April 25, 2014

Canadian cruise provides a bit of northern exposure

“Well, now I can cross that off my list.”

“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. Australia, Prague and a Christmas show in Branson, Mo., advanced a line.

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 fall, I considered a revision.

From May through October, when fall’s technicolors peak, 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, she reverses course. (Passengers can choose either direction or sail the entire 14-day loop.)

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 of the ports rich in Canadian history and culture. Because of the fiery foliage along New England banks. Because of announcements like this one: “Whales to starboard.” And because adventure should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Until the Holland America sojourn, my cruising CV was a single-space page of southern cruises, specifically in the Caribbean. This cruise was different in many respects, one of them being the pool deck.

On Caribbean cruises, the pools resemble shallow aquariums full of squirming bodies. Chaises are hot commodities. In fact, many passengers remain onboard during port stops to enjoy the extra inch of outdoor deck real estate.

By contrast, on the Maasdam, the lounge chairs surrounding the swimming squares were often empty. When they were occupied, the individuals 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, though at 720 feet in length, the Maasdam still dwarfed the dainty settings. Many passengers disembarked early and didn’t return until later in the day. (We typically had seven or eight hours on land.) My windowless inside cabin messed with my circadian rhythm (8 a.m. was as dark as midnight), so I wasn’t one of the first, or even 50th, off the ship. But 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 macarons at March 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. The landmark building was named for the 14th century Frenchman who suffered from bubonic plague and was nursed back to health by a dog.

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. To make amends for buying another pair of earrings, I entered the church through the official front portal and vowed to pet the next dog I came across.

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, tempted by the warmth and the sampling of local specialties on the Lido Deck.

I remained to watch the Maasdam gracefully slide between the buoys paralleling the river banks. In the Caribbean, the water is silent, muted by the immensity of the sea. The St. Lawrence River, however, was full of soft voices. The sounds emanated from storybook homes tucked beneath florets of trees and farms pitched on groomed hills. A light glowed from inside a stone chapel, a reassuring beacon for all who sailed these darkening waters.

The Maasdam was, first and foremost, a mode of transportation. However, in between stops, the ship’s crew members would don a toque or a professor’s robe and enrich passengers with lively presentations about the upcoming destination.

Last spring, the cruise line unveiled a new program called On Location, which highlights the culture, food, arts and history of the area outside your stateroom window. In Nova Scotia, the staff set up a poutine bar featuring the classic ingredients (fries, gravy, cheese curds) plus some non-traditional 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.

To further my schooling in Canadiana, I went ashore. In Charlottetown, the provincial capital of PEI, 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,” said a Parks Canada ranger. “They wanted to see if they were compatible going forward as a nation.”

On July 1, 1867, the men’s seed of an 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 for my instruction.

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.

In our motorcycle built for two (or three, if someone sits behind the driver), 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.

We stretched our legs only twice during the 2 1/2-hour excursion, even though the sidecar had more than enough toe-wiggle room. Pulling up to Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Vicki told me that Titanic victims are buried in three graveyards, one of many shipwreck-related misconceptions she cleared up during the tour.

“Jack Dawson was not a real person,” she said, referring to the Leo DiCaprio character in the Titanic movie and deleting another falsehood. The “J.” on the Dawson gravestone stands for James, a stoker on the doomed ship.

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. At 11 p.m., he said, we would change pilots, and at 5:45 a.m., the ship would sail under the Quebec Bridge. During the night, we would possibly also experience strong currents.

“We might heel from time to time,” he said, “but it’s completely normal.”

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, the captain halted the tenders to shore. Crew members read off excursion cancellations. Guests groaned and dealt another hand of cards. This 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.

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