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Bound for Boston?

Group near deal for ferry to Nova Scotia

A proposed ferry between Boston and Nova Scotia that would let passengers bring their cars, gamble, eat, or shop during the trip could set sail as early as next month.

Shores Atlantic LLC, the group that would operate the new service, is in final talks with the owners of the Scotia Prince, the 300-cabin ship they hope to lease, and with the Massachusetts Port Authority for dock space, said Eugene Hartigan, one of five investors in the venture.

If all goes well, final contracts between the parties could be signed this month, clearing the way for the inaugural 14-hour cruise sometime between July 1 and Aug. 1, he said.

The ferry would be the first such regular service connecting Boston's waterways with Canada's Nova Scotia, and could boost Massport's efforts to bring more cruise passengers through the Port of Boston. The number of passengers taking cruises from Boston has risen and tumbled in recent years, even as Massport has worked to draw more ships and more passengers.

Several cruise lines offer Caribbean, trans-Atlantic, and Bermuda cruises from Boston. This year, Massport expects 225,000 passengers to board cruise ships here, up from 199,453 in 2004.

Massport spokeswoman Danny Levy confirmed the talks, but said that several regulatory and community approval hurdles still need to be cleared.

The group is negotiating with Massport over the use of two potential docking locations for the ferry. Hartigan said the group prefers a deep-water berth along the Mystic River in Charlestown, a site that has ample parking.

''We look at the ship as a fun vehicle for people who maybe wouldn't take a Caribbean cruise, but would take a two- or four-day trip to Nova Scotia," Hartigan said.

If the new ferry sees the light of day, it would replace a defunct service that until last year ran between Portland, Maine, and Nova Scotia. Scotia Prince Cruises, the company that used to operate that service, canceled its 2005 schedule in April, citing ''dangerous levels of toxic mold" infesting the cruise terminal it had leased from the City of Portland, according to a statement from the company's chairman, Matthew Hudson, posted on its website.

Officials for Scotia Prince Cruises did not return calls from the Globe, but Gary Wood, Portland's city attorney, confirmed that the cruise company has filed a lawsuit against the city.

''Our view of why they stopped running out of Portland is very different from their view," Wood said. The city plans to countersue and has leased the terminal space out to a bus company that is running trips to the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, he said.

Portland's loss could end up the gain of Bostonians and others willing to travel here for an overnight cruise filled with gambling, shows, or just relaxation.

Hartigan said the Portland lawsuit should not affect his group's efforts to lease the Scotia Prince. The ship can accommodate 1,000 passengers and about 185 cars, and the fares would range from $100 to $200 per round trip. He said the company could be profitable with roughly 250 people on each trip.

The ship carried an average of 700 to 800 passengers per trip when it was running from Portland, Hartigan said.

Initial plans are for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening departures from Boston to Shelburne, Nova Scotia, with return trips on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. Shelburne is a two-hour drive south of Halifax.

On Sundays, the group would operate a $50 per person ''family cruise to nowhere" that would take between four and six hours and travel a short distance into the Atlantic and back to Boston.

The cruise season would last through October, Hartigan said.

Once onboard, passengers could play slot machines and other gaming tables, watch a show in a 237-seat theater, or use a spa.

Keith Reed can be reached at