Article | Atlantic Canada, Sable Island and Gulf of Saint Lawrence

Should I Choose a Saint Lawrence River Boat or Small-Ship Expedition Cruise?

The Saint Lawrence River is a sought-after destination for many travellers, rich in history, nature, and culture. To enjoy it to its full potential, travel there by sea—on a river boat cruise or a small-ship expedition. Want to know which type of trip is right for you?
Zodiac cruise Perce Rock Gulf of Saint Lawrence

© Dennis Minty

A Zodiac cruise at Percé Rock, Gaspé, Québec

The Saint Lawrence River offers something for every type of traveller. From its western locks to the open waters of the Gulf, along this fabled waterway, you’ll find fortressed cities, cobblestone alleyways, sandstone cliffs, and wave-sculpted natural architecture. You can spot seabirds by the tens of thousands, sleepy seals enjoying a sunbath, or playful whales in rich estuary waters. And let’s not forget the lively music, language, and cuisine that’s on offer!

River boat cruises and small-ship expeditions take you into the heart of this special region. But, which type of trip is right for you? Let’s go over six key points to consider when you’re thinking of booking a voyage to the Saint Lawrence.

1. The Vessel

Many Saint Lawrence River cruises operate on quaint, historic riverboats. Sometimes these are built to look like old-fashioned steamboats, full of charm and heritage style. Other operators utilize the types of large or mid-sized cruise ships we all recognize, with plenty of modern facilities and amenities like casinos or theatres.

On the other hand, most small-ship expedition cruise companies will use purpose-built expedition vessels. Their oceangoing designs make these small ships more comfortable than riverboats when travelling over open water, while shallow drafts let them pull into small, secluded bays and inlets to access areas that are not as heavily travelled.

woman looks with binoculars tadoussac whales

© Victoria Polsoni

A guest of the Ocean Endeavour expedition vessel spots whales near Tadoussac, Québec

2. The Ports of Call

Each cruising itinerary along the Saint Lawrence River will be unique. Most river boat cruises will stop in at popular ports of call with well-established infrastructure, such as Québec City, Trois-Rivières, and Montreal. The scenic Thousand Islands along the coasts of Ontario and upstate New York is another region commonly visited on a river boat cruise, complete with island castles and an impressively engineered series of locks to pass through. You’ll want to grab a window seat to fully enjoy the region’s beauty as you cruise!

In contrast, when travelling on an expedition vessel, you can visit spectacular places that don’t have ports built for large ships. Fleets of tender boats allow you to land at small jetties and isolated beaches, or enjoy intimate guided Zodiac cruises for a chance to spot whales, marvel at humongous bird cliff colonies, or get up close to fabulous geology. Some off-the-beaten path itinerary stops to look for when choosing your trip might include the Gaspé Peninsula or Mingan Archipelago at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, and Îles-de-la-Madeleine or even Saint-Pierre and Miquelon further out in the gulf.

Hotel chateau frontenac

© Danny Catt

Hotel Chateau Frontenac, Québec City

3. The Activity Level

It’s important for every traveller to consider what types of activities they’d like to do to fill their days on such an exciting journey. Would you rather tour large cities with plenty of accessible amenities for travellers? If so, you’ll likely love the pace of a river boat cruise.

Or, perhaps you’d enjoy more outdoorsy and active opportunities, such as hiking, kayaking, or even mountain biking. In this case, a small-ship expedition cruise might be more up your alley. When choosing your operator, make sure to look at the daily travel experiences they offer so you can get an idea of the type of fun that awaits you on board.

Mingan archipelago

© Danny Catt

Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, Québec

4. The Specialty Programs on Offer

When researching which type of Saint Lawrence River trip is right for you, make sure you consider if there are opportunities to participate in special interest programs. Are you an avid photographer who would like the chance to borrow equipment and learn from a professional on board? Do you enjoy the finer things in life and wish to sample the region’s delicious cuisine? Customizing your travel experience can turn the journey from memorable into once-in-a-lifetime, so find the options that interest you most.

Magdalen islands iles de la madeleine

© Dennis Minty

Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands), Québec

5. The On-Board Learning Experience

Some of us travel to put our feet up and get away from it all, while others of us pick a destination because we want to fully immerse ourselves in it. If you’re excited by the prospect of learning from marine biologists while you spot whales in the Saguenay Fjord, enjoying evening performances by local Québécois musicians, or finding out more about the fascinating sites you visit from expert historians, look for a tour company that provides robust educational offerings so you can learn all there is to know about this unique waterway as you go.

Dawn Bazely Talking To Group

© Danny Catt

Botanist Dawn Bazely leads guests on a guided hike at Forillon National Park, Québec

6. The Company’s Travel Practices

Last but certainly not least, as with any type of travel these days, consider what the long-term impacts of your trip will be. It’s wise to look for a reputable company who is well-versed on responsible travel practices.

Questions you might ask include: does the company support the regional economy by hiring local guides and procuring locally sourced goods? Do they contribute to environmental initiatives to help conserve the natural character of the Saint Lawrence? Or, do they provide firsthand opportunities to visit and learn about Indigenous communities that call this seascape home?

By choosing a company that gives back to this special place, you’ll help make sure visitors can enjoy it for generations to come.