Not too long ago, Canada/New England cruises were limited to the months when fall foliage was likely to peak. Offerings were also limited: to longer cruises on staid vessels aimed primarily at a senior crowd.
All that's changed. While folks looking for a white-gloved, 10-night cruise experience can still find plenty of variety, more youthful cruise lines have entered these waters -- and their voyages aren't at all limited to fall and leaf-peeping. Nor are they necessarily slated for lengths longer than seven nights (four- and five-night cruises are increasingly popular) and embarkation ports all along the Eastern Seaboard are hosting trips.
The reason for this sudden growth? There are many. For one thing, the region is rich with history, culture and attractions for all ages, not just old folks. Sleepy, bucolic ports have been energized and provide some of the best shore excursions around for active adults and young kids.
Indeed, no longer your grandma's placid "oh, look at the pretty fall colors" sojourn, a Canada/New England cruise today crackles with exciting options that were just not available a few years ago. Nature hikes, speedboat rides in the Bay of Fundy, cycling through national nature preserves, whale-watching excursions, family bike trips and white-water rafting are all available.
It's fair to say that the region is cruising's new Alaska, with two notable benefits that Alaska doesn't share: It's closer to East Coasters and Midwesterners, so short getaways are possible from several ports in the eastern U.S. In fact, expansion beyond the more typical embarkation ports of Boston and New York includes Baltimore, Philadelphia and Norfolk, Virginia.
Another factor contributing to the popularity of Canada/New England: Its season is slightly longer than Alaska's, since it extends from May until the end of October.
With that in mind, we set out to discover some truths -- and tall tales! -- about the region, to help make your voyage as compelling and pleasant as possible.
Short or long? Party cruise or something more sedate? The onboard ambience from line to line, and ship to ship, can be worlds apart, so it's a good idea to get your wish list set before choosing a cruise. Ports of call will vary too; on short itineraries cruises rarely venture further north than Nova Scotia, whereas on long ones you'll visit a variety of villages, towns and cities.
Most of the shorter cruises (seven nights or less) sail roundtrip from northeast cities, with Boston and New York offering the most variety. Options from the Big Apple include a variety of lengths, from four- to seven-nighters. On the shorter trips you won't see many ports (itineraries usually go no further than Nova Scotia and offer a day or two at sea).
For a more port-intensive experience, try those trips that last anywhere from 9 to 14 nights, available from big-ship cruise lines (including NCL, Holland America and Princess) along with upscale companies such as Silversea, Cunard, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas. On these cruises you'll have the option of more variety, not just in ports of call but also in ports of embarkation.
And we don't want to miss pointing out that small-ship, adventure lines offer the proverbial up-close-and-personal experience, sailing into small ports of call that can't be accessed by big ships.
Where to Go
Typically, key ports of call -- for short or long itineraries -- include Boston and Halifax. Expand the cruise length and, beyond the aforementioned, you could find yourself in a fascinating melange of ports that range from cosmopolitan cities such as Quebec City to hamlets like Bar Harbor, Maine, and St. John's, Newfoundland (with lots of mid-sized destinations in between).
Indeed, it's the smaller ports that really set itineraries apart. Some include stops in Newport, Rhode Island, home to some of the biggest mansions in North America, or to Martha's Vineyard, Gloucester and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Corner Brook or St. John's, Newfoundland, are unique stops, as is the occasional foray to the French St. Pierre et Miquelon just off the coast of Newfoundland. Prince Edward Island is great for family outings.
Choosing A Ship
Obviously your experience will vary depending on the ship you choose. Princess, Carnival and Royal Caribbean sail this region with some of their biggest vessels, giving guests the full big-ship treatment (lots of activities and kids' programs), while some lines (Regent Seven Seas, Silversea and Seabourn) have smaller ships and provide a more refined and educational cruise. Holland America, Crystal and Celebrity use mid-sized vessels in the region, offering a combination of big- and small-ship experiences.
For families, the larger ships offer the most activities and shore excursions that are suitable for kids. Carnival and Royal Caribbean, for example, offer a "Reversing the Rapids Jet Boat Ride" in Saint John, New Brunswick, while Princess showcases sea kayaking in Acadia National Park and Royal Caribbean features a tug boat tour in Halifax Harbor designed specifically for kids.
Beyond the fact that cruising's big ships can't make it to some of the smaller, more colorful ports in the region, folks wanting a more in-depth Canada/New England experience can opt for a cruise that is all about the ports (and less about casinos and pool bars). You won't get the elaborate shows or formal nights on these vessels, but you will be able to get up close and personal with little coves and towns. Some options include:
American Cruise Lines operates 31-cabin vessels out of Providence, Rhode Island, with seven-night cruises to the islands in and around Massachusetts, and from Bangor, Maine, with coastal stops in that state.
St. Lawrence Cruise Lines offers a totally different perspective on the Canadian Empress, a 66-passenger replica river steamboat. Traveling the St. Lawrence from Quebec City to Kingston, Ontario, the vessel stops in many unique and interesting towns along the way.
Maine Windjammer has a fleet of schooners, complete with billowing sails, that accommodate from as few as six to as many as 40 guests. On these little vessels you can get right to the foot of lighthouses, into protected coves, and within feet of the dolphins, whales and seals in the region. This line is particularly family-friendly (though we recommend it for older kids).
Top 10 Fun Facts
And now, our picks for the top 10 fun facts about a Canada/New England cruise:
Besides fall leaf-peeping, which of course can be spectacular, whale-watching excursions in New England are the number one draw during the late summer and fall months. The most common sightings are humpbacks, but other species are seen as well, including minke whales, finback whales and right whales. Whales and dolphins can also be seen while at sea; maybe you'll be lucky enough to spot a narwhal, a unique species with one tooth piercing its upper lip. It is believed that the narwhal is the inspiration for the mythical unicorn.
Visiting the cities in this region can offer a wealth of cultural opportunities, but almost all of them have a quirky, off-the-beaten-track museum or two that might be fun to visit. Take the kids to the only Toilet Museum in the world, in Worcester, for example, or to see the witches' stocks in old Salem, or to the Green Animals Mansion in Newport, wherein an entire zoo's worth of topiary awaits. The legendary L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, stays open 24 hours a day, and you can see Lenny, the 1,700-pound moose sculpted entirely from chocolate, at Len Libby's in Bar Harbor. In Prince Edward Island, you can visit Avonlea, home of "Anne of Green Gables."
Most people don't realize that New England and eastern Canada is a great wine producing region, with several wineries in Massachusetts, Maine, Quebec and Nova Scotia. You can make an entire day trip out of visiting local wineries; in fact, some cruises highlight that in their itineraries.
Montreal has a notable jazz festival, film festival and comedy competition every year, but it is also gaining repute as one of the leading fashion design cities in the world. Take a stroll through Old Montreal and the converted buildings around the old port; you can visit the designers' studios and, who knows, you might just meet the next Versace or Vera Wang. And by the way, making a purchase from one of these soon-to-be-famous designers may not be as big a bargain as it used to be due to a less powerful U.S. dollar but the exchange rate still offers a good value.
Here's a fun fact that rarely sees print: There are more bars and pubs per capita in the city of Halifax than in any other city in North America. As a result, the pub-crawling excursion is one of the most popular on any cruise ship.
St. John's is located on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, an area rich with the lore of fairies. Yes, fairies -- in fact, many of the towns around the peninsula are named Fairy-something-or-other, and locals still tell fairy stories in the pubs and bars around the region.
The Ben and Bill's Chocolate Emporium in Bar Harbor serves lobster ice cream. Now that's something to write home about.
Fjords aren't limited to Norway and Chile; North America has them too. A bizarre geographical confluence created the Saguenay Fjord, in that it's located in the heart of the province of Quebec and is fed by both the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Lawrence Seaway. It's unique, the only one of its kind in the world. It's not as spectacular as the European or South American fjords, nor as pristinely beautiful as those in Alaska, but if your cruise itinerary has a day of cruising the Saguenay, you are lucky indeed.
The old quarter of Quebec City is the only fortified city in North America. You can wander the ramparts and look down into the maze of cobblestoned streets below. There's a funicular a few blocks away that descends to Lower Town, not far from the docks, a very steep (but very short) ride that delights children.
You can spend a day walking The Freedom Trail in Boston, the very route that Paul Revere took to warn of the British invasion of the city. It's two and a half miles long, so wear good shoes. Plan to stop in some of the bakeries in Little Italy (on the trail) for sustenance.
--By San Diego-based Jana Jones, the creator and editor of Sleeping-Around.com, the lodging-oriented web site, and one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.