Canadian cruise provides a bit of northern exposure
'Well, now I can cross that off my list."
Our ship, the Maasdam, was barely 10 minutes out of the gate - the cruise terminal in Montreal - when passenger Leo Croteau shortened his bucket list by one: the St. Lawrence River.
No two travelers share the same wanderlust list. For example, none of the six ports of call or two bodies of water on Holland America's Canada and New England Discovery itinerary originally appeared on my fantasy-trip card. But on a seven-day cruise last month, I considered a revision.
From May through October, the Maasdam hopscotches around the lobster claw of northeastern North America. Starting in Montreal, the ship sails along the St. Lawrence River, glides into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, then drops into the Atlantic. In Boston, the final destination, it reverses course.
En route, the vessel weaves together a macrame of stops: Quebec City; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; Sydney and Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Bar Harbor, Maine. The schedule also incorporates a full day on the St. Lawrence, a 576-mile chug that distance-counters will note as the longest leg of the 1,654-mile trip.
"The St. Lawrence is beautiful, and the cruising is intense. The ports are not easy to go into and out of, and the weather is challenging later in the season," said Arno Jutten, the Maasdam's Dutch captain. "You don't book this cruise for the sunshine."
So why commit to a cruise that's susceptible to strong winds, powerful currents, and thick fog that swallows up the shore? Because adventure should be on everyone's list.
On the Maasdam, the lounge chairs surrounding the swimming squares were often empty. When they were occupied, the people using them were frequently swaddled in thick blue towels worn as leg warmers and a capelet. Only a few hardy souls took a dip, often bouncing between the pool, the hot tubs, and their robes.
At many of the ports, our 1,258-passenger ship was the only cruising vessel, and at 720 feet in length, the Maasdam dwarfed the dainty settings. Many passengers disembarked early and didn't return until late in the day. My windowless inside cabin messed with my circadian rhythms, so I tried my best to be the last to return.
In Quebec City, for instance, I spent the first half of the day scrambling around the stone walls of the fortified town and wading through the cheeses, fruit jams, and pastel-colored macaroons at Marché du Vieux Port, the city's largest farmers market. With a few hours left on the clock, I ventured over to Saint-Roch, a neighborhood that underwent a Cinderella transformation around the turn of the century.
Saint-Roch Church peers down upon the high-end boutiques (galoshes that slip over high heels!), cafes, and home decor emporiums on Rue Saint-Joseph. I entered the side door expecting to find a sacred setting of stained-glass windows and Saskatchewan marble pocked with fossil imprints. Instead, I discovered a temple of fashion featuring Quebecois designers.
When the ship departed at 5 p.m., I joined a thin ribbon of passengers at the railing. As the city dissolved into the distance, many guests retreated inside.
I remained to watch the Maasdam gracefully slide between the buoys paralleling the river banks. The St. Lawrence River was full of soft voices. The sounds emanated from storybook houses tucked beneath florets of trees and farms pitched on groomed hills. A light glowed in a stone chapel, a reassuring beacon for all who sailed these darkening waters.
The Maasdam was, first and foremost, a mode of transportation. It delivered us to our promised ports. However, in between stops, crew members would don toques or professorial robes and enrich passengers with lively presentations about the next destination.
In the spring, the cruise line launched a program called On Location, which highlights the culture, food, arts, and history of the area outside. In Nova Scotia, the staff set up a poutine bar featuring the classic ingredients (fries, gravy, cheese curds) plus some nontraditional toppings (blue cheese crumbles, curry ketchup sauce, hot-dog bites). At the Culinary Arts Center, a demo kitchen, a chef showed guests how to prepare a New England clambake, a Julia Child production that turned into an I Love Lucy episode when the stove misbehaved. And during our at-sea day, from Quebec City to Charlottetown, the cruise director held a lecture called "Oh, Canada!" Oh, how little I knew about Canada.
Michael Harvey, a Saskatchewan native, made us all smarter with his talk of the nation. He touched on its history, nomenclature (kanata means "village" in the language of the Huron-Iroquois), and flags (the maple leaf design first appeared in 1965). He also threw in some arcane facts.
Dare to impress: Canada is a major world exporter of green lentils, with the bulk of those legumes grown in Saskatchewan. And every year, residents of Victoria count the city's flowers one blossom at a time. On Flag Day (Feb. 15), throw out this random morsel: A wind test determined how many points the maple leaf on the flag would have; 11 blurred the least on a gusty day.
To further my schooling in Canadiana, I went ashore. In Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, I stepped on the same floorboards as the visionaries of the confederation. In September 1864, delegates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and the province of Canada (Ontario and Quebec) convened in Province House to discuss the idea of a union.
"It was really about schmoozing and getting to know each other," a Parks Canada ranger said. "They wanted to see if they were compatible going forward as a nation."
On July 1, 1867, the men's idea bloomed into a country.
In Halifax, while other passengers boarded pink double-decker buses and horse-drawn trolleys, I hopped into the sidecar of a Russian motorcycle.
Vicki Gesner, who runs Bluenose Sidecar Tours with her husband, Kevin Wile, was behind the handlebars. I was the sidekick, a kittenish Darth Vader in a black helmet with a pink camera. Together, we rode through the streets of Halifax, Vicki providing running commentary through a microphone.
"When I shut up," she said, "it's because I'm concentrating on my driving."
In our motorcycle built for two, we zipped around the waterfront and downtown. We started along the Halifax Harbor, where Vicki pointed out the hulking navy facility, an unbroken link to Halifax's origins as a garrison city.
"Our whole reason for being here is military," she said.
Driving toward the A. Murray MacKay Bridge, I noticed a street sign that read "Africville." In the 1960s, the city evicted residents of the black community and razed their homes in the name of urban development. In 2011, the Africville Museum opened on the land of the former settlement, but the bruise on the city is slow to heal.
"It was recent history; it happened in my lifetime," Vicki said as we drove by the replica church that houses the museum. "We never learned about it in school, and we should have."
Every day, the captain spoke to the passengers. In his announcements, he would blend nautical stats such as our distances and speed with sightseeing tips and weather alerts.
For example, after setting sail from Montreal, he informed us that en route to Quebec City, we would pass under several power lines and bridges, often clearing the structures with only feet to spare. During the night, we would possibly also experience strong currents.
"We might heel from time to time," he said, "but it's completely normal."
After the visit to Charlottetown, the captain introduced a new character in the sea drama: Tropical Storm Gabrielle. The storm was about 50 miles south of Bermuda, he noted, and we would "enter the sphere of influence" in a few days. But, he assured us, "it's no threat to the ship." On the eve of our Maine arrival, Gabrielle was downgraded to a depression.
But the captain wasn't finished with his weather reports. In Bar Harbor, the land vanished in the morning fog. We were a fat noodle drifting in a bowl of thick gray mist. With low visibility, he halted the tenders to shore. It could take a while.
While waiting for the town to materialize, I took the opportunity to update my bucket list. Cruising adventure in Canada and New England - complete.