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As the northeast continues to bake in record-breaking heat, there's no better time to look forward to the cool, crisp days of autumn.

This fall a boatload of ships are heading north to the waters of New England and eastern Canada, most doing the run in September and October from New York, Boston, Montreal, Quebec City and a few other locales, just in time for the leaves to turn.

Cruises to these parts aren't for party animals or sunbathers, but rather anyone happy with a slow and easy pace and a taste of classic down-home charm. A cruise to New England and Canada works for folks who have an appreciation for maritime history, a kind regard for small towns, and penchant for the simple pleasures of being on a ship at sea.

The fall months are prime leaf peeping season, but keep in mind, on a giant mega ship, you won't be cruising close enough to the coast to get a glimpse of the brilliant foliage; you'll have to wait until you pull into a port of call. On the other hand, the smaller ships of lines like Seabourn, will often be close enough to the shore to see the brilliant hues of the changing leaves.

Here's a roundup of the main players plying the coastal waters of New England and eastern Canada during late summer and fall 2006.

Carnival Cruise Lines ( tel. 888/CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com)

Through October, 2,758-passenger Carnival Victory, round-trip from New York

  • 4 nighters call on Halifax
  • 5 nighters Halifax and Saint John (New Brunswick)
  • 7 nighters Halifax, Saint John, Boston and Portland

Celebrity Cruises (tel. 800/647-2251; www.celebrity.com)

Sept-Oct, 1,950 -passenger Constellation, round-trip from Cape Liberty, New Jersey.

  • 11 nighter visits  Boston, Portland & Bar Harbor (Maine), Halifax, Quebec City, and Saint John
  • 13 nighters call on above ports plus Newport, Prince.Edward Island and/or Baie-Comeau (Canada)

Crystal Cruises (tel. 888/799-4625; www.crystalcruises.com)

Sept-Oct, 940 -passenger Crystal Symphony, round-trip from New York or between New York and Montreal

  • 7 nighters call on Halifax, Boston, Bar Harbor and Newport
  • 11 nighters visit Halifax, Boston, Bar Harbor, Newport, Quebec City, and/or La Baie des Ha! Ha! (Canada) or Saint John

Cunard (tel. 800/7-CUNARD; www.cunard.com)

Sept-Oct, 2,620-passenger QM2, round-trip from Brooklyn, New York

  • 4 nighter calls on Halifax
  • 12 nighters calling on Sydney, Corner Brook (Newfoundland), Quebec City, Halifax, Saint John, Boston, Bar Harbor and Newport

Holland America (tel. 877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com)

Through Oct, 1,380- passenger Amsterdam and 1,266-passenger Maasdam, between Montreal and Boston, or between Montreal and New York

  • 7 nighters (Maasdam) call on Halifax, Bar Harbor, Sydney (Nova Scotia), Prince Edward Island and Québec City
  • 10 nighters (Amsterdam) visit Halifax, Bar Harbor, Sydney, Prince Edward Island, Québec City, Newport and Gloucester (Massachusetts)

Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com)

Sept-Oct, 2,224-passenger Norwegian Dawn, round-trip from New York

  • 7 nighters call on Martha's Vineyard, Halifax, Boston, Bar Harbor and Newport

Princess Cruises (tel. 800/774-6237; www.princess.com)

Sept-Oct, 2,600-passenger Star Princess on 7 nighters round-trip out of New York and 1,950-passenger Sea Princess on 10 nighters between New York and Quebec City

  • 7 nighters call on Newport, Boston, Bar Harbor, Saint John and Halifax
  • 10 nighters visit Ville Saguenay, Sydney, Halifax, Saint John, Bar Harbor, Boston and Newport

Royal Caribbean (tel. 866/562-7625; www.royalcaribbean.com)

Sept-Oct, 2,100-passenger Jewel of the Seas, round-trip out of Boston

  • 5 nighters call on Portland, Bar Harbor and Halifax
  • 7 nighters call on Martha's Vineyard, Portland, Bar Harbor, Halifax and Saint John

Seabourn (tel. 800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com)

Oct, 208-passenger Seabourn Pride, between Quebec City and Gloucester/Boston

  • 8 nighters call on Portland, Baddeck (Nova Scotia), Prince Edward Island, Port Saguenay or Gaspe, Sydney, Halifax, Lunenburg and Bar Harbor (can be combined for 16 night cruise)

Port Highlights

There's plenty of good old fashioned down home charm in the region's Victorian mansions, cobblestone streets, lighthouses and bustling harbors. America and Canada were born in these parts, and the past come alive in places like Boston's Paul Revere House, the Titanic exhibit at the Maritime Museum in Halifax and Québec City's 17th-century Notre-Dame des Victoires Church. The French, English, Scottish, and other settlers who have immigrated here since the 17th century, have all left their mark on ports along New England and eastern Canada.

Most New England and eastern Canada ports are places you can explore on foot, strolling along historic streets dotted with cafes, gift shops and local museums. Walking tours are popular excursions here as are bus tours to neighboring communities.

Bar Harbor, Maine

A far cry from its hey day 100 years ago when Bar Harbor was the place for wealthy families to get away from it all, the humble port is still appealing, you're just more likely to find ice-cream parlors, lobster shacks and t-shirt shops than a socialite out for a morning stroll. Overlooking Frenchman's Bay from its perch on Mt. Desert Island, which is connected to the mainland via a bridge, Bar Harbor's real pull is its accessibility to the lush Acadia National Park, which covers most of the 13- by 16-mile island.

Once in town -- ships either dock or anchor about 10 minutes from the shore -- typical tours of the Park include guided walks, bike excursions, horse-drawn carriage rides, or bus tours along Arcadia's 27-mile Park Loop Road, which wends around 1,530-foot-high Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic coast.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Just about all ships call here at the city's natural deep-water port with an especially pleasing harborside setting and tree-lined streets. Halifax's identity is a stew of French and British heritage, mixed together with a strong shipbuilding, trading and military history.

Within walking distance of the docks is Pier 21, Halifax's version of Ellis Island, where more than a million immigrants have entered Canada. A few steps from here is the very worthwhile Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where exhibits include an impressive collection of Titanic artifacts and ship models -- Titanic victims were brought to Halifax after the ill-fated sinking. There's also a fascinating exhibit on the incredible explosion that leveled much of the city in 1917, when a French munitions ship collided with a Norwegian steamer. For panoramic views of the area, head to the Halifax Citadel, built in the early 19th century in the shape of a star.

Other tour options include pub crawls, city walking and bus tours, and excursions to Peggy's Cove, a picturesque hamlet along the rugged Atlantic shoreline, and the Fairview Cemetery just outside of town, where 120 Titanic victims were buried in 1912.

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport is classic New England. With a scenic rocky coastline and picture perfect harbor, it's no surprise aristocrats like the Vanderbilts to the Astors built summer mansions in Newport at the turn of the century. Yachting was the favorite pastime of the Newport elite and has remained a big part of the town's identify. As you're shuttled through Newport's colorful harbor between your ship anchored offshore and the downtown pier, you can see the handful of 12-meter America's Cup racing yachts moored in the harbor. In town, cobblestone streets, shady trees, cute cafes, and 18th- and 19th-century colonial, Federal, and Victorian houses, make the sightseeing here quite worthwhile.

Oh, and let's not forget about those famous mansions (www.newportmansions.org), which include the Marble House, featuring more than 500,000 square feet of white marble, and The Breakers, an over-the-top Italian Renaissance palace, which has two rooms originally constructed in France and reassembled in Newport. All ships offer guided excursions to see them. A great way to visit the mansions and have a scenic walk to boot is to follow the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk, which meanders between Newport's rocky coastline and many of the town's Gilded Age mansion estates. It provides better views of many of them than can be seen from the street.

Saint John, New Brunswick

Saint John is another main port on the big ship circuit because of its convenient deep-water harbor. Set along the Bay of Fundy at the mouth of the St. John River, the restored historic district known as Trinity Royal and the City Market, are the best places to see the city's heritage, though overall, Saint John lacks Halifax's charm and more impressive historical attractions.

Among the most worthwhile ways to spend the day is to take a gander at the Reversing Falls Rapids, a much-photographed spot where the Bay of Fundy meets the St. John River, and strong tidal conditions cause harbor currents to reverse. You can also tour the city by San Francisco-style bus trolley or an open-air carriage that seats just a handful of couples, with the guide discusses the sights along the way.

Other ports

Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, is New England's largest island. Besides its handsome old towns, the Vineyard is a haven for nature lovers. You'll find great beaches, though many are private, as well as dramatic cliffs and meadows that make for great long walks and bicycle rides.

Maine's largest city, Portland, is set on a peninsula in scenic Casco Bay. The top attractions include the Portland Headlight, America's oldest lighthouse in continuous use, and that bastion of practical outdoor ware, L.L.Bean, located in nearby Freeport.

Just southwest of Halifax is Lunenburg, Nova Scotia's main fishing port and a great area to spot whales. The 19th-century architecture that survives in this former British Colonial settlement landed Lunenburg on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list.

Head for the hills when you debark in industrial Sydney, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It's the Cape Breton Highlands where you want to spend your time. The 175-mile-long Cabot Trail, all lakes, dramatic cliffs, and panoramic vistas, is the island's main attraction. You'll see Acadian fishing ports, pristine valleys, and some of the most picturesque coastline anywhere. If you're lucky, you'll spot moose, bald eagles, puffin, and humpback whales in the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest province and the birthplace of Canada in 1867, you can visit historical sites, including the house of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote the well-known novel Anne of Green Gables about the innocence and beauty of turn-of-the-20th-century life on the island. Or opt for a drive along one of the island's scenic highways, which wend past sandstone cliffs, rocky coves, lovely beaches, and fishing villages.

The string of humble towns along the beautiful Gaspe Peninsula on the southern shores of the St. Lawrence River, are set amidst the best of nature's bounty. Search for whales, go birding, or enjoy a walk along a seaside trail in Gaspe, Perce, or Bonaventure Island.

Not to be confused with Saint John, New Brunswick, a port that sees much more traffic than this small outpost, St. John's is the capital of Newfoundland and the oldest city in all of Canada, dating back to 1582. The landscape in these parts is brooding and soulful, it's not surprise that the film The Shipping News, a montage of stunning seascapes, was filmed in Newfoundland.

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