Canadian Maritimes offer secluded cruising

Nov 17, 2020 by Lucy Chabot Reed

As the nations of the world began to close down this spring, many captains and charter managers began looking for alternative cruising grounds closer to home. In the U.S., one spot that got some early attention was the Canadian Maritimes. Owners, captains and charter managers were planning itineraries and making calls until Canada closed its borders for the season.

Still, those cruising grounds remain a viable option when borders reopen and non-essential travel resumes.

Capt. Scott Ellison has taken the owners of M/Y Time For Us, a 122-foot (37m) Delta, to the area twice before on two different boats, and was set to return this past summer.

“We loved the area,” he said. “It’s beautiful, and the people are really friendly. … It’s still a little bit of a frontier, not an automated system like in a lot of places we cruise.”

But they didn’t make it this summer.

“I’m always excited to head up that way so I suppose there was some disappointment, but I think in light of everything going on it was for the best,” he said. “We were able to stay busy with charters in New England, which wouldn’t have happened in Canada, so it worked out for us in the end. We’ll be happy to head there next summer if the opportunity presents itself.”

Capt. Ellison’s command and her owners are well suited for the region. Older owners who enjoy gazing at stunning scenery coupled with a mid-size yacht that can travel anywhere means many fulfilling days and memorable experiences.

“You need an owner who appreciates solitude and the quiet of yachting,” he said.

Clearing in was typically straightforward, he said. Once cleared in, the yacht is issued a CanPass number, which allows it to enter and depart areas freely.

Chartering is an option, too. While perhaps not as convenient to pick-up and drop-off points as the Med or Caribbean, U.S.-built boats can apply for a Coastal Cruising Waiver through the NAFTA agreement and carry charter guests.

“We went the summer before last to Halifax, Lunenburg and around to Quebec City,” said Capt. Bud Stein of M/Y Aspen Alternative, a 164-foot (50m) Trinity charter vessel set to head north this summer. Its previous trip was with the owner. “There are a lot of different, interesting places to see. It’s a nice cruising grounds and the people are friendly. It’s an unchartered route, not the milk run we usually do.” 

The distances between destinations can be long and the speed zones are strict in summer because of all the whale activity — “mostly under 9 knots,” Capt. Stein said — so that adds to the travel time.

“It’s definitely not for a client who wants shore-based tours and shops,” he said. “You can’t find much of that once you get past Halifax. … It’s for people who want to anchor in a nice cove, maybe do some camping, paddleboarding, exploring. Clients want to go to Newfoundland with the fjords to anchor and go hiking. It’s more Alaska-like, where people want to be off the beaten path.”

Aspen Alternative’s charter manager, Neil Emmott of Superyacht Sales and Charter in Fort Lauderdale, said the yacht had received many inquiries for summer charters, but when the borders closed, those charters fell through. Though actively for sale, if it’s still in SYSAC’s charter fleet next summer, Emmott said he expects it will head north.

The reason?

“It’s absolutely spectacular,” said Les Savage, who runs Premier Marine Services, a yacht agent for the area based in Halifax.

The Canadian Maritimes is the region of Eastern Canada consisting of three provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Much of the cruising is around Nova Scotia, especially on Cape Breton on the eastern end. Warmer interior lakes make that area conducive to water sports as well as sightseeing.

Capt. Ellison suggests expanding the cruising area to include the Magdalen Islands to the north. But first, hit the highlights, including:


“You can dock right downtown,” Capt. Ellison said. 

A bustling harbour and vibrant waterfront feature bars, restaurants, microbreweries, shops and museums. It is also home to jazz festivals and the Halifax Busker Festival, a six-day carnival that attracts some of the best street performers around the world. 


“They call Chester the Newport of the Canadian Maritimes, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Capt. Ellison said. Still, he said, it’s a must-see stop.

Dockage is via anchor, and there is a village area with a handful of blocks of shops and a playhouse. Like Newport, expect to see kids sailing in the bay in summer.


A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lunenburg is the home port for S/Y Bluenose II, a replica of the famous whaling and racing schooner Bluenose. Its working waterfront features restaurants with some of the best lobsters around.

Dockage is on floating docks on city piers.

Cape Breton Island 

The main attraction here is the Bras d’Or Lakes, rated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. A lock on the south end makes it accessible to yachts.

“We are one of the largest yachts that got in there,” Capt. Ellison said of the lock, noting the 150-foot (46m) yacht he captained on the owner’s second visit had a beam of 32 feet. “It was tight.” The north end is open for commercial boats and large yachts. “I’ve seen a 205-foot Lurssen up there.”

The area is “protected and a little warmer,” he said. “It’s got beautiful bays to nestle into and anchor in.”

“People actually drove from miles away to watch the yacht go through,” Capt. Stein said. 

The island itself maintains a traditional Gaelic culture, along with the rolling green hills, granite cliff faces and golf courses.

The Cabot Trail, just north of the lakes, is a 185-mile route for cycling, motorcycles and cars around the cliff tops, looking over the sea. It takes about eight hours to drive around it, Capt. Ellison said.

“There are lots of little towns to explore, and the golf is great,” Capt. Ellison said.


At the north end of the lakes, Baddeck has a grocery store and some shops. It also has a new museum to Alexander Graham Bell, who had a house on the point across from town.

Dockage is on concrete city piers — “Awkward to tie up but you can do it,” Capt. Stein said.

“We’d come up from Halifax after a week or so,” Capt. Ellison said, “do the 12-hour cruise to Cape Breton, hit the lakes, then go to Baddeck a couple days. It’s one of the prettiest cruises in the area, for sure.”

Be sure to look for the puffins.

Magdalen Islands

Northwest of Cape Breton, the small island chain merges Ireland and Sweden.

“It’s really unique geographically, with red clay and green grass,” Capt. Ellison said. His entry point was Havre-Aubert. “It’s a cool little French-speaking town with a newer commercial dock on the south end where you could easily dock a 200-footer.”

Prince Edward Island

Just north of Nova Scotia is another of the Canadian Maritime islands, Prince Edward Island, or PEI. It’s main port is Charlottetown, which has a small downtown and a little nightlife. Capt. Ellison docked at the yacht club there and rented a car for some day trips, including tours of the local mussel factories, which he said was a highlight of the trip for his boss.

Summerfield on the south coast has fuel. “Watch out for mussel farms,” he said.

There is good bluefin tuna fishing in summer, but Capt. Ellison suggested hiring local guides to handle the permits required. 

M/Y Time for Us has been to the region twice in the recent past, both with the owners onboard throughout the summer, and also with them flying in and out.

“We go every couple of years,” Capt. Ellison said. “The boss is in his 80s and they love to sit and watch the world go by. They loved it up there.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor/publisher of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.


About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

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