SENT TO ME BY MY CANADIAN FRIEND ANDY McCULLOUGH
It's a museum! It's a B&B! It's a submarine!
By Ken Aiken, Special to the Montreal Gazette
Photos: Ken Aiken special to The Gazette
"Battle stations!" shouts the captain, and we scramble for our assigned positions in the HMCS Onondaga. The submarine is now a museum and bed-and-breakfast near Rimouski, Quebec. I am staying in the inn and taking part in a drill being staged for the benefit of visitors. I quickly race down a corridor barely wide enough for a single person. I rush through the deep red light of the command centre and then through a circular bulkhead door and down a narrow catwalk to my station inside a watertight compartment behind bulkhead 77. I'm in charge of countermeasures, in other words my job is to confuse enemy radar.
The Onondaga has to rank as Canada's most unusual B&B. The last surviving Oberon-class submarine and the pride of Site historique maritime de la Pointe au Père at Rimouski, the Onondaga is a museum by day, with self-guided audio tours in French and English. At night, it becomes Gîte Onondaga, a rare opportunity to participate in special drills and then sleep inside a military submarine.
In operation from 1967 to 2000, the HMCS Onondaga was decommissioned and destined for scrap when a group was organized to save it. The story of hauling this 90-metre, 2,000-ton vessel into its present dry dock has been shown on TV and can be seen on YouTube. The submarine opened to the public in June 2009 and more than 100,000 people have done the museum tour. It won a provincial tourism prize this year.
The drills are conducted in French, although an English version is planned for 2011. My group participated in drills for donning survival suits and loading the torpedo tubes. Clipboards in hand, we had to locate gauges, valves and controls and record their settings throughout the vessel. Then there was the attack drill, in which we had to command our assigned battle stations. Finally, we rolled into our assigned bunks just before midnight for a well-deserved sleep.
This is not the Ritz-Carlton, and the Onondaga will never be awarded four-star hotel status. This is a real submarine where every bit of space is precious. Guests sleep on fold-out bunks. The toilets are very cramped, and fresh water is in short supply (the shower ration is 20 seconds!). There's no padding on the steel walls, where sharp protrusions are the norm. There's no television, no cellphone reception, and forget about Wi-Fi. Lights go out when the captain gives three warning toots on the horn, and there's little privacy (men and women generally bunk in different sections).
Don't expect room service. You even have to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow. The continental breakfast is spartan, but there's plenty of coffee. It's the closest thing to a tour of duty you can get without joining the navy and qualifying for one of the most demanding of maritime assignments, that of being a submariner.
Outside the dry-docked submarine and towering high above it is the Pointe au Père Lighthouse, a national historic site. When it was built in 1909, the use of concrete as a building material was brand-new. It's the last surviving lighthouse that incorporates the flying buttress design, and the 128 steps to the lantern allow visitors to inspect the Fresnel lens and obtain a magnificent panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River and Rimouski region.
The sinking of the Empress of Ireland on May 29, 1914, occurred just offshore from Pointe au Père. The ocean liner was on its way from Quebec City to England. Hit midship by a Norwegian coal freighter, this pride of the Canadian Pacific fleet sank in 14 minutes and, despite the quick response of ships in the vicinity, 1,012 people died. The Treasures of the Empress of Ireland pavilion in Point au Père displays artifacts recovered from the wreck and presentations from the journals and testimonies of survivors. The presentation (English and French) is highly recommended, like everything else in Point au Père. This is wonderful place to visit.
To get to Pointe au Père from Montreal, take Highway 20 to Rivière du Loup, then Route 132 past Rimouski to Point au Père. The lighthouse is visible from many kilometres away, so you can't miss it.Admission to the Onondaga museum, open daily to Oct. 11 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., costs $14.50 for adults and $8 for children 8 to 15. Kids younger that 8 get in for free. The cost of staying overnight in the submarine with breakfast is $95, $85 for those 15 and younger. Overnight accommodation is limited to 15 people and activities take place in French only. For more information about the Onondaga, go to www.shmp.qc.ca or call 418-724-6214. Book well in advance for a stay aboard the submarine.