No one reviews cruises like Max Williams, and today he tells us about his voyage on ‘the other side’ of Canada and North America.
We board the Holland American Lines (HAL) MS Veendam in Montreal, Canada. There are 1300 passengers joining us for this seven-night cruise up the St Lawrence river in Eastern Canada to our destination: Boston. We have stops in Quebec City, Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Sydney and Halifax in Nova Scotia, and Bar Harbor in Maine, USA. Shore excursions are generally expensive, but we are able to find a relatively cheap alternative.
On this cruise we select a starboard (right side) Lanai cabin with a Common Promenade deck. This means that we have a land view throughout the cruise on our clockwise route. It has see-out but not see-in sliding door access. What fun it is to sit and watch the passing parade of walkers and people in their lounge chairs on the deck. I have even seen a couple of guide dogs doing laps with their handlers. Maybe we’re on the poop deck! That special doggie toilet area down the end is a giveaway.
The first thing we usually do when we board a ship is get unpacked, although you might have to wait a few hours for your bags to appear. Our individual cases are offloaded from the taxi to dock side at the same time but are delivered three hours later. How does that work?
Never mind. Off to one of the many bars while we wait. Our cruise fare comes with a classic alcohol drinks package, including specialty coffees. The package allows for 15 drinks a day, each under US$9 (all purchases onboard HAL ships are in US dollars plus 15 per cent tax), but realistically, there is no way we can reach that limit. Although – he says out of the corner of his mouth – we did give it a nudge on some days.
The cost for the cruise per person is A$3350 plus onboard purchases and gratuities (we negotiated to pay only one person’s gratuity because we figure that because we were doing most things together, there is only one service provided, not two).
We’re off exploring the ship, and it doesn’t take long to get our bearings and find the main areas – restaurants, bars, lounges, theatre, casino, and dare I say it, the gym. This last area is perhaps the most important of them all (chill out, Max, you’re on holidays) because I understand the average weight gain is over half a kilo a day. Hang on, folks, I’m working it out. Bloody hell, that’s about 5kg over the entire cruise! I can tell you that even at this early stage, my new belt notch is getting a real workout! Food, food, food – with excellent service to go with it.
Most of the staff are Indonesian or Filipino who treat us very well indeed. This is what cruising and great service is all about. From the cleaners to the waiters to the office staff, everyone greets you with a smile and with a ‘what can I do for you’ attitude.
If I am asked to describe four standout things to rate a cruise on (as this is our fifth cruise, we have a reasonable idea of what we like) they would be, in no particular order: cuisine; route and ports of call; entertainment; and cruise line (size of ship, number of passengers and type of cruise line).
This cruise ticks all the boxes: excellent food, great entertainment (singers, dancers, comedian, magician), medium-sized ship, so it’s easy to get around, and, apart from fabulous Quebec City, some lesser known ports with plenty of character.
We make full use of the easy access promenade deck for morning walks (no running allowed), photo ops or just lazing on the lounges. Four laps of the deck are one mile (1.6kms) – you might need a jacket early in the morning as the air is rather brisk.
The weather in mid-August is great. Generally, clear skies with sunny and mild temperatures during the day. The beautifully coloured autumn foliage that the Canadian and New England east coast is known for appears later in September and October. Apparently, it’s a spectacular sight but, of course, the weather would be much colder.
We’re in Montreal overnight during pre-embarkation, and we make the most of our time there with a city tour via coach as well as a walk around this vibrant place.
We listen to a stirring organ rendition of Star Wars in the Notre Dame Basilica – rather strange for a church but appreciated by the hundreds of tourists there. We walk through Chinatown and are intrigued by the long queue at a ‘hole in the wall’ selling Chinese crepes. I wonder what they taste like?
Go underground and you will find another city. During the harsh winters there’s really no need to surface. It’s easy to get lost in the underground labyrinth of malls, filled with restaurants, boutique shops and the Metro rail system.
The fog horn sounds, and we’re sailing! The shores of the St Lawrence River are generally heavily wooded and speckled with fabulous houses and villages.
The tour standard is set when we dock in Quebec City. This place is as French as you can get without being in France, where the primary language spoken, street signs, restaurants, cuisine and architecture are French. The fabulous Frontenac Fairmont Hotel towers over this two-level city. From the dock you can struggle up the 300 steps or take a ride in the Funicular to the upper level. This place has a wonderful vibe and you really need a few days to soak it all up.
Our day out at sea and overnight sail to Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island is a chance to recharge the batteries. Spare time is easily used up: enter the Blackjack competition; find a private nook on board to enjoy the sun streaming through the window and read a book; find a spot out of the cool breeze near the upper deck pool or just lie on a lounge and gaze at the ever-changing shoreline.
During the cruise we spot porpoises and whales in the distance. The captain informs us that he has to slow the ship down for the day to avoid colliding with one of the mammals.
The entertainment on board is professional and enjoyable – a great singing and dancing group as well as a magician, and a talented and very funny stand-up comedian, Jeff Burghart from Texas.
We opt for fixed dining initially but changed to anytime dining after a couple of nights. This gives us flexibility for early or late sittings, which means we can choose an early or late show. Also, it is useful if we have an early shore excursion the next day.
Shore excursions always seem to be a dilemma. Do I do my own thing or choose one of the many ship tours available? Well, the first thing to do before you leave home is to do your research. The ship options are generally expensive compared with a private tour or renting a car. The land tours normally use large coaches and have limited stops.
I find TomsPortGuides, a website that provides a comprehensive look at the options for all the ports on our cruise and elsewhere. Tom’s website car hire options interests me enough to take on the advice for three of our ports of call. If you Aussies are comfortable driving on the wrong side of the road, then this is for you. It’s easy driving and on good roads. What we do is to ask other people we meet on board if they want to join us and share the cost. It is no more than about US$25 each for every car hire, about three times less than for the same ship tour, and you have the luxury of doing your own thing. We follow the website’s detailed car hire routes with recommended stops for photo ops. We always get back in plenty of time before departure.
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Charlottetown is the site of Canada’s birthplace as a country in 1867, and there are historic places of interest to visit. However, I reckon getting out and driving around the countryside is far better than hanging around the port. Although the port villages are rather quaint, the rolling green hills and unique churches and other architecture in this part of the world are well worth seeing.
The roads on Prince Edward Island are smooth and easy to navigate. We visit Teapot Rock, so called because that’s what it looks like. There are No Trespassing signs on the upper cliff walk. They looked new and were not mentioned in Tom’s website guide. However, no one came out toting a shotgun. Probably better to walk along the beach to get to the rock.
The spectacular coastline and small fishing hamlets on the island combined with beautiful weather made for a great day’s outing. You can visit the birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables book series. You can also wander through Anne’s fictional home at Green Gables.
Don’t forget to indulge yourself in the ‘signature’ meal of these parts – a lobster roll. These are available at many of the seaside villages along your route. I’m normally not a lobster lover but after eating this roll, my mind has changed. Yummy!
The township of Sydney on Cape Breton Island is hardly worth a visit. The town itself has nothing of note. The port has a massive violin, which is worth a photo, and there is a boardwalk near the dock to stretch the legs. It is much wiser to hire a car here and explore the countryside.
The car hire companies have free shuttle vans at the dock to take you about 2kms to their office. They also drop you back. We drive a Budget car to Bedeck, a small fishing village in a beautiful setting on a causeway lake, about a one-and-a-half-hour smooth freeway drive from Sydney. This is where the Alexander Graham Bell museum is located. Bell spent many years here, alternating from his home in Scotland. We don’t have time to visit the museum, but according to all reports, it is well worth it.
The famous Silver Dart is here, which Bell piloted in 1907 on the first flight in Canada. An alternative route in Tom’s website takes you around the famous Cabot Trail. Apparently, it is well worth a drive and you get to view some magnificent scenery. If you want to immerse yourself in French colonial history, take a trip to Louisebourg National Historic Site, an impressive restoration of a French garrison town dating from the 1700s.
Halifax in Nova Scotia is a large city of about 500,000 people and is the fourth most popular live-in city in Canada. The terminal area is large and the Hertz satellite office, which is located at the dock, is hard to find. Do a search before your pickup.
About half an hour’s drive from Halifax, along a most picturesque lakeside road, is the most photographed icon in Canada, the Lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove. This place is a must-see – a rocky and rugged setting overlooking the Atlantic, with colourful houses and a natural inlet for fishing craft. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to avoid the crowds and tourist buses that come from the cruise ships.
Farther away, also a picturesque drive, is Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An absolutely gorgeous, beautifully restored Victorian fishing village with unique colourful houses in an idyllic setting. There are many restaurants and gift shops. The waterfront is abuzz with activity. Here, you’ll find the Bluenose 2, which is a replica of the original (a fishing and racing schooner built in 1921), and which was built in 1963. It is a huge tourist attraction in the area. Again, the crowds and buses are prolific.
Our final port before Boston is Bar Harbor in Maine, USA. Clocks go back one hour here. We ride a ‘tender’ ashore and take a local ‘Oli’s Trolley’ (a bus) on a two-and-a-half-hour tour of Acadia National Park around the island.
It is well worth doing the tour, which had quite a few appropriate stops for photo opportunities. Cadillac Mountain is the highest point. It is cold and windy, but with great views of the township and our ship way below. Obviously, this town relies on tourism and is peppered with the usual gift shops and restaurants. There are lots of small food shops selling lobster rolls here.
We arrive in Boston early, and disembark. There are a few hours to kill before flying out, so we take a ship’s bus tour of the city. It’s a bit expensive for what you get, but the upside is that you don’t have to store your baggage and you are dropped off at the airport at the end of the 90-minute tour.
We had been to Boston before, otherwise we would have stayed for a few nights. With its interesting history, the fabulous city of Boston is worth a longer stay .
We ticked off another adventure. What a great way to see another part of Canada and the USA – so different from the western side, but just as spectacular.