The Québec maritime Blog
Embarking on a CTMA cruise from Montréal to the Îles de la Madeleine means falling under the spell of the Islands before you’ve even set foot on dry land. Aboard the MV CTMA Vacancier, you’re not just a cruise passenger, you’re a guest of the Islands. The Madelinot crew will welcome you warmly to their corner of the world and lead you to safe harbour, while you experience the majesty of the St. Lawrence as you’ve never seen it before. Are you with me? All aboard!
Montréal – Cap-aux-Meules: eight days and seven nights for a return trip to the heart of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including three days to explore the enchanting archipelago. As a passenger on one of the last cruises of the season last year—CTMA cruises to the Islands depart from Montréal every Friday from June to September—I quickly realized that the archipelago represented a distant and exotic destination for many of my fellow travellers—for some, it really was the trip of a lifetime! Anticipation and excitement were in the air as the bus arrived to take us to the boarding point in the Port of Montréal and later when we were asked to set our watches to Atlantic Time—this marked the beginning of our great adventure! There’s no question that a CTMA cruise is all about enjoying the moment, whatever you choose… CTMA offers several options: theme cruises (Madelinot traditions, beauty and wellness, gastronomy, Acadian culture) or all-inclusive packages that focus on flavours, art and culture, adventure or cycling. I opted for the traditional cruise with only one thought in mind: to experience the Islands to the fullest!
A floating hotel
The MV CTMA Vacancier cruise ship has travelled many miles since it was built in Germany in the 1970s. After sailing in northern Europe and then between France and Ireland, it has been cruising the waters of the St. Lawrence between the Islands and the mainland for the past 10 years, with some 450 passengers and crew aboard. I explored my floating hotel, which lacks for nothing: large outdoor decks, two observation lounges, a fitness centre, a children’s play area, a gift shop, a movie theatre, a restaurant and even a hairdressing salon… Before casting off, we gathered in the bar to meet the crew and find out about the program.
Members of the crew at captain Langford’s table © David Lang
The crew—some 100 Madelinots by birth or adoption—are the heart and soul of the cruise. Their smiling faces and lilting Acadian accents were soon associated with names: Céline, Ariane, Luc, Mathieu, Stéphane, Donald… They are a bartender/musician, an excursion planner, another bartender, two pursers and a ballroom dance instructor… Above all else, they are Madelinots and their infectious enthusiasm shone through while they introduced us to their corner of the world. It was no surprise that they did everything with care: from the meals to the ambiance, the quality of the service to that of the entertainment, there were no false notes, nothing contrived, the whole experience was authentic. Among the passengers were three men from the Islands built like rugby players. Fishermen, I figured, heading home after a trip to mainland Québec. And I was right, except that, that very night, our three sailors pulled out a fiddle, guitar and keyboard and astonished the rest of us by playing a set of Madelinot folk tunes. This was typical of what happened throughout the trip. “All Madelinots are born artists,” confided Céline, a bartender who would later sing for us on our last night.
A memorable voyage
A storyteller sharing Madelinot folklore © David Lang
The cabins on the MV CTMA Vacancier are not ostentatious, nor is there any extra space in them. They’re just large enough to rest your eyes between days of watching the scenery unfold—Québec from the level of the St. Lawrence is quite a sight!—and enjoying the onboard entertainment and opportunities to connect with fellow passengers. Some of the events not to be missed: shows every evening (storytellers, singers, musicians), workshops such as “lobster eating for dummies,” talks and films about the Islands and of course sumptuous gourmet meals featuring island fare. I will forever remember my first experience of the famous Island lobster—as will my tablemates because I missed the previously mentioned workshop… But how we laughed as we savoured this fresh seafood delicacy—and to think this was just a taste of what was to come! Such was life aboard the MV CTMA Vacancier, with no worries and no fuss, on Atlantic Time before we’d even passed under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in Montréal or the Laviolette Bridge in Trois-Rivières. Already I was charmed by the friendliness of the Islanders. (As a European who is already impressed with how easy it is to make friends in Québec, the warmth of the Madelinots was all the more remarkable!)
Falling in love with the St. Lawrence
One of the many sunsets witnessed during the cruise © David Lang
Our days aboard the ship zipped by—indoors or out, there was always something to see, do, discover, taste. Always someone to talk to. Some of my favourite and most memorable moments: sunsets over the majestic St. Lawrence, which morphed into the sea before our very eyes; the enchanting lights of Old Québec, which we passed at about midnight on our first night; the sight of Tadoussac on the morning of our second day at sea and then the breathtaking view of the Gaspé Peninsula as we sailed past; the windmills in Cap-Chat; the cliffs of Sainte-Anne-des Monts… Not to mention the sight of porpoises, seals, belugas and other whales pointed out to us in the wee hours of the morning by a naturalist guide who was a born storyteller… As we glided through a three-dimensional postcard of the St. Lawrence, we entered deeper into maritime magic, the air became saltier and the estuary slowly widened into the sea. On Sunday, the Gulf of St. Lawrence embraced us with open arms as we sailed the last miles to the archipelago. Land ahoy!
Till we meet again…
Chandler in Gaspésie seen from the cruise ship. © David Lang
The true measure of the success of this cruise, however, was the return trip. The challenge was great: how to make sure we overcame the melancholy that threatened to descend upon us as soon as we left the Islands, which had so thoroughly enchanted us (read all about it here). More than just an introduction to the Islands, the cruise prolonged the magic. Everything contributed to this tour de force: more flavours of the Islands, local beer, evenings of music and dancing, a tour of the boat and the pilot house, sharing stories with fellow travellers about what we’d seen and done on the Islands.
Seeing Québec through Madelinot eyes, what a concept! It was strange how, after a final supper on board and a special goodbye show involving the whole crew, the Port of Montréal seemed a little less appealing at dawn on Friday than when we first saw it. Nostalgia was already setting in…