Story and photography by Darcy Rhyno
”With so many birds around, the chances of seeing a whale are good,” says a steward aboard the MV Fundy Rose on a Bay of Fundy crossing from Digby, Nova Scotia to Saint John, NB. The 30-something explains excitedly that a flock of seabirds is often a sign that a school of fish is about, and fish attract whales. Throughout the summer months, passengers often spot humpbacks, minkes and finbacks.
Just then something breaks the surface of a flat calm sea. “Look! It’s a pod of white sided dolphins,” the steward calls out, pointing ahead of the ship. Watching the slick creatures cavort—perhaps doing a little fishing of their own—the steward explains how much he loves his work. “I’m a lifer,” he says. “I’ll retire from this job.”
Hearing the awe and satisfaction in his voice, I’m struck by the same sense of wonder I experienced on a recent whale watching tour. This surprises me because it’s so unexpected. I thought of this voyage as a practical one, to cut hundreds of kilometres off the drive to Saint John. The birds and dolphins, the possibility of spotting a whale, are a bonus, and make the trip doubly enjoyable.
Of giants, CATS and cables
Whether it’s on the short, five-minute crossing of the St. John River at Evandale, New Brunswick by cable ferry or the fast CAT ferry between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and Bar Harbor, Maine, ferry crossings are always fun and often unexpectedly rewarded with East Coast scenery and wildlife sightings. Aboard a ship as large as Marine Atlantic’s MV Leif Ericson or MV Highlanders from North Sydney, Nova Scotia on the 12-hour crossing to Argentia, or the nine-hour crossing to Port aux Basques, NF, the trip feels like a cruise. MV Highlanders measures in at 200 metres long and is equipped with a full restaurant and two cafés, along with 96 berths and 500 reclining chairs for a comfortable voyage. As with the best ferries, there’s deck access with panoramic views.
Given that it’s such a significant island, ferry routes abound in Newfoundland. More than a dozen take passengers to smaller islands and along wild coastlines like those of southern Newfoundland, as well as eastern Labrador where there are no roads. The MV Northern Ranger takes nearly a day to skirt Labrador’s north coast from Goose Bay up to Nain, about 1,000 kilometres in total with stops along the way. But don’t expect luxury. This is a working ferry, dropping off vital supplies to northern communities. Accommodations are basic, but the icebergs, rocky islands, rugged mountains, seabirds, whales and indigenous communities make for a memorable voyage.
In contrast to the giants on the routes from Nova Scotia to Maine and Newfoundland, my favourite ferry crossings are often the shortest. The Englishtown ferry is one of four cable ferries operated by the province of Nova Scotia. It’s the scenery that makes the short haul from Englishtown so rewarding. The ferry travels a stone’s throw across a swiftly moving channel on the tip of a long, narrow spit of sand and gravel that reaches from the low, forested mountains of the far shore across St. Ann’s Bay.
The other three ferries operated by the province are small self-propelled ships, two of which link another long peninsula, Digby Neck, to two islands in sequence. The ferry at Petit Passage lands at Tiverton on Long Island, at the other end of which another ferry at Grand Passage lands at Westport on Brier Island. Both make hourly crossings. A great day trip is a leisurely drive down Digby Neck and across the islands to the end of the road where a trail at the Brier Island Lighthouse follows the dramatic coastline. The trip incorporates four ferry crossings in a single day.
Two other Nova Scotia islands are linked by ferry. From the wharf in Chester, the William G. Ernst heads out to Big Tancook and Little Tancook islands. Like all Nova Scotia provincial ferries, the fee for the 75-minute trip to the larger island followed by a short hop to the second is just seven dollars. Because this isn’t a car ferry, take a bicycle—the best way to explore the islands—or rent one at Carolyn’s Restaurant near the wharf on Big Tancook, the best place to wait for the return ferry while enjoying a scoff of fish and chips.
One of the best multi-day itineraries on the East Coast is first taking the 75-minute Northumberland Ferries crossing from Caribou, Nova Scotia near Pictou to Wood Islands, PEI to spend a couple of days exploring the eastern end of the island. Then board the CTMA ferry from Souris to Îles de la Madeleine, Quebec—a five-hour voyage. The contrast between the three landscapes, cultures and cuisines linked by two relatively short ferry rides is startling. The seaward approaches to both islands offers a uniquely picturesque perspective that has passengers on deck, snapping photos.
Back in New Brunswick, the ferries that weave among the many islands in Passamaquoddy Bay along the US border and out to Grand Manan Island lead to some of the most interesting corners on the East Coast. Given the concentration of whales, seals and seabirds such as puffins, the fog-shrouded inlets and the calm waters, half the fun is getting there.
The newest ferry crossing on the East Coast carries passengers from Fortune on Newfoundland’s south coast to the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, both the territory of France. It’s true—French culture awaits on the other side, complete with great wine and baguettes purchased with Euros. The trip earns bragging rights as an ocean voyage from Canada to France that takes just an hour and a half.
There are too many ferry crossings on the East Coast to incorporate into a single vacation, but it’s always worth including as many as possible. They get you from A to B, but they also double as sightseeing and wildlife tours. I like to think of them as bonus mini cruises.
Tips for ferry crossings
• Whenever possible, make a reservation.
• If you suffer from motion sickness, take medication an hour before departure.
• It’s often cool and windy at sea, so dress accordingly.
• Bring a day pack for those little extras that make the trip more enjoyable, especially on longer voyages when access to the car decks is forbidden.
• Write down the deck level and location of your vehicle so it’s easy to find at the end of the trip.
• Check whether or not the ship has electrical outlets and if adapters are required.
• Pack snacks and lunches for when on-board restaurants are closed for part of the voyage.
• If you have a pet, check to make sure they’re permitted out of the vehicle during the voyage.
Consider packing a camera, sunglasses, binoculars, water, a book, games and medications.
Header no caption
Intro caption: Leaving the Magdalene Islands at sunset.