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Travel Planes, trains and no automobiles: great options for car-free travel

NYC Ferry's 21-vessel fleet visits all five New York boroughs.

NYC Ferry/Handout

New York looks stunning from the sunny top dock of a $10-million catamaran.

My sweet ride – the 97-foot 350-passenger Ocean Queen Rockstar – is one of the newest additions to NYC Ferry’s 21-vessel fleet, which has expanded dramatically since it first plied the East River two years ago. More than nine million passengers later, the six-route, 20-stop service – which costs just US$2.75 a trip for adults – visits all five New York boroughs, with its Astoria and Rockaway docks both less than 20 minutes by car from LaGuardia and JFK airports, respectively.

NYC Ferry is a scenic and sensible option for exploring the Big Apple, where, as is the case in many metropolises, public transit is so extensive, cabs and Ubers so prolific, and parking so scarce (and expensive) that renting a vehicle is not only unnecessary, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

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That’s where these five North American getaways come in. From flights and ferries to trains and bike routes, new infrastructure, offers and services are making car-free vacations more accessible, appealing and widespread than ever before.

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No camping gear? No vehicle? No problem

Grundy Lake Provincial Park is hosting three-day, two-night 'Learn to Camp' trips from Parkbus and Ontario Parks.

Courtesy of Parkbus /Handout

As well as being able to reach dozens of Canada’s national and provincial parks without wheels of their own, passengers of the free Parkbus shuttle get a 50-per-cent discount on posted rates for Mountain Equipment Co-op’s rental camping gear. (Rental reservations are recommended.) There are MEC locations in all four of the cities from which Parkbus operates – Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax – with service out of Ottawa-Gatineau slated to launch soon.

If you also lack camping experience, Parkbus has partnered with Ontario Parks on a series of three-day, two-night “Learn to Camp” trips from Toronto to Grundy Lake Provincial Park just south of Sudbury. For $149, groups of up to six participants receive expert instruction on setting up camp, building fires and using provided equipment such as tents, air mattresses and camp stoves. (Participants are responsible for food and bedding.)

Voyage from Vancouver to Victoria in style

When V2V Vacations launched seasonal daily cruise service between downtown Vancouver and Victoria’s lovely Inner Harbour in 2017, it cut at least an hour of driving from the journey while adding a dose of luxury aboard the 242-seat V2V Empress catamaran.

This season, V2V has unveiled a series of no-car-required day trips to the B.C. capital that cover diversions such as the Butchart Gardens and the Royal BC Museum, as well as guided brewery and cycle tours.

All day trips include return passage aboard the V2V Empress, with “royal” fares including upper-deck seating, a welcome drink and three-course light lunch or breakfast, sundeck access and food and beverage table service. The lone exception: “Sail & Fly,” which combines a one-way morning voyage with a late-afternoon return trip on a Harbour Air seaplane.

From the Pacific to the Potomac by rail trail

The Great American Rail Trail aims to create a 6,000-kilometre pathway between Washington, D.C., and Washington State.

Rails to Trails Conservancy/Handout

For a much more ambitious car-free journey, there’s always the Great American Rail Trail. Last month, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy unveiled its preferred route for a 6,000-kilometre pathway between Washington, D.C., and Washington State that ultimately aims to be entirely separate from vehicular traffic.

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While there are some 90 trail gaps at present, 52 per cent of the former railway route is complete and available for public use, according to Rails-to-Trails. Of the 125-plus existing trails, several are within an hour’s bike ride of major airports. The 30-kilometre Burke-Gilman Trail between downtown Seattle and Bothell is just north of Seattle-Tacoma International – where a bicycle assembly station and other cycling resources are pleasingly plentiful – while the eastern gateway to the Montour Trail is just a few kilometres from Pittsburgh International.

Off the beaten tracks with Via Rail

The 435-kilometre Veloroute du Fjord du Saguenay skirts the Saguenay River, and its namesake national park, in spectacular fashion.

Tourism Quebec/Handout

Until Halloween, passengers on two of Via’s less-travelled Quebec lines – Montreal-Jonquière and Montreal-Senneterre – can check bikes for free (with the proper reservation). The former line is especially appealing to cyclists, as Jonquière’s train station is sandwiched between two of North America’s best-serviced long-distance bike circuits: The Veloroute Des Bluets, which encircles Lac Saint-Jean for 256 kilometres; and the 435-kilometre Veloroute du Fjord du Saguenay, which skirts the Saguenay River, and its namesake national park, in spectacular fashion. Combine this with Via’s $15-a-trip offer for children between the ages of 2 and 11, and entire families can travel car-free without breaking the bank.

From Montreal’s Old Port to old-growth forest

Hydravion Aventure offers multi-day excursions to the luxurious Hôtel Sacacomie, which is set on its namesake lake.

Hydravion Aventure/Handout

After several unsuccessful attempts to establish a float-plane base on the Jacques-Cartier Pier, the Montreal Seaplane Airport was revived by a pair of tour operators in 2016. As well as providing regular air connections between downtown Montreal and Trois-Rivières, Hydravion Aventure joins Wet Set Montreal in offering a range of aerial day trips, including guided whale-watching via the Tadoussac seaplane base, and multiday excursions to the luxurious Hôtel Sacacomie, which is set on its namesake lake near La Mauricie National Park.

Visit the United States’s newest national park by rail

The four-month-old Indiana Dunes National Park is home to sandy beaches, wildlife-filled wetlands, meandering rivers and leafy forests.

Indiana Dunes Tourism/Handout

As well as being the newest national park in the United States, four-month-old Indiana Dunes must be one of the world’s only preserves to have two railway stations within its borders. Running for 140 kilometres between Chicago’s Millennium Station and South Bend International Airport, the electrically powered South Shore Line passes Indiana Dunes’ Lake Michigan beaches, wildlife-filled wetlands, meandering rivers and leafy forests. The aptly named Dune Park station is a half-hour walk from the 67-site Dunewood campground, while the Beverly Shores stop is just north of the Great Marsh Trail, which is renowned for its abundant birdlife.

Passengers who choose to remain on the train can take advantage of Indiana Dunes’ partnership with the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation. On select Saturdays, APRHF guides deliver talks about the park and other sights along the rails while riding the entire line round-trip.

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