July 18, 2004
Across Lake Ontario, With Diversions
BY MICHELINE MAYNARD
PEERING over the back of a bright blue armchair, Lucas Coster's eyes sparkled mischievously as he looked around the sleek interior of the Spirit of Ontario, a new high-speed ferry that began service last month.
Did he like the ship, a fellow passenger asked? "Yeah!" the 18-month-old Lucas replied, before taking off at a run down a wide corridor, with his mother, Monica, chasing after him.
But Lucas's father, Robin, wasn't convinced of the trip's value, considering both the price paid and the total time the family spent on the ship, which began traveling between Toronto and Rochester on June 19. The mixed reaction of the Coster family summed up the experience that many passengers had on one trip during the ferry's first week in operation. Universally, people seemed impressed by the appearance and the comfort of the $42.5 million ferry. The 284-foot-long ship sparkles, and with speeds reaching 55 miles an hour, it covers the diagonal route across Lake Ontario in about 2 hours 15 minutes, about 45 minutes faster than driving between the cities.
But the fastest thing about the Spirit of Ontario - also known by its nickname, the Breeze - is the voyage itself. Delays in boarding and departing lengthened the trip considerably, and other parts of the service still needed tweaking during the first week. Repeated phone calls and e-mail messages to the ferry's public relations officers to discuss the problems went unreturned.
The Spirit of Ontario's path to the lake has been anything but smooth.
The ferry is the culmination of a five-year dream of investors in the Canadian American Transportation System. They envisioned the Australian-built ship as a way to spark tourism in Rochester and other upstate New York towns near the ferry's home port, and to cut travel time to Canada's biggest city. But the four-level catamaran, which holds 750 people and 220 cars, launched service nearly a year behind its original schedule.
After the ship arrived in April from its long Australian journey, it smashed into a pier upon docking in New York City, ripping a gash in its side that caused $80,000 in exterior damage. Though the tear was repaired, the incident dashed hopes that the ship could claim bragging rights as the first high-speed car ferry on the Great Lakes. Instead, that distinction went to the Lake Express, a smaller ferry that began traveling from Muskegon, Mich., to Milwaukee in early June.
The Spirit of Ontario and the 192-foot Lake Express, which can carry 250 passengers and 46 cars at speeds up to 40 m.p.h., were both built by the Australian shipmaker Astral. They are kicking off a new fleet of fast ships that are starting service in the United States this year. Another fast ferry is planned sometime this year for the waters off Juneau, Alaska. The diesel-powered ships, like those used in Europe and Asia, mark a new era of transportation for travelers used to lumbering, coal-fired ferries. The last of those ships crossing Lake Ontario from Rochester traveled a shorter route, to Cobourg, Ontario, before ending service in 1950.
But by early indications, the new trip across the lake isn't swift, if one includes the time waiting on either dock. A 10:45 a.m. weekday ferry from Toronto to Rochester on June 25 left 45 minutes late. By the time the ferry arrived, it was 2 p.m., an hour late; 30 minutes more were needed for passengers to clear customs.
That was manageable for the Coster family, from Toronto, which was traveling to Rochester en route to Boston, where Monica Coster planned to compete in a national Frisbee tournament. They arrived for boarding about 9:30 a.m., five hours before they would clear border inspections at the end of the trip, in Rochester. But the shipboard journey gave Lucas a chance to run around and perhaps tire himself out so that he would sleep during the seven-hour trip that lay ahead, his father said. "We wanted to minimize our stuck-in-the-car time," Mr. Coster said.
On board, passengers spent ample time exploring the ship, which is 78 feet wide. Those who board on foot enter on the second deck, while those who come by car take the stairs or an elevator after they have parked below.
They are greeted by a color scheme of bright blue, tan and lots of glistening chrome. Comfortable armchairs are placed in long rows along either side of the ship. Groups of chairs face each other, with tables in between, allowing passengers to spread out books, cameras, binoculars and food.
The main passenger level, called the Upper Deck, has several walk-up cafes, with all manner of breakfast and lunch items, ranging from muffins and yogurt to burgers and salads, and beverages. The food, like hot dogs ($3, United States currency) and pizza ($2 a slice) seemed of average institutional quality. Many family groups brought picnic baskets and coolers stocked with their own refreshments.
On the third level, the Bridge Deck, was a business-class section. There, passengers sat on low leather couches with squat tables in between, or at banquettes with tiny cocktail tables. Food, served by waiters, arrived promptly on blue and white china.
Menu items included a cheese omelet ($4), French toast ($6) and cereal ($2.50). Coffee ($2 for a large cup) and cappuccino ($3) were served in cups and saucers. Though it was far too early for dinner, the Spirit of Ontario menu promised choices like chicken parmesan ($11.95) and pork tenderloin ($14.75).
The business-class section takes up half the deck. The other side is a standard coach section, with the same blue chairs as downstairs - actually more comfortable than the stylish business-class seats.
Dozens of people gathered on deck to watch the ship glide away from its dock in Toronto, the city's skyline in full view. But they didn't stay long. The ship's speed, coupled with strong winds, drove most passengers inside during the morning voyage, save for some die-hard smokers who sat, drinks in hand, as the wind ruffled their hair. (The rest of the boat is smoke-free.)
A popular place for viewing was the vast Panorama Lounge, right over the bow, with picture windows from floor to ceiling. There, groups of travelers chatted excitedly, watching the water parted by the ferry, whose voyage was smooth on a clear though windy day.
Others sat at tables, reading or working on computers. (The business-class lounge has more-private carrels with desks and electrical connections.) Ceilings and corners throughout the ship are dotted with 38 satellite televisions, most of which were tuned to Fox News, CNN or CNBC.
Susan Budrakey, a financial planner from Syracuse, was traveling back to New York State after a business meeting in Toronto, where she goes regularly for seminars. Normally, she would cross the border at Lewiston, outside Buffalo, then drive to Toronto, she said, a trip that takes about four hours, plus time for the border crossing.
Given that she had arrived 90 minutes before the trip, without a reservation, taking the ferry did not reduce the total amount of time she spent traveling, Ms. Budrakey said. (Passengers had to guess how much time to give themselves to board, because there is nothing on the ferry's Web site to advise them.) And the one-way fare - $60 total for her and her car - was more than tolls or gasoline, she added, meaning she wasn't likely to use the ferry frequently. But, she said, "it isn't about time or money. It's about a different experience."
Amenities onboard include two movie theaters, one on either side of the ship, with flat screens mounted on the wall in front of rows of armchairs. Films during a recent voyage included "Scooby Doo 2" and "The Johnson Family Vacation."
There is a small playroom, stocked with books and child-sized tables and chairs. A concierge handed out dozens of maps and brochures on area attractions, as well as helpful directions (his advice on the quickest route to the New York State Thruway was absolutely right).
Across from his desk was a small duty-free shop, stocked with liquor, T-shirts, chocolates and toiletries. Here, as with the cafes, Canadian passengers got an uncomfortable surprise. Although the ship's brochures state that both American and Canadian currency is accepted on board, cashiers on this voyage were accepting only United States dollars - in cash.
In Rochester, where the Spirit of Ontario embarks and arrives from a handsome brick terminal, the ship is a far bigger deal than it is on the other side of the lake. One reason may be that commuter ferries and cruise ships offering journeys on Lake Ontario were already plentiful in Toronto, long before the Spirit of Ontario came on the scene. The fast ferry does not even dock in the city's scenic Harbourfront area, dotted with outdoor cafes and parks. It uses the Port of Toronto, an industrial site about a mile east, where the ferry puts in next to high stacks of metal containers and piles of gravel.
In Toronto, the trip's organizers still had a lot to sort out during their first week of operation. There was no sign for the ferry, and though foot passengers were allowed to board as soon as they arrived, motorists sat in line until 11:15 a.m., a half-hour past the scheduled departure. It then took 15 minutes more to load all the cars. Ferry crew members, though friendly, offered no explanations for the delays.
But the smooth journey and many distractions helped to soothe the grumbling. About an hour before arriving in Rochester, the ship's staff circulated with stacks of customs cards, the same as those distributed to passengers on international flights. There was plenty of time to fill out the cards before the Spirit of Ontario glided into Rochester's port, escorted by a Coast Guard cutter. The ship's crew asked passengers not to crowd the exits, and many remained in their seats while the boat was secured. Again, those on foot fared better than those who drove. Motorists found themselves stuck in line for half an hour to clear immigration, with only two booths open for cars.
Leaving the boat, the Costers said they weren't sure they would do it again. "This all has to work in with your day, or it's not worth it," said Mr. Coster, who had traveled on a similar ferry in Greece, with fewer glitches.
But Monica Coster, who had spent the morning reading to Lucas in the playroom and watching him happily trot the corridors, seemed to be leaning in favor of a repeat trip. "It gets pretty challenging with a toddler in the car," she said.
MICHELINE MAYNARD is a business reporter for The New York Times.