Mary-Ann and Richard Spiteri wanted to go on a romantic cruise. But their trip probably wasn’t what you’re picturing. In April, the Spiteris spent a week on a large cargo ship before arriving in Halifax. 

“The idea of voyaging on a [cargo] ship appealed to our wish to do something uncommon,” Mary-Ann says in an email from her home in Malta. “To travel a long distance in a different way.”

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The Spiteris first heard about cargo cruising years ago when they were living in Oman. An acquaintance who is a merchant mariner told them about his travels, which sometimes included his wife. Their daughter Renée lives in Halifax and they wanted to visit. Renée’s boyfriend also mentioned cargo cruising last year, so they started exploring the idea. 

The Spiteris made their reservations with London-based The Cruise People Ltd. and travelled on Atlantic Container Line’s Atlantic Star. The Spiteris and a few others were the first paying passengers on that ship. 

They travelled from Liverpool, England to Halifax, a voyage that took seven days.

Cityscape_Cargo1The Spiteris wanted to experience tall waves and rough seas, while also enjoying a lot of down time. They read books and watched movies. They were allowed on the bridge of the ship at any time and toured the engine room. “There was very little to do and we acquired the peaceful boredom of routine,” Mary-Ann says. “Our minds stilled.  We absorbed more of what we read.  Slow travel was actually quite wonderful.”  

The cruise the Spiteris took is a new offering from Atlantic Container Line and the Atlantic Star is one of five ACL ships offering berths for passengers. But travelling via cargo ship is not a new trend. Kevin Griffin, managing director of The Cruise People Ltd., says historically when ships arrived to North America with newcomers, they returned to Europe with coal. He’s booked a lot of Canadians for ACL’s ships, but he also has clients on other companies’ ships. One of those clients stayed aboard for 120 days. 

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Travelling one of these cargo-ship cruises is not for everyone. A transatlantic trip can take up to 15 days. “You have to be able to take the time off,” Griffin says. “You travel by ship for the adventure.” Typically, a journey costs about $65 to $125 US per day.

While entertainment is limited, passengers can spend time with the crew, have access to many parts of the ship, and can dine with the officers. Griffin says the food on board is quite good. If a crew member or passenger is celebrating a birthday during the voyage, everyone celebrates together. Griffin says the party would consist of suckling pig on a spit roast, beer, and karaoke. 

“You become part of the ship, really,” Griffin says.

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Griffin says many international students return home this way. Some passengers have a fear of flying or have health issues that prevent them from flying. Some passengers want the quiet time to write books or compose music. He had one client who was a pilot and wanted to travel around the world via a cargo ship. “He wanted to see [the world] up close,” Griffin says.

Still, Griffin says, others “just want to get away from it all.” 

For Mary-Ann, the idea of travelling via cargo ship meant she could connect with her ancestry. Her grandfather immigrated to Canada and landed at Pier 21. “It was a nostalgic notion to get in touch with his hopes and ambitions by experiencing voyaging across the Atlantic,” she says.   

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