Twice – in 2017 and 2018 – the St. Lawrence Cruise Association (ACSL) invited touring cruise lines to Quebec to discuss the possibility of offering winter trips on the river. Due to a lack of suitable boats, the companies were unable to follow up. The situation changed with the arrival in the Ponant fleet of the icebreaker Commandant Charcot.
“The people from Ponant contacted us and we did a tour with them in February to introduce them to different destinations,” says René Trépanier, general director of the ACSL.
José Sarica, Director of Expedition Experience at Ponant, was part of the trip. Someone who lived in Quebec for 18 years admits: he was not convinced of the value of a winter cruise on the St. Lawrence.
He came back excited about his stay, to the point of recommending not one, but four departures staggered between the end of January and the beginning of March. “It’s a bold move for us to do what no one has dared before us,” he says.
For René Trépanier, who has worked at ACSL for 18 years, this is the greatest achievement in recent years. “We had the goal of attracting a winter cruise to Quebec for 10 years! »
The route imagined by the Ponant team passes through both banks of the St. Lawrence (including Gaspé and Sept-Îles), in addition to making stops in Saguenay, the Magdalen Islands, and Sydney (New Scotland) and in the archipelago of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.
José Sarica explains: “Beyond the landscapes, we want to put local communities at the center of the experience. This will be an opportunity for passengers to discover the Innu community of the Sept-Îles region. It’s one of the most unexpected human experiences of my life; I still have goosebumps. We met people in Quebec who make us love winter in their own way. And since we will be the only boat in the area, passengers will not have the impression of invading the communities visited. »
In total, the Commandant Charcot can accommodate 200 passengers. They will be entitled to several winter activities. Consider ice fishing in Ha Bay! Ha!, dog sledding, oversized tire cycling or snowshoeing at Monts-Valin National Park.
In addition, some passengers will be able to participate in the festivities of the Carnival of Quebec or the Festi-Frette of Saguenay, depending on the departure chosen.
The icebreaker Commandant Charcot, a hybrid electric ship powered by liquefied natural gas, is notably deployed in Antarctica.
This very luxurious experience, however, comes at a price: you have to pay a minimum of $28,800 (around 20,000 euros) per passenger in double occupancy.
“The great particularity of this cruise is the length of the stopovers,” explains René Trépanier. Usually, the boats arrive in the morning, stay there for eight or nine hours and leave. In this case, passengers will spend at least one night in each stopover so that everyone can experience the activities. »
For Ponant, this slower way of traveling will allow fuel savings of around 30%. “CO2 emissions will also be significantly reduced,” estimates José Sarica.
Ponant has been visiting the St. Lawrence during the summer season for nearly 25 years. Several other companies also offer itineraries in the waters of the river, particularly in the fall. But according to René Trépanier, the arrival of Ponant during the winter season could encourage others to get started. “A new familiarization tour will be offered in February 2024 in the hope of attracting other ships for winter 2026. Very exciting new projects will also be revealed soon. »
At Ponant, we are also working to offer new summer itineraries on the St. Lawrence starting next year. “We once again want to go where no one goes, like Harrington Harbor or Providence Island opposite Tête-à-la-Baleine. We hope to be pioneers and pave the way for others in Quebec. »