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Luxury ferry to ply abandoned Portland-Nova Scotia route

Buoys hopes for tourism and truckers seeking respite

The Nova Star arrived in Boston Monday.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

The Nova Star arrived in Boston Monday.

PORTLAND, Maine — A cruise ship built in Singapore, outfitted by a Danish designer, and originally intended for a French company is launching its maiden voyage from Maine to Nova Scotia on Thursday.

The majority of passengers on this worldly vessel, called the Nova Star, are expected to come from New England — namely Boston, where the ship was christened on Monday — but the biggest impact will be in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which took a serious hit when ferry service from Maine was halted nearly five years ago.

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The forces that came together to restore service to the 130-year-old passenger route revolve around a Maine resident who tapped into an unlikely source of revenue that he thinks can help keep the ship afloat: truckers in need of sleep.

The Portland-to-Yarmouth passage was last served by a high-speed catamaran that struggled to attract passengers and eventually shut down in 2009 after the government of Nova Scotia stopped subsidizing the service.

Mark Amundsen, a Maine Maritime Academy graduate and 30-year shipping industry veteran, analyzed the route and decided it would be more profitable if it were served by a luxury cruise ship with cabins and a casino — similar to the Scotia Prince, which sailed the route from 1982 to 2004.

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The 10-hour, 212-mile journey also fits perfectly with the needs of long-haul truckers, who are required to rest for 10 hours between shifts. Instead of pulling over at a truck stop for the night, they can drive their trucks onto the ship, get some sleep, and arrive ready to work in a city that would have taken them an additional nine to 12 hours to drive. So Amundsen sought out contracts with trucking companies, emphasizing the advantage of the built-in rest period — an endeavor that could bring in more than $6 million a year.

“Seldom do you get a chance to put a business plan together that benefits so many different people, whether it be people in Nova Scotia, improving their economy, or it be the trucking industry, or it be people in Maine,” said Amundsen, the chief executive of Nova Star Cruises Ltd.

The $165 million Nova Star is 528 feet long and 11 stories high, and can hold 1,215 passengers. It’s a larger, more modern ship than the 1970s-era Scotia Prince, with sleek, European decor and more luxurious amenities, including a casino, three restaurants, a piano bar, two spas, and 162 cabins with 600 berths. The Nova Star voyage will be slower than the catamaran’s six-hour crossing, but promises to be a smoother, more high-end trip.

The May to November service costs $79-$139 each way for adults (kids are free), depending on the season; cabins range from $79 to $250, and the charge to bring a car is $139-$199.

The daily route, running from May to November, will be the ship’s first. When Amundsen, an Ipswich native, set out to restart the service to Yarmouth, 188 miles from the provincial capital of Halifax, he conducted a worldwide search for a ship and found only one that fit the bill. The ship had been commissioned for a French ferry company that backed out of its contract during the economic downturn, and the Singapore builder gave Amundsen a discount on the lease.

A few remnants of the Nova Star’s origins remain, from European outlets (which will be changed) to porthole-style restroom windows that allow passengers to look in at people washing their hands.

Amundsen formed Nova Star Cruises  with his wife, Lisa Arnold, a marketing professional; marketing and advertising specialist Owen John; and Steve Durrell, a former colleague of Amundsen’s at Irving Shipbuilding Inc. in Halifax. Over the course of three years, the partners came up with a business plan — including a joint venture with the shipbuilder and 10 limited partners — that beat out two major ferry operators also vying for the route, which includes a $21 million subsidy from the Nova Scotia government.

As part of the funding package, the cruise will use Nova Scotia products whenever possible. The ship will also feature regional food and art from Maine.

After a monthlong journey from Singapore to North America, which cost $1 million in fuel alone, the ship arrived in Yarmouth last month. Interest in the new service is high in the town of 7,200, where around 1,500 people stood in a cold rain to tour the ship.

Observers watched as the Nova Star arrived at Black Falcon Pier in Boston.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Observers watched as the Nova Star arrived at Black Falcon Pier in Boston.

Losing the ferry service in 2009 “took the feet out from southwest Nova Scotia and the entire province,” said Yarmouth mayor’s, Pam Mood, who broke a bottle of Champagne over the hull of the Nova Star in Boston on Monday. Visitors numbers plummeted, businesses closed, and people moved away, she said.

“The return of the ferry has somehow given people the courage to start dreaming again,” Mood said.

Nova Star Cruises estimates that the ship will serve 100,000 passengers this year, with an eventual goal of 150,000, similar to what the Scotia Prince and the Cat each carried at their peak.

“Nova Scotia is a province of 1 million people,” said Keith Condon, cochairman of the Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership, which helped conduct the search to restore the service. “If you can put 100,000 new tourists into Nova Scotia, it’s going to make a huge difference.”

In Portland on Saturday, around 2,000 people stood in line for an hour or more to tour the ship. The biggest impact in Maine’s largest city will be from bus tours offering US-Canada vacation packages, said Lynn Tillotson, president of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau. The motorcoaches will once again be able to come to Portland and board the overnight ferry to Nova Scotia, giving drivers a mandated rest period, much like truckers. When the ferry service shut down, Canada-bound tours bypassed Portland and stayed the night in Bangor instead to cut down on driving time, Tillotson said.

The majority of ferry passengers are expected to be from population-dense Massachusetts, according to Nova Star Cruises, which is focusing much of its marketing efforts on Boston.

Rose Ball, a 73-year-old resident of Peabody, went on two Scotia Prince trips with her husband in the early 2000s but hasn’t been to Nova Scotia since. Now that the route is being served by a cruise ship again, Ball is contemplating another trip.

Her daughter, Charlene McKenzie, also of Peabody, has never been, but after learning about the new service, she’s intrigued: “Nova Scotia looks beautiful in the commercials.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

Correction: Because of an editing error, the print version of this story mistakenly identified observers on the pier.

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