This is by far the most epic ferry trip I've undertaken—so far. But first off, this is sold by the operator CTMA as a cruise, not a ferry. You'll need to search hard through their website to find mention of anything other than the seven day cruise from Montreal to Cap-aux-Meules and back. But if you dig deep you will find that you can book one-way passage and take your car. Which is exactly what we did.
I first saw the Magdalen Islands surrounded by broken sea ice in March 1979 when I was flying into Canada. For me that is the first image that comes to mind, rather than the sunny, sandy beaches of the tourist brochures. The ferry from Montreal started operating in 2003, but it was not well known (it still isn't) and it must have been 10 years before I heard about it. But when I did find out it went straight on to my "must do" list. I'd long wanted to travel down the Saint Lawrence to see it from the water side. And this was also a way of getting to see the mysterious Magdalen Islands—Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine
The starting point for the ferry is the Bickerdike Dock in the Port of Montreal, a thoroughly industrial area of containers and cranes. Despite knowing the area somewhat and double-checking the maps we still headed off into Nuns' Island by mistake. It seemed everyone we spoke to on the ferry had some story about messing up getting to the starting point!
We eventually arrived and our luggage was taken from us and we joined the queue, where we found out that the vast majority of people were taking the full one week cruise, and there was just a handful of us going one-way with our vehicles.
The boat—the MS C.T.M.A. Vacancier
Adding to its ferry credentials is the fact that the boat was built in 1972 as a ferry between Finland and Sweden. Since then she has had multiple owners and five different names. And each of those names was more interesting than the current one, the C.T.M.A. Vacancier!
Vehicle loading is by the stern only, with nominal space for 300 cars, though I can't really see that many fitting on. On our trip we were one of just 11 cars, and that included the performing band's minivan. Much of the other vehicle space was filled with loaded, cab-less, semi-trailers taking freight to the islands. A quirk in the loading was that we were required to drive our car only as far as the ramp on the stern of the boat, and then to get out so a crew member could take over from there—safety, insurance or union rules, who knows!. We then didn't see our car again until it was on the dock at Cap-aux-Meules.
They have done their best to refit the boat to suit its "cruise ship" billing, but it remains basically as first built—an overnight ferry. We'd booked several weeks in advance and tried to get the best cabin available, but ended up deep in the bowels of the boat in a cabin that seemed to be about 10ft x 7ft, bunk beds, no windows and a toilet-shower so small that if the ship rolled you could not fall over. For us, spending two nights in this was OK, but to do the full "cruise" in such a tiny cabin would be disappointing for many people, to say nothing of claustrophobic.
Along the Saint Lawrence
The Saint Lawrence from Montreal to the gulf is a river well worth a two day voyage. Moments after the boat eases out of the dock, in the shadow of the old iconic "Five Roses" sign we pass Habitat 67, still recognised after 50 years for its cutting edge architecture, despite having now become a status address for the wealthy.
Then on past the old piers of Old Montreal, and grand views of the city with the mountain behind, then the skyscrapers, Marché Bonsecours and the clock-tower. So much so fast—we want to tell the captain to pause a while, as already we are under the Jacques-Cartier bridge and then passing the Ferris wheel and roller-coasters at La Ronde. The river widens as we leave Île Sainte-Hélène behind, and as Montreal's city skyline fades, the Olympic Stadium suddenly rises on the left.
The left bank is now the main port area of Montreal, working for its living—
docks and cranes, oil tanks and piles of scrap metal and containers. We pass over the Lafontaine tunnel, visible only as the two sets of ventilation towers, either side of the river. So much rush-traffic mayhem unseen under us as we serenely pass over in seconds. After that the left bank transitions from industrial dockland to pleasant riverside homes and parks, while the right side has the marshes and nature reserves of the Îles-de-Boucherville.
The outside decks, which were standing room only as we passed through Montreal, now empty out as people head off to find their cabins or settle in at the bar, and the river enters a new stable mood, swinging gently from side to side between soft clay cliffs, with a constant border of riverside homes and large lawns. As we get further from Montreal the homes decrease to be replaced by narrow farms that stretch down to the water's edge, the seigneurial system at work. Occasionally a church spire marks a small riverside town—
Verchères, Contrecœur, Lavaltrie, Lanoraie…
It's a pleasant late summer afternoon, and the calm water and gentle curves in the river lull us into a relaxed, mellow mood.
But from time to time this bucolic image changes as we round a bend and suddenly come across some giant industrial plant by the water's edge, normally with a dock. These are a shock to see, but also a reminder that this part of Canada developed out from the Saint Lawrence—
this was the old highway, the easy route for raw materials and goods to come in and out of the continent.
After a couple of hours we reach Tracy and Sorel, where the Richelieu River joins us. As we pass by, the ferry from Sorel to Saint-Ignace-de-Loyola
crosses our stern. Sorel marks the end of civilisation for a while, as soon we are cruising between marshy banks and sand bars as the river opens out into Lac Saint-Pierre.
There is a certain strange thrill I get to be navigating through Lac Saint-Pierre. This is a large body of water and on the map highway 40 between Montreal and Quebec City appears to follow its northern shore. But when you drive the road, as we have often done, the most you ever see are flat, reed covered marshes and a hint, maybe a hint, of a water in the distance. Always a disappointment. But here we are now going slap bang through the middle, and it is a beautiful evening with a warm sun low on the horizon. We can see for miles and watch as ships approach from way off, finally passing close by us. It is a shallow lake, so the channel is well marked and closely followed, meaning the other shipping passes close by. In the distance the bridge at Trois-Rivières is visible on the horizon, first as a dot and then growing. Unfortunately night overtakes us, and we take our turn to eat, so we never get to see Trois-Riverières close up.
We are scheduled to pass Quebec City between 11 p.m. and midnight, so we are back on deck in plenty of time—in fact far too early. Everywhere is now black and we can only guess at what might be just beyond the river by making sense of the occasional street lamp or light from a building. Eventually the lights from Quebec City start to glow on the horizon, but the night changes our perspective of distance, and it still takes a long time to reach those lights.
At last we know know we are close as we come under twin bridges of Pont Pierre-Laporte and Pont de Québec. Just beyond the bridges we pass two cruise ships, close by and well lit, and heading upstream. One, the MS Marco Polo we are to see again arriving at Cap-aux-Meules as we leave the Madgalens on the ferry to Souris, PEI
a few days later. Soon after the bridges the boat slows and a pilot boat speeds in to cruise against our port side so two men can transfer to our boat, all without stopping.
After that we come to the cliffs below the Plains of Abraham, and then turn the corner to see Chateau Frontenac hotel on top of the hill and the full glory of old Quebec City, glowing against the night sky. Though well past our schedule, and our bed time, this is a magnificent sight, the perfect way to see the glory of Quebec City. Our only regret is that because we are seeing it at night we will miss seeing it during the day. In this case those passengers doing the complete "cruise" will benefit by returning this way during daylight.
So we go to bed in our tiny cabin, a little disappointed that we'll miss seeing a chunk of the Saint Lawrence, including Tadoussac and the mouth of the Sagueney, but happy to have seen Quebec City looking so beautiful.
When we awake we are past Trois-Pistoles, approaching Bic. The river has now widened considerably, and we are close to the south shore with the north shore only just visible, about 20
away. Our route continues to keep us about two kilometres off the south shore, and the river steadily widens so that soon the north shore is completely gone from sight. During the night the character of the Saint Lawrence has changed—
we no longer feel we are in a river but out at sea.
The land gets steadily more hilly and rugged, the villages smaller and fewer. Beyond the cliffs and hills of the coast the Chic-Choc mountains now loom—
part of the northern end of the Appalachians. Near Cap-Chat there are large wind turbine farms, and in the sea we see the occasional minke whale breaking surface, but never visible for very long. This is a long day with the landscape changing only slowly, especially compared with the first stage of our trip down to Quebec City. But we spend most of our time on deck, the weather is beautifully sunny and calm and the water smooth, though getting slightly rougher as we approach the Gaspé peninsula.
Unfortunately the sun sets before we pass the Forillon National Park on the tip of the Gaspé peninsular. We have happy memories from camping at Forillon with our kids, lying on our backs watching the best display of Perseids shooting stars we've ever seen. But tonight it is just black, pitch black. So we retreat for our supper and when we come back on deck we realise we have just passed Percé and the famous rock. Another iconic landmark missed in the night.
We watch the lights along the coast from the villages and roads and after a while we realise we can see a steady motion of blackness crossing over the lights. Is this the Percé Rock appearing to pass in front of the coastline as we in fact pass it? I set my camera to max ISO, max aperture, hand-hold it as steadily as possible to avoid the ship's vibration and shoot at the blackness. With a bit of post-processing there indeed was the Percé Rock!
Some advice… If you want to do this trip and value not missing anything, research your times. Go near the summer solstice, aim for a full moon, and beware of the ship's limitations. You need to choose between and early and late sittings for the evening meal and they are not flexible. The meals take a long time to serve which is probably fine for those trying to pass the time on a week-long cruise. Take plenty of snacks and be prepared to skip meals in favour of views.
We are now heading for the port at Chandler, not much further round the Gaspé peninsula, where we are scheduled to stop and exchange a few passengers and cargo. The wind has freshened and it is late but we and a few hardy fellow passengers watch the process as we dock stern-first at Chandler, pick up a couple of cars and then cast off again into the night for our final leg across to The Islands.
We are about to cross the most open stretch of sea of the whole trip. As we get into our bunks we can feel the boat pitching and rolling for the first time in the trip, and the occasional thump as she is hit by a wave. We are deep in the middle of the boat with no porthole to give reference to the outside. Although it's not a very rough crossing, it is rough enough to upset the stomachs and reduce the attendance at breakfast the next morning.
We wake to a day that is grey, with a strong wind blowing. Once on deck Entry Island is visible on the port side through the mist and spray. Entry Island has the highest point in the Magdalens, and it takes some time for any other part of The Islands to appear. As we approach Cap-aux-Meules the sky brightens, but the wind remains strong. About a kilometre out from the harbour our boat does a full 360 circle before slowly making its way in. Maybe there was traffic in the habour, or maybe the approach was not quite right? But we realised later that the wind was very strong and, unusually, from the south, blowing straight into the harbour, whereas the prevailing wind around here is from the west and the harbour is sheltered from those winds by the islands.
When at last we enter the harbour we squeeze past a National Geographic cruise ship, and are pushed into our dock by two of the smallest tugs I've seen. But keen as we are to get off and start exploring the islands it takes well over an hour before they allow passengers to disembark. We spend that time watching the crew in the most elaborate tying up of a boat that I have ever seen. They seem to be trying to use every rope, every capstan and every bollard they can find. The wind is strong and by the evening it will be stronger, still blowing onshore straight into the harbour. The crew are right to be cautious.
At last we see a crew member drive our car out onto the dock and park it beside the MV Ivan-Quinn, the ferry to Entry Island
. Shortly after they finally let the passengers loose; most are on the full cruise so head to the terminal for arranged excursions. We and the few other one-way ferry passengers claim our luggage and our cars from the dock and drive off in search of lunch.
The Magdalen Islands
The strongest memory we have from the Magdalens is the constant, powerful wind. The first night the wind from the south grew stronger, and for the rest of the trip it was from the more normal west. Opening doors, we soon realised, was a two handed job. Open only one car door at a time, or risk your maps and belongings heading out to sea! The windows of the car, and the houses were soon covered in salage
,a salt-sand mix that constantly had to be washed off so you could see. Though we brought our bikes we never used them on the Magdalens—
it wasn't worth the effort during the days we were there.
We stayed on the islands for several days in a B&B near La Petite Baie, pretty much in the middle—
45 minutes drive to Grande-Entrée at the north east end, and 35 minutes drive to Havre-Aubert at the south west. We explored from end to end. We enjoyed the wild waves, the long, long sand bars and bays, the red cliffs, the caves and the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. The Musée de la Mer
in Havre-Aubert is small, but modern and well worth visiting—
it gives a good account of the history of the islands and the way life was before the days of modern transportation and communication. And it is a great location with views across to Entry Island.
I'm very glad we visited the Magdalens. I loved the special feeling of remoteness. The rich red sandstone cliffs that were everywhere— except where there were endless dunes and sandbars joinng islands and forming lagoons. We visited in September and it was clearly the end of season, as our B&B owners were waiting for us to leave to close up for the season. The vast sandy beaches would be fun, for those who enjoy beaches, in summer in calm weather. But the continuous wind we endured is a feature of The Islands, and can be hard to take when it does continue non-stop as it did during our visit. The food was decent, but not as varied as we might have expected. Scollops we love, but we ended up eating them too often as the menus at the different restaurants seemed very similar. The locally produced Pied-De Vent cheese and À l'abri de la Tempête beer are decent enough, but they start being promoted on the ferry and seem to feature in every restaurant menu on The Islands.
On our trip we spent two nights on the ferry, and then four nights in a B&B on The Islands. This allowed us to spend a day exploring the north, another exploring the south and another checking out some interesting places here and there. I wish now we'd spent another day at least to take a trip over to Entry Island, but the incessant wind did dampen the spirits a bit. We spent our time there wandering beaches and cliffs, a museum, and shopping in the artisanal food places.