A slow boat across the Atlantic plus a scenic train home to Vancouver add up to a hugely enjoyable three-week trip
Are you a crew member?” the security guard asked, fixing me with a stare in the van’s rear-view mirror. “Passenger,” I replied. The guard gave me a quizzical look then muttered something to himself in German, shaking his head. It was 7am and the port of Hamburg was a hive of activity, our port security van speeding past whirring cranes and towering stacks of shipping containers. As the ship’s immense hull came into view, I entered a world where everything was larger, louder and more dangerous than my life on land. The 300-metre, 100,000-tonne vessel before me was to be my home for the next 15 days.
Four months earlier I had made a reservation on a cargo ship to take me from Hamburg to Halifax, Nova Scotia. My European work visa was expiring and I hoped to make it home to the west coast of Canada in time for Christmas. Recent campaigns such as the Swedish flygskam (flight shame) had shone a harsh light on my blindness to the climate impact of air travel, and I had decided that booking a flight wasn’t an option. Since 2017, I’d emitted over 14 tonnes of carbon from flights alone. I realised that all my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint at home in Milan – I cycle to work, limit food waste and seldom buy new clothes – are wiped out by just one flight between Canada and Europe.
Sustainable travel within Europe often involves trading a plane for a train, but getting to Canada from Europe is more complex. A cargo ship became the obvious low-carbon choice. Shipping companies sell surplus cabin space through selected travel agents and I booked my passage through Berlin-based Slowtravel Experience. This is still a niche mode of travel and ships rarely have room for more than a dozen passengers, so booking well in advance, especially for peak times, is essential. Flexibility with travel dates is also crucial. I was notified just days before departure that the ship would be leaving three days ahead of schedule, and had I not already been in Germany, I would have literally missed the boat.