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Ponant pioneers winter cruises in Canada (updated)

Polar Class 2 Le Commandant Charcot will operate the pioneering winter cruises, as announced at the Canada/New England Cruise Symposium in Québec City by, from top left, René Trépanier of Cruise the Saint Lawrence, Ponant's José Sarica, Port of Québec's Marie-Andrée Blanchet and Destination Québec Cité's Robert Mercure
A long-held dream of Cruise the Saint Lawrence is coming true in early 2025 when Ponant pioneers the region's first international winter cruises.

Icebreakers crunch open a path for cargo ships on the Saint Lawrence throughout winter but Le Commandant Charcot, with its sturdy Polar Class 2 rating, can cut its own course. The 245-passenger vessel will sail four 12-night open-jaw adventures between Québec City and the French territory of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.

News breaks at Canada/New England Cruise Symposium

The news broke in Québec City today ahead of the Canada/New England Cruise Symposium opening.

Ponant travelers will experience the wonders of the Canadian winter with opportunities such as camping in a tent overnight in an Innu community, riding a fat bike on a snow-covered beach, dogsledding, snowshoeing and ice fishing on the Saguenay fjord. They may even get to see the northern lights and attend Québec's spectacular Winter Carnival.

'For almost a decade, we have repeatedly promoted unparalleled winterscapes and winter season shore activities with expedition cruise operators. Our efforts appear, at long last, to have begun to pay off with the announcement of this exciting North American premiere,' said René Trépanier, executive director of Cruise the Saint Lawrence.

'Dream come true'

'It's a dream come true,' added Priscilla Nemey, director, Promotion Saguenay, with tears in her eyes. She and Trépanier had long envisioned this possibility.

'We are really proud,' Nemey said. 'The itinerary is perfect — a mix of France and Canada, the Innu community, the fjord and the city of Québec. It's magical.'

Ports in Québec plus Nova Scotia's Sydney

Destinations include Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Gaspé, Sept-Îles, Saguenay, Québec and Sydney on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton.

'We're really excited to expand to a four-season cruise destination and excited to see what's to come,' said Nicole MacAulay, manager of cruise, Port of Sydney.

In 2018, Cruise the Saint Lawrence offered the first winter cruise familiarization trip and lines participating included Ponant (Seatrade Cruise News was along, too). Early this year, Ponant's José Sarica, director, expedition experience, and Emerick Le Mouël, first officer from Le Commandant Charcot, returned for a scouting trip.


José Sarica spoke of opportunities for many adventures with local communities such as his dogsled trek with Sept-Îles' Innu community and being dazzled by the northern lights

Adventures with local communities

Sarica, who now lives in France, grew up in Canada. As a young man, 'Every winter, I did the same thing as the whales — I would go to the sun. When I came back [in February this year], it opened my eyes to take advantage of the winter. I rediscovered Québec.' He spoke of opportunities for many adventures with local communities such as his trek by dogsled into the boreal forest with Sept-Îles' Innu community and being dazzled by the northern lights.

Sarica noted Le Commandant Charcot would be 'slow cruising' — no more than 90 nautical miles per day at an average speed of 8  to 9 knots — to afford stays of one or two nights in the ports. This, and because the LNG-powered, hybrid electric Le Commandant Charcot can also operate on batteries for short stints, will reduce emissions by 30%, he said. 'Our commitment is to reduce [greenhouse gas emissions].'

From the Arctic to Québec

In taking this bold step, Ponant has an alternative to long repositioning cruises between the Arctic and Antarctica but sacrifices this one ship's Antarctic season. In late 2024/early 2025, Le Commandant Charcot will be operating in Northern Norway and in the Gulf of Bothnia, including a call at Kemi, a short trek from Rovaniemi and Santa Claus Village, for a Christmas cruise. Then the vessel will head to Canada between late January and early March.

Sarica — who said North Americans will be the target market for these pioneering Canada cruises — told Seatrade Cruise News the plan is to operate the Canadian winter season every two years, adding: 'If it's a big success, maybe every year.'

'Turning point in the history of international cruises'

Officials at Destination Québec City, Tourism Québec and the Port of Québec welcomed the news, which Québec Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx called 'a turning point in the history of international cruises in Québec,' adding: 'This announcement aligns to perfection with efforts devoted to promoting upmarket and Indigenous tourism, while transforming Québec into a leader in the winter tourism sector.'

'Our teams and terminals will be ready to welcome our winter visitors to our shores,' said Mario Girard, CEO, Port of Québec.

In a statement, Ponant CEO Hervé Gastinel noted the company's particular attachment to the Saint Lawrence region, which it has visited in summer for several years.

'Our market-leading winter cruises will open the doors to totally novel experiences, unrivaled by any operator elsewhere in the world. Le Commandant Charcot will enable us to navigate the ice in complete safety, while providing guests with an onboard experience nothing short of exceptional,' Gastinel said.

Update corrects the planned speed and distance