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CTMA VACANCIER
ST. LAWRENCE RIVER CRUISE TO MAGDALEN ISLANDS

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You have to reserve early to get exterior cabins with double beds and private washrooms on the CTMA Vacancier. Weekly, between mid-June and late-September, the ferry/cruise ship carries up to 450 passengers, 250 cars and 30 large vehicles between Montreal, Quebec, and Les Iles de la Madeleine (Magdalen Islands).

Passengers view Jacques Cartier Bridge over St. Lawrence River.
Passengers view Jacques Cartier Bridge over St. Lawrence River.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The CTMA ferry docks at Bickerdike wharf, which is about a 10-minute, $10 taxi ride from the downtown Montreal train station. A shuttle bus brings passengers from the parking lot to the Vacancier. Boarding time is two hours before the 3 pm departure.

As we began our 1,190-kilometer (740-mile) St. Lawrence River cruise, passengers relaxed on deck chairs and lined railings to photograph La Ronde amusement park and Jacques Cartier Bridge.

Cruise vacation packages

We booked a Taste of the Islands theme cruise. (Other one-week theme trips include the wonders of nature and local history).

In addition, we selected the Flavours vacation package, with three days of tours, lunches and dinners on Iles de la Madeleine. Cruises CTMA also offers art and culture, cycling and adventure cruise vacation packages.

Some passengers brought their cars on the ferry to the Magdalen Islands for an extended stay, returning on the CTMA ship at a later date. Children and passengers aged 60 and older pay discounted fares. Kids under five years old cruise for free.

Passengers climb gangplank.
Passengers climb gangplank.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Groupe CTMA also runs the M/V Madeleine ferry, which cruises across the Gulf of St. Lawrence year-round, between Souris PEI and Les Iles de la Madeleine. The crossing is five hours long.

Where are the Iles de la Madeleine?

The dozen Magdalen Islands are a fishhook-shaped archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Les Iles de la Madeleine are located 95 kilometers (59 miles) northwest of Cape Breton Island and 105 kilometers (65 miles) north of Prince Edward Island.

It takes less than one hour to drive Route 199 from the bottom to the top of six of the islands, which are linked together by skinny fingers of sand. The Madelinots or inhabitants live primarily on fishing and tourism. The Magdalen Islands population is 12,975 (95% French-speaking and 5% English-speaking).

Ship accommodations

Don't expect large cabins, balconies, mini-bars, in-cabin TVs and phones, formal nights, a casino or a spa on the CTMA Vacancier. The cruise ship has an exercise room with fitness equipment, a children's playroom, a small library and massage services.

What it lacked in luxury accommodations, the ship more than exceeded our expectations for cuisine and ambiance.

Chef Denis Leblanc holds plate of cooked lobster.
Chef Denis Leblanc holds plate of cooked lobster.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Lobster dinner

We didn't have to wait until we arrived to begin our culinary journey. Our cruise coincided with the early-May to early-July lobster season in Les Iles de la Madeleine.

Chef Denis Leblanc served passengers a mouth-watering lobster dinner on the first night. "I can't remember the last time I ate a lobster that large," exclaimed one diner.

Where to eat

Passengers select a 5:30 or 8:00 pm seating for dinner, but can dine with anyone they choose. Windows, surrounding the linen-covered dining room tables, offer views of the St. Lawrence River and coastline. In the ship's casual restaurant, window tables are also the most popular for served lunches and cafeteria-style breakfast buffets.

The ship's dress code is casual. For shore excursions and strolling on the decks, you usually need warm clothing, even in summer. We were happy we brought sweaters and jackets to offset the brisk winds.

Most passengers were from Quebec, but we met others from Ontario, Alberta, France, Belgium and Scotland. Announcements, lectures, movies and tours were in French and English.

Of the 110 crew, 73 are from Les Iles de la Madeleine. They are proud of their islands, the Vacancier, which is a Madelinot-owned cooperative (CTMA stands for Cooperative de Transport Maritime et Aerien), and the local foods and drinks served on board.

Jonathan Mercier describes whales.
Jonathan Mercier describes whales.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On-board activities

Ariane Berube, Camille Jacob and Mylene Arseneau, the friendly and enthusiastic excursions team, organized on-board activities and shore excursions.

On a whiteboard, near the reception desk, they posted times for port-of-call arrivals and departures, lectures, live entertainment, contemporary movies and films about seabirds and whales in the cinema. (During cruises to and from the Iles de la Madeleine, the ship uses Atlantic time, which is one hour ahead of the rest of Quebec.)

We spotted orcas, minke and grey whales with Jonathan Mercier, the on-board naturalist, who gave us an informative presentation about whales. During Jonathan's tour of the bridge, we watched the helmsman and chief officer steer the ship as whales spouted flumes of water along the coastline.

Culinary lessons

Two of the best Iles de la Madeleine chefs accompanied our St. Lawrence River cruise. On the Taste of the Islands cruise to the Magdalen Islands, it was Chef Evangeline Gaudet from Le Refectoire Restaurant at Domaine du Vieux Couvent.

On the return trip, it was Chef Johanne Vigneault from Restaurant La Table des Roy. Besides creating scrumptious six-course dinners, both chefs conducted culinary lessons.

Jay  Keating plays guitar on deck.
Jay Keating plays guitar on deck.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shore excursions

After the Vacancier ferry docked at Cap-aux-Meules, passengers on the Flavours cruise package met Hugh Petitpas, an informative guide with Autobus Les Sillons. We spent three days with Hugh in his small bus touring Cap-aux-Meules, as well as Havre-aux-Maisons, Grande Entree and Havre-Aubert islands.

Back on board, after dinner, we relaxed in the Salon-Bar listening to singer, Remi Langlois, and two Iles de la Madeleine guitarists, Jay Keating and Gordon Roach.

Each morning, while we were docked, the breakfast buffet included delicious fresh muffins, croissants and pain-au-chocolat from the Madelon Boulangerie in Cap-aux-Meules. The pastries were as delectable as the ones we've enjoyed in Paris.

Ten hours after leaving Les Iles de la Madeleine, our CTMA cruise ship arrived at Chandler, in Gaspesie, Quebec. At the excursion desk, we booked a boat tour from the town of Percé to get closer views of Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island.

CTMA cruise ship docked in Quebec City
CTMA cruise ship docked in Quebec City
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The day before concluding our St. Lawrence River cruise in Montreal, the CTMA ferry docked in Quebec City for six hours.

After riding the funicular to Upper Town, we strolled to Dufferin Terrace below the majestic Chateau Frontenac. Highlighting the panorama of the St. Lawrence River, below us, was our Vacancier cruise ship docked by the Old Port.

While we cruised to Montreal, we enjoyed a final delicious dinner and a surprise cabaret in the Salon-Bar. As talented waiters, crew members and excursions staff presented a heart-warming farewell of Iles de la Madeleine songs and music, we recalled the tranquil beauty of the islands, their unique and delightful cuisine and the friendliness of the Madelinots.

The Magdalen Islands are undoubtedly the best-kept secret in Quebec.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

CTMA Vacancier: www.cruisesctma.ca

Iles de la Madeleine Tourist Office: www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com

Le Quebec Maritime Tourist Office: www.quebecmaritime.ca

Tourism Quebec: www.bonjourquebec.com

More things to see & do in the Magdalen Islands/Iles de la Madeleine:

Pied-de-Vent Cheese Shop - Havre-aux-Maisons