The Nordik Express supply ship (mid-April to mid-Jan; t 418 723 8787, t 1 800 463 0680, w relaisnordik.com) makes a weekly journey here on a trip that affords stunning views of a rocky, subarctic landscape so cold that icebergs occasionally float past the ship even in the height of summer. The boat is evenly split between its role as a freighter and passenger ship; the majority of its passengers are locals skipping between settlements or heading for a longer jaunt to Québec’s bigger towns. Its voyage begins in Rimouski on Mondays, stopping in Sept-Îles and Port-Menier on Île d’Anticosti on Tuesdays and Havre-Saint-Pierre and Natashquan on Wednesday before calling in at the roadless communities along the Basse Côte-Nord, reaching Blanc-Sablon, Québec’s most easterly village on the Labrador border, on Fridays. The same route is then followed in reverse to arrive back in Rimouski on Monday.
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The journey up this stretch of the St Lawrence is far more impressive than the destinations. During the day, whales, dolphins, seals and a wealth of sea birds are a common sight; at night the Northern Lights often present an unforgettable display. At some stops the village inhabitants surround the boat, as its twice-weekly arrival is about all that happens hereabouts. With careful planning you can arrange to spend a couple of days in one community and catch the boat on the return voyage; each village receives at least one daytime visit, but either the upstream or downstream stop may be in the middle of the night. Most travellers just hop off at each port of call for the couple of hours needed to load and unload freight. A rented bicycle is particularly handy if you want to see much.
Stops include Kegaska village, with its large sandy beach, and La Romaine, a scrappy Innu town further on. Beyond here the land becomes increasingly rocky and picturesque, the coastline cut with many intriguing inlets. Harrington Harbour, a pretty village and easily one of the sightseeing highlights of the trip, is set on an island whose topography of large rounded rocks made it necessary to make the pavements out of wood. The village is best seen on the upstream journey, when the boat arrives in the daytime rather than at midnight. Tête-à-la-Beleine, where boatmen are usually on hand to transport tourists from the ship out to the incongruous Chapelle de l’Île Providence perched on a nearby hill, and St Augustine have similarly picturesque settings. The Coasters Association at Tête-à-la-Beleine is the local residents’ group and their website (w coastersassociation.com) is a useful resource.
It’s possible either to travel all-inclusive (with three surprisingly good daily meals and a cabin berth) or to bed down on the aircraft-style seats and picnic on the deck or in the cafeteria. You can start and finish your journey from any of the stops along the coast, but the inclusive fare to travel the entire length of the route on a return trip to Rimouski is $1800. The same round-trip with a spot in a standard two-berth cabin (with a private sink, shower, toilet and TV) is $2049. Food is included in every package; otherwise, à la carte prices are $12.65 for breakfast, $24.75 for lunch, and $38.80 for dinner – check the website for price changes. Plan on booking your trip at least thirty days in advance; summer voyages should be booked several months in advance. Non-round-trippers can bring their car, although it’s inaccessible during the voyage; fares are based on distance and the weight of the car. A one-way journey from Natashquan to Blanc-Sablon – useful if you are continuing to or returning from Newfoundland and Labrador – costs at least $323 for the car, in conjunction with the purchase of a cruise package; for bikes, add $25 to the fare.