The Carol Ships are Coming: Christmas Caroling by Sea in Vancouver

There’s a lot of great holiday fun going on in Vancouver.  But if there’s one tradition that deserves to be ranked right up there with New York’s Rockefeller Center and Germany’s Christmas markets, it has to be the Carol Ships Parade of Lights, which starts this Friday.

For the uninitiated, the carol ships are a flotilla of brightly colored boats that cruise around Vancouver’s coastline nightly during the month of December.  It’s kind of like an elaborate Christmas parade staged every night on the water.   There are two ways to enjoy the carol ships festivities: 1) As a spectator on land, watching the procession of brilliantly colored ships in the harbour; or 2) as a passenger aboard one of the many ships, feasting, dancing and caroling the night away.

The tradition started exactly 50 years ago in Coal Harbour with a single boat strung with a few lights.  Since then, it has expanded to include more than 50 boats decorated with more than 100,000 twinkling lights.  Last year, more than 30,000 people hopped on board and cruised Vancouver’s coast during the 20-day festival.

The route taken by the carol ships varies nightly, but the action generally begins around 7 p.m. at either Canada Place or near the Lion’s Gate Bridge.   Some nights, the flotilla of ships does a circuit of the inner and outer harbours.  Other nights, the boats cruise False Creek, travel all the way to Port Moody or hug the coast of North and West Vancouver (For a complete schedule, click here).

A variety of different cruise companies offer passengers a chance to experience the festivities.  Cruises generally last around three or four hours, often include holiday meals with all the trimmings and, of course, offer plenty of opportunities for singing Christmas carols (Prices range from $25 a person for just the cruise to $60 and up for packages with full holiday buffets)

Weekday cruises are generally geared toward families, with piano players, singers and Santa Clauses on board.  On the weekends, some vessels are more party-oriented, offering dancing, DJs and bar service.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of activities happening on shore, timed to coincide with the passing of the carol ships flotilla.  There’s a big party in North Vancouver at the new Shipbuilder’s Square on Dec. 4, with live entertainment and free hot beverages and cookies.  Deep Cove gets into the act on Dec. 11 with caroling and a blazing bonfire.  In West Vancouver, revelers gather at Dundarave Park for a bonfire and carols on Dec. 9 and 20.   And Burnaby has a carol ships party on Dec. 18.

This year’s event starts on Friday, Dec. 3 and runs to Thursday, Dec. 23.   Among the passenger ships operating this year are Pride of Vancouver Charters, Accent Cruises and Harbour Cruises.  Check out their websites for cruise details and to make reservations.

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