Though Atlantic Canada’s natural attractions can match those of Alaska, it also has the advantages of a longer season (April to October, compared with April to September) and the proximity to potential passengers on the East Coast and the Midwest.
Today, there are more choices at every price point (from Carnival to Crystal and Regent), and on vessels of every size, from the big ships of Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, to the small ships of Seabourn and Ponant, to the even smaller ships of Blount Small Ship Adventures.
As I had experienced big-ship cruises that included often-visited ports -- Bar Harbor, Halifax, Sydney, Charlottetown, Quebec City and Montreal -- I was eager to explore small ports not accessible to the big ships. During my 11-day/10-night cruise on Ponant’s Le Boreal, the first new (to me) port was Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, where the principal attraction is the 18th century Fortress of Louisbourg, a national historic site operated by Parks Canada as a living history museum. During the three-hour Louisbourg Fort excursion, daily life is represented by costumed townspeople, mock trials, bread baking, lace-making -- the usual activities of the time.
The weather was balmy when Le Boreal docked at Cap-aux-Meules in the Magdalen Islands (Iles de la Madeleine), where the Maritime & Acadian History excursion began at the home of a retired sea captain who told seafaring stories and showed the small village he’d built depicting life on the islands. Next was a visit to Havre-Aubert, a fishing and yachting harbor and one of the most beautiful villages in Quebec, where the Acadian influence was visible in the architecture of the fishing huts, boutiques and the courthouse. At the Fumoir d’Antan (smokehouse) in Havre-aux-Maisons, we learned about the smoked fish industry and sampled the products. The final stop was the church in Laverniere, the second largest wooden church in North America, constructed in 1876, partly of wood salvaged
from hundreds of shipwrecks.
BRING YOUR CAMERA
The sun was shining again when Le Boreal docked at Perce. My choice, the Gannet Colony Walk on Bonaventure Island began with a half-hour ride to the island, followed by a brisk half-hour hike. The grade was fairly steep on the dirt trail, but at top of the mountain, the view was dazzling - about 65,000 birds, grooming, flying, doing whatever gannets do in the period before they migrate down to the Gulf of Mexico. For photographers accustomed to physical activity, this was a five-star excursion.
After cruising overnight, we arrived at Havre Saint-Pierre, a small town on the Quebec north shore of the Saint Lawrence River. As not many ships call here, the locals greeted us with friendly smiles. The Mingan Archipelago - Niapiskau excursion began with a boat trip through the Mingan archipelago, a scattering of some 30 limestone islands and more than 1,000 granite islets and reefs, home to seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales. At Niapiskau, a Park Canada guide led the group through centuries-old monoliths carved by Nature. Once again, photographers had a field day, taking pictures of monoliths that looked like a turtle, an alligator, a Scot wearing a beret - and former President Nixon in profile.
Even before Le Boreal docked at Tadoussac, an announcement came over the ship’s p.a. system: “Beluga whale swimming at 11 o’clock.” Everyone rushed to an open deck and aimed cameras at the open sea. This was a good sign for passengers booked on the Whale Watching by Zodiac excursion, which did prove to be
My Animal Rescue Center & Sugar Shack excursion took place in the small village of Sacre Coeur, home to Domaine des Ancetres, which consists of a lodge, an animal orphanage and a black bear observation center. After a 25-minute French documentary on the orphanage, the naturalist guide led the group to a covered shelter, to observe the cleared area where, hopefully, at least one bear would appear. Patience was rewarded and a bear showed up several times to feed on the food that had been put out. Passengers also gave this experience high ratings.
In Saguenay, excursion choices included A Stroll in the Saguenay National Park, Cultural Show La Fabuleuse, Saguenay Fjord by Seaplane and Discovery of New France. The highlights of this cruise for me were docking at ports that rarely see any cruise ships, sailing at night and arriving in a new port every day, and the variety of shore excursions.