Ponant, Hurtigruten and Adventure Canada officials last week explored firsthand the vibrant urban and bracing outdoor winter possibilities of Montréal, Trois-Rivières, Québec City and Saguenay.
They went ice fishing and dogsledding, and flew in a helicopter to snowmobile trails. They viewed Montréal's incredible illuminations by night from atop Canada's largest ferris wheel, sipped drinks in an ice hotel and got swept up in the revelry of Québec Winter Carnival.
They tasted maple syrup taffy cooled on snow, savored artisanal gin and beers made from boreal forest ingredients and trekked through an ice fishing village that's so big it has street signs. They stitched pom-poms from recycled furs for stocking caps and visited a farm where angora goats' hair (mohair) is weaved into luxurious fashions.
Other opportunities included ice skating, snowshoeing, tobogganing, snow rafting/tubing, paraskiing on the frozen river and soaking in an outdoor thermal spa.
Apart from trying the surprisingly large array of activities their passengers could experience in winter, the cruise executives also got briefed on operational and safety considerations by officials from Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Laurentian Pilotage Authority, port officials and ships' agents.
None of the lines seemed daunted; all are seasoned polar operators with ice-class vessels. Cargo shipping continues through winter on the St. Lawrence as icebreakers keep the channel open, and life goes on for communities that take blizzards in stride. Roads are kept clear, and people are out and about.
Is it crazy or cool to take vacationers to the snow and ice?
'Ice cruising and snow are part of our history and part of our future,' said Jekaterina Mishina, product training lead at Hurtigruten, a company that's been at home in Norway's winter for 125 years.
'Our expedition ships are built for cold water. We are not afraid of ice. It is our history, so part of us,' Mishina said.
Cold-weather cruising is thriving in such destinations as the Arctic and Antarctica and to Christmas markets in northern Europe. Viking is even introducing Arctic sailings along Norway's coast in the winter, prime viewing time for the northern lights.
Ponant is now building a luxury icebreaker with an electric hybrid system powered by liquefied natural gas, and last week in Québec Marc Berberian, special adviser to the president for ports, policy and strategy, said one or two winter St. Lawrence cruises could be possible when repositioning the ship between the Arctic and Antarctica, but not before 2022.
'We love ice,' Berberian said.
And Kaleigh Potts, in client services with Adventure Canada, in its 30th year, said her company took part in this preliminary investigation because 'we love cruising in Canada, in our own backyard.'
Potts deemed Québec in winter 'beautiful and majestic' and was amazed by the variety of action-packed activities available. 'I definitely see the appeal,' she said.
Eighty percent of Adventure Canada's clients are Canadian—many from Ontario or western Canada so 'this is something different for them.'
During her visit Mishina found ample opportunities for the type of exploration cruising that Hurtigruten is known for. She was struck by the nature, the snow and even the storms, as well as the many winter sports and Montréal's 'stunning' colored lights and projections.
Mishina also was impressed by how open and happy locals are in the winter—that they enjoy it, too.
Whoever's first to cruise Québec in winter will be in the global media spotlight. Even as they explored each destination last week, Berberian, Potts and Mishina were trailed by reporters, photographers and camera crews. The news reports sparked overwhelmingly favorable 'man-on-the-street' reactions.
Certainly tourism entities welcome winter cruising.
'Absolutely,' said Patricia Carré, director, rooms division, Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, the world's most photographed hotel. 'Many people visit in the fall,' she added. 'In the winter it's wonderful. It's a winter wonderland.'
'We provide a real winter experience,' according to René Trépanier, executive director of Cruise the Saint Lawrence, which arranged last week's familiarization trip. 'Our winter is unique and amazing. We are people of the north and we want to share our culture, habits and legends.'
That fits into Hurtigruten's ethos. 'Our ships are not the destination. [When you travel with us] you see the nature and the local culture,' Mishina said.
Likewise, Potts noted Adventure Canada travelers like outdoor adventures, smaller communities and connecting with the indigenous people.
Careful planning is needed to safely deploy ships. 'It's real winter ... You have to be prepared,' said François Rousseau, marine safety inspector, Transport Canada.
Ice-class vessels are not mandated when operating below 60° North, however Canadian regulations require that ships navigating in ice be equipped with a system to prevent icing and choking of sea chests and to maintain an essential cooling water supply. The Canadian Coast Guard may declare any area to be an active ice control zone, and on a daily basis issues recommended ice routes.
The main peril for St. Lawrence navigation is frazil. This slush-like water freezes solid as soon as it touches something and can block ship systems and lead to power loss. Other issues are freezing spray that causes ice accretion, which could impact navigation and lifesaving and firefighting equipment, and considerations for crew clothing and working conditions.
'I'm sure all the ice-class ships have the proper equipment,' Rousseau said.
As well, low-sulfur fuel (used within the North American Emission Control Area) has lower density and doesn't supply as much power as HFO, and Rousseau said sometimes that extra 5% to 10% of power is critical in ice conditions.
Getting stuck for a few hours is possible, so schedules need to be flexible. The Canadian Coast Guard stands ready to clear paths, but ships need to be able to continue on their own; Coast Guard icebreakers don't stay with them, according to Lisa Earle, superintendent, regional operations centre, central and Arctic region. The cost for icebreaking is $3,100 per leg of a voyage.
So far this winter the Canadian Coast Guard has already completed 230 icebreaking tasks. The Coast Guard's Ice Center has a daily call with industry and ships' agents to discuss conditions, and a daily ice report is prepared with the clearest routes. Ice booms are laid to keep channels open.
In winter no buoys are set and all ships must carry two pilots, said Capt. Alain Richard, executive director, marine safety and efficiency, Laurentian Pilotage Authority.
Ships' agents are savvy resources for operators and can provide ice advisers. 'It's money well spent, at least for the first trip,' Rousseau said.
As far as the visitor experience, the possibilities are rich.
Montréal, city of festivals even in winter, has Igloo Fest, Snow Festival, Poutine Week, Winter Village at the Olympic Stadium and a chocolate celebration. A zip line, Montréal Observation Wheel, ice skating to fireworks and horse carriage rides through Old Montréal are steps from the new $78m cruise terminal. Culinary classes with noted chefs and fun workshops stitching with recycled fur are close by, along with museums, galleries, fine dining and extravaganzas like AURA, a sound and light show in Notre-Dame Basilica.
Québec is the quintessential winter city, where the Winter Carnival with its ice sculptures, music and parades has been going strong every year since 1894. The Village Nordik offers ice fishing and hot chocolate close to the cruise terminal and a winter canoe race across the river involves paddling and hopping atop ice floes. Part of Montmorency Falls freezes, drawing ice climbers, and the Village Vacances Valcartier has 35-plus snow slides, a tropical water park and an ice hotel and bar with glittering sculptures, this year on a circus theme.
At Trois-Rivières, where ships dock right downtown, visitors can try (or watch) invigorating sports like paraskiing or take part in a bevy of family activities in Ile Saint-Quentin's recreational area before warming up with a lively, maple-syrup-laced meal at Sugar Shack Chez Dany or a soothing hot soak in the outdoor thermal baths at Kinipi Spa.
Besides its amazing fjord scenery and ice fishing village with 1,200 cabins, Saguenay offers fat bike adventures, dogsledding, skiing, helicopter flights to snowmobiling and the eerie Phantom Valley, where snow turns the spruce trees into ghost-like figures in Monts-Valin National Park. Visitors can see what goes into making artisanal gin, microbrews and mohair fashions from angora goats.
The other five Cruise the Saint Lawrence ports beckon in winter, too.
In Iles de la Madeleine, thousands of harp seals come to give birth. Gaspé offers alpine sports in the Chic-Choc Mountains, while ice-free Havre-Saint-Pierre affords boat tours to the Mingan Archipelago with its 'flower pot' rock formations, and interactions with the indigenous Innu people. Sept-Îles is accessible year-round, too, and a winter playground with pursuits like beach ski joëring (skiing towed by a horse). Baie-Comeau is the gateway to the Manicouagan-Uapishka World Biosphere Reserve where visitors can talk with scientists about their research into global warming.
'We could not have had more diversity in winter activity,' Trépanier said after the familiarization trip. Though none of the cruise lines has committed—and it's likely to be at least three years before any could undertake this exploit—he's 'really confident the next step will come.
'No doubt we will become a winter cruise destination,' Trépanier stated.
'We have sent a message to the public that we have a crazy idea that will come true, soon.'