattle as an offshore supply ship, she was converted into an overnight passenger/cargo ship and entered service in 1987.
This is another route that was developed by the Clarke Steamship Company from Quebec in 1922, and has operated from Rimouski since 1964, sailing every Tuesday just after noon for the island of Anticosti and the North Shore. The round trip cruise fare from Rimouski to the Strait of Belle Isle and back starts at $820.31

The Nordik Express is shortly due for retirement, however, and her operators, Transport Desgagnés of Quebec, have now ordered a $52 million replacement from the Croatian shipyard Kraljevica. To be named Bella Desgagnés, she is due for delivery in July 2010.

Unlike the Nordik Express, which lays up each winter, the Ice Class 1A Bella Desgagnés will also operate year-round, with high ice capability as well as good manoeuvrability in limited harbours. Harbour restrictions, however, have kept her to dimensions of 312 feet by 63 feet and a draft of less than 15 feet, which makes for quite a low length to beam ratio.

Finland's Deltamarin Group was selected to develop the package for yard tendering and will continue the newbuilding project with the Kraljevica shipyard in order to ensure design continuity and fast delivery time.

Equipped with 63 passenger cabins, the Bella Desgagnés will have more room for one-way and round trip cruise passengers, and will have a maximum passenger load of 381. One-way passengers can connect with the Strait of Belle Isle ferry to Newfoundland at Blanc Sablon. Container capacity will also equally be increased from 68 to 125, almost double.

The Northern Ranger

To the east, and around the corner from the Strait of Belle Isle, another ship, the 2,340-ton Northern Ranger, offers a local service on the coast of Labrador that can also be used by holidaymakers seeking to cruise to out of the way places. The ship was built on the Great Lakes, entering service in 1986, and while she used to sail from Newfoundland to Labrador, she is now based in Labrador, sailing the coast southbound from Goose Bay for Rigolet, Cartwright and Black Tickle on Fridays at midnight and northbound from Goose Bay to ports as far north as Nain on Mondays. It is also possible to book the whole route both south and northbound.

Originally operated by Marine Atlantic, a division of Canadian National, the Northern Ranger has been managed since 1997 by Newfoundland & Labrador Provincial Ferry Services. Her capabilities as a cruise ship were proven in 1992-93 when she did a season of Antarctic cruises from Ushuaia on charter to Blyth & Company Travel of Toronto. As a cruise ship she can carry about 60 passengers in thirty cabins, although several are equipped with four berths. On her way to the Antarctic she carried former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for part of her voyage along the west coast of South America.

In her present service the Northern Ranger offers both standard and de luxe cabins and connections are available between Goose Bay and Lewisporte, Newfoundland, by the overnight ferry Sir Robert Bond. Meals are simple, however, and include breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight lunch served in the ship's cafeteria. It is worth remembering that as she is now operated she is not aimed at tourists but at the local market, so one has to be ready to put together one's own arrangements.
As there is now a road between Blanc Sablon on the Strait of Belle Isle and Cartwright, Labrador, it is possible to sail on both the Nordik Express and Northern Ranger by travelling overland between the two ships.

The new Northern Expedition

Meanwhile, another such ship operates on Canada's West Coast. On Friday of last week the first new overnight passenger ship to be built for BC Ferries in over forty years left her builders yard in Germany when the 17,800-ton Northern Expedition sailed from Flensburg bound for British Columbia. This ship is the fourth to be built at Flensburg for BC Ferries, the yard also having completed three 21,777-ton day ferries in the past three years. The Northern Expedition however also has potential for mini-cruise and charter operations.

The Northern Expedition replaces an earlier overnight cruise ferry, the Queen of the North, which sank by hitting bottom after failing to make a course change while some seventy nautical miles south of Prince Rupert on March 22, 2006. The earlier ship had been in BC Ferries service since 1974 and had been due for replacement a year later.

The 498-foot Northern Expedition boasts 55 staterooms, and can carry 600 passengers and 130 vehicles. Spacious passenger areas such as the Café, Vista Restaurant and two Lounges offer passengers plenty of comfort as they cruise the beautiful north coast scenery during their 16/18-hour voyage in each direction.

The Northern Expedition commences service on BC Ferries' Inside Passage route between Port Hardy, at the northern end of Vancouver Island, and Prince Rupert, where she will connect with the Alaska Marine Highway System, as the state calls its ferries, in May, in time for the summer season.
Budget cruisers often combine this route with the Alaska ferries to reach Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and other Alaska destinations and then take the southbound Alaska ferry back to Bellingham, Washington, but advance reservations are absolutely necessary in order to book cabins for the summer season.

(Source: By Mark Tré -

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