Subscribe Now

Standing on the deck of the CAT fast ferry, with Portland, Maine, quickly retreating into the distance, feels like the start of a great adventure. Portland’s harbor is so small and tricky to navigate that the CAT, which holds at least 700 passengers and in excess of 200 cars, requires a special pilot to guide it out of the harbor. Once safely in more open waters, that pilot turns the bridge over to the ship’s captain and makes a dramatic exit, climbing down a ladder several stories long to hop into a tiny boat bobbing alongside in the choppy water. 

Photo courtesy of Bay Ferries Limited

For passengers in the know, it’s fun to watch. The CAT’s friendly crew is happy to guide passengers to an ideal vantage point and explain the whole process. Staffers are also quick to point out any sea creatures—last season there were 282 whale sightings.

Photo courtesy of Bay Ferries Limited

The dramatic sea spray and the marine mammals and birds outside, frolicking in the Bay of Fundy, contrast nicely with the comfortable interior of the CAT. The broad open lounge spaces feature padded chairs, plentiful tables, and on-board movies—not to mention a live band on Thursdays and Fridays, playing Acadian sea chanties and Celtic tunes. Sing-alongs and jam sessions are common—bring your own instrument or learn to play the spoons provided. 

Photo courtesy of Bay Ferries Limited

It’s all in service of starting travelers’ Maritime vacation the moment they step on board. The shipboard cafés serve surprisingly good food, made fresh daily, from coffee and breakfast wraps to soups, and even a cheese board featuring Canadian handcrafted dairy delights. And at the bar, you can celebrate Nova Scotia with a variety of local beers and wines. The gift shop has a thoughtful array of handcrafts from the province—a delightful preview of the artisan products ashore. 

Photo by Wally Hayes

Done shopping and eating? Track down the CAT’s “experience concierge,” who can direct guests toward ship tours or to the old-school board games, from Scrabble to cribbage, available for borrowing. They may even be able to find you a bridge partner. The onboard visitor center is chock full of brochures and maps for arrival in the Maritimes.

All these offerings are meant to evoke a bygone era—in part because there is no shipboard WiFi or cell service, forcing guests to set their electronics aside.

The journey takes about six and a half hours, but passengers need to arrive an hour ahead to line up and drive aboard. And the schedule is such that boats only leave Portland in the afternoon, arriving in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, after dark. So after that crossing, which can occasionally be rough (seasickness wrist bands could be a good idea, even for hardy seafaring types), it’s wise to book arrival night in Yarmouth and get a fresh start in the morning. 

Photo by Wally Hayes

Yarmouth is very much a working fishing town—and home to the largest fishing fleet in Atlantic Canada. The Rodd Grand Yarmouth is a short drive from the ferry and a friendly midrange stopping place to spend the night. 

Yarmouth is in the center of the Acadian Shores region—an area that is still deeply connected with the French settlers that arrived here 400 years ago. From the Acadian flag —blue, white, and red, decorated with a single gold star and proudly displayed everywhere—to the radio stations broadcasting talk and music in lilting Acadian French, it is easy to sink into another culture. 

For true immersion, stop in at Le Village Historique Acadien de la Nouvelle-Écosse, an interpretive center where people dressed in period clothes live out the days of the early 1900s, from building boats and repairing lobster traps to blacksmithing and baking. The lovely 17-acre grounds overlook Pubnico Harbor, inviting strolling or picnicking. For true Acadian fare, be sure to have lunch at the museum’s Café du Crique, which serves up local delicacies like Rappie Pie—a rich dish of shredded potatoes, chicken, and bacon fat—as well as sandwiches and baked goods, all prepared fresh by a bevvy of friendly locals. Don’t skip the fish chowder. 

Photo by Wally Hayes

Halifax is a little more than a three-hour drive from the port at Yarmouth—but there is plenty to do without popping up to that coastal city. Throwback scenic vistas and lighthouses dot the whole coast, from the iconic Cape Forchu Lightstation to the charming Fort Point Lighthouse in Liverpool. 

A short drive past Liverpool, the town of Lunenburg makes a nice base for a day or so, with its colorfully painted waterfront homes and wealth of restaurants. The small and charming Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, housed in an old fish processing plant, includes access to the working wharf, where you can explore retired fishing schooners, and chat with captains.

From Lunenburg, cross the island to the Bay of Fundy side—the delightful town of Annapolis Royal is about two hours directly across. Stop into the unique Lequille Country Store for some tasty smoked meats and jerky, then picnic at the beautiful Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens, which showcases gardening methods, designs, and materials from more than 400 years of local history. Time it right to appreciate the gorgeous rose garden—but no matter what time of year you go, the serene water vistas, greenhouses, and a reconstructed Acadian House from 1671 are well worth the trip.

The CAT sails back to Maine fairly early in the morning—a good overnight spot is the town of Digby, a little over an hour’s drive from Yarmouth. The next morning, plan to grab a muffin and a cup of coffee on board, tuck the smartphone away, and play a game of Scrabble.

Bay Ferries Limited

Round-trip crossings start at $141 per adult, and $149 per car.