The Bella is in a class of her own. Her full name is Motor Vessel (M/V) Bella Desgagnés and she is a mixed cargo and passenger ship which provides an essential service. The cargo she delivers to northern Quebec comes first, and the people who travel on her come second. These are the things I loved about my week on the beautiful Bella last winter.
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When you first see the Bella, it will likely be from behind so you will see her cargo area. [Jennifer Bain]
The Bella is six years old and was purpose built in Croatia and Italy for this route. It has eight decks and room for about 420 people including 381 passengers and 39 crew. Her biggest perk is an observation deck where you can watch her built-in crane swing cargo from the pier to and from the dock. There’s a dining room, cafeteria, lounges, arcade, vending machines, exercise room, coin laundry and two-bed infirmary. “If you were hoping for the casino, bingo and disco, unfortunately you are on the wrong ship,” is one of the well-worn jokes staff like to tell. The Bella isn’t an ice-breaker, but she can safely travel through thick ice.
The writer’s cabin was spartan but had everything she needed for a memorable journey. [Jennifer Bain]
While the Bella can hold up to 381 passengers, there is only cabin space for 160. Francophone, anglophone and Innu Quebecers who live along the Lower North Shore and on Anticosti Island use the Bella as a ferry to visit other communities. They come and go during the week, making use of the $2 lockers, relaxing in leather armchairs watching satellite TV, or booking beds in shared cabins. Tourists must book cabins. My spartan private cabin had two single beds connected by a desk, a small television, two-seat couch and a tiny bathroom with toilet, sink, shower and heated floor. My rectangular window provided lovely ocean views, although next time I might spring for the special cabins at the front of the ship with panoramic views.
The cargo deck
Taking this cruise in winter does mean it’s a little cold when you’re viewing the cargo deck. [Jennifer Bain]
Like the “Provisioning, Exploring” slogan says, the focus of the Bella’s week-long, 2,200-kilometre trip is to deliver essential goods to 11 communities from Rimouski to Blanc-Sablon, both on the way up and the way down. Relais Nordik runs the Bella from April to January, taking a break in February and March when people are busy snowmobiling between communities. On my December cruise, first officer Mathieu Roy controlled the cargo, everything from pick-up trucks, new cars and beer, to Amazon orders, food, propane or gas (only one at a time) and medicine. I learned that general containers are blue, insulated ones are white, the ones with open roofs are for dangerous goods, and there are special ones for oversized things like building materials.
The dining room
It may not look like much, but Quebec’s famous Pudding Chômeur is deliciously addictive. [Jennifer Bain]
My package deal came with three meals a day in the dining room. Server Christina Green took great care of me, quickly realizing I was travelling alone and liked to eat quickly. When I went mad for the Pudding Chômeur, Quebec’s famous “unemployment pudding,” she saved me an extra piece for the next day and even helped me wrangle the recipe from chef Carl Parisé. I loved how the meals reminded me of strict family meal times from when I was a kid, with breakfast from 7:30 to 8:30, lunch from 11:30 to 12:30, and dinner from 5 to 6:30. I feasted on everything from crêpes and crêtons to salmon with dill sauce and cassoulet. There was all kinds of local, seasonal lobster and crab, but my shellfish allergy kept me away from those.
The Bella operates in Quebec so naturally the cafeteria serves a mean poutine. [Jennifer Bain]
It’s not until the last day that I realized I hadn’t tried the cafeteria, so I wandered over for some classic Quebec poutine and made the cooks giggle when I diligently photographed it and ask detailed questions on each of the three key ingredients. The menu spans classics like pogos, onion rings, grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken nuggets, but also has soup, salad, spaghetti, paninis, subs, shrimp croissants and Harrington Harbour lobster rolls. There’s also a daily meal, with a soup (like traditional Quebec pea soup) and rosemary lamb leg.
The shore excursion to Sept-Îles
On the shore excursion to the Innue part of Sept-Iles, I spotted this albino beaver in a shop. [Jennifer Bain]
In Sept-Îles, population 26,000, a taxi took me to the Innu reserve known as Uashat to the Hotel Boutique Agara. In its shop, I marvelled at an albino beaver (not for sale) that was trapped by a local hunter in 2016, and the stunning moccasins. Nearby at the Musée Shaputuan, an Innu cultural museum, I learned about the circle of life, and the importance of fishing and hunting for beaver, caribou, Canadian geese, ducks and wolves.
The shore excursions to Port-Menier
Wild (but not so wild) deer abound on Anticosti Island, as writer Jennifer Bain discovers. [Jennifer Bain]
Picturesque Harrington Harbour with its boardwalk roads is probably the most popular of the Bella’s 11 stops — it’s where the film Seducing Doctor Lewis (La Grande Séduction) was shot. And when you take this cargo cruise in the summer, there are inexpensive guided tours of some of the towns and villages (they aren’t always right by the dock). In winter, you have to do it yourself. I bummed a ride at Port-Menier down the long pier to see the wild white-tailed deer that roam the town. With a human population of 90 (that rises to 200 in summer), Anticosti Island is said to have 160,000 deer. It’s popular with hunters, but I joined locals Dominique and Christian Matte outside their house and fed raw, quartered potatoes to the friendly deer.
Captain Corey Deveau shows off the bridge, and his team, one day when it’s not too windy. [Jennifer Bain]
I was treated to a visit to the bridge, where captain Corey Deveau, just 30 years old, and his team showed me around. We spoke of wind, rudders and stabilizers, the marine version of the black box and ship-sized windshield wipers. We didn’t not spot any whales, but the Bella watches for them and follows international protocol to slow down and protect them. “It’s certainly a different type of cruise, not a sit by the pool cruise,” Deveau allowed. “The passengers know you can’t really have a schedule and it’s more of an experience.”
First engineer Serge Roussel, electrician Yannick Isabelle and second engineer Eric Hounsell. [Jennifer Bain]
On the way to a special behind-the-scenes tour of the control room, I got a peek at the kennel where dogs and cats stay while on board. Chief engineer Serge Roussel, second engineer Eric Hounsell and electrician Yannick Isabelle then showed me the bowels of the ship, including the main switchboard room, electrical room and spare parts room. I felt safe in their hands, and even safer reading Relais Nordik’s reminder: “The sea does not forgive errors. Perfection is the rule.”
Taking this Quebec cargo cruise is an adventure that starts and ends with a trip on the gangway. [Jennifer Bain]
I loved the Bella’s informality. She’s the antidote to those commercial cruises that hold thousands of people determined to whoop it up. I especially loved how nobody makes announcements on the Bella. To find out what’s going on, you head downstairs and ask or look at the erasable board by the door for a message about when we will arrive — and leave — at the next port. This is where we stand around at every port waiting for the gangways to be set up so we can get off safely. It’s always fascinating to watch, and a little sad when you take your final trip down the gangway at the end of this fabulously unusual cruise.