“Dancez avec moi?” inquires a jolly gentleman as I step off the gangplank in Tadoussac, a little bit of a port at the confluence of the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Saguenay Fjord in Quebec province. Grizzled with grey at the edges and dressed in what looks slightly more comfortable than a canvas sack, he takes my hands with a big grin and pulls me into his small circle of companions, a group of actors hired to greet cruise visitors.
This surprise request to dance on a rickety wooden dock momentarily takes me aback. But why not? With fiddlers nearby sawing away at their strings, smiling women dressed in period garb clapping their hands in time to the music and giggling children leaning over an ice-laden, makeshift table twirling sticks of maple syrup into hardened candy, I figure a refusal would be downright unfriendly.
I am tooling along Canada’s eastern coastline on the La Compagnie du Ponant’s Le Boreal, a 264-passenger luxury ship sailing from Quebec City, around the Gaspe Peninsula and down to Boston Harbor. On this route the ship’s size matters. Le Boreal, 466 feet long, gives us the advantage of dipping in and out of picturesque fishing villages and shallow ports inaccessible to larger ships.
Touted as a fall foliage tour, our journey might also be coined “In Search of the Northwest Passage” or “Eastern Canada’s Remarkable Wildlife.” In truth, it is all of these things. Onboard historians paint a picture of early explorer Jacques Cartier’s relentless and frequently tumultuous search for the elusive Northwest Passage and his on-again, off-again relationship with the Iroquois. And naturalists confirm this vast region is abundant with both land and marine wildlife, creating opportunities for both high-octane and reflective adventure.
Once onboard, it’s no surprise I find myself amid a bevy of dapper French tourists, bound together in search of a common history and some of the most stunning vistas in North America. This is because La Compagnie du Ponant is well known in Europe for its appealing routes and subdued elegance.
Settled in my cozy yet luxurious cabin, Le Boreal glides up the St. Lawrence towards the Saguenay fjord, dropping anchor in the village of Tadoussac where I find my hearty welcome. The town, once France’s first trading post on the mainland of “New France,” is still the fjord’s door keeper and as such is a hub of tourism for the estuary area.
Here, where the fjord’s fresh water meets the salty St. Lawrence, a nutrient-rich underwater environment becomes an important summer feeding ground for several whale species: fin, mink, belugas and blue whales, as well as harbor porpoises. It is, in fact, a mecca for visitors in search of whale-watching excursions by zodiac and hikers seeking the quiet, forested terrain surrounding the fjord. A stroll around town accompanied by an afternoon snack of tasty poutine — a quintessential Quebecois dish of french fries smothered in gravy — rounds out the day nicely.
But I have only a day in port, and by evening I have to be back onboard in time to join the evening’s festivities. Dinner is served in one of two dining venues, and my French neighbors are dressed to the nines. I’m told a titled French woman is onboard, the chief suspect being the grand dame across the hall from my stateroom. She is my grandmother’s vision of perfect comportment. Without a pin out of place she would make Miss Manners proud.