As down-home charm and beautiful scenery go, there's nothing like a slow meander along the coast of New England and Eastern Canada. In September and October, a raft of ships big and small depart New York, Boston, Montreal, Quebec City and few other locales and hit the region's most picturesque places in just time for the leaves to turn [see Legends of the Fall: Ships Head North for Yankee Leaf-Peeping for details on ships and itineraries].
While there's plenty of charm what with all the Victorian mansions, lighthouses and fishing boats, there's also heaps of history as well. The birthplace of America and Canada, 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 to these parts 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. Here are snapshots of the most popular ports on this route and the highlights you shouldn't miss.
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. Because of its beautiful natural setting, Bar Harbor is included on many cruise itineraries, getting more calls than Portland does, to the south. 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. You'll see what we mean as you approach Frenchman's Bay with Cadillac Mountain looming just beyond the jagged coastline. Named "Isles des Monts-Deserts," meaning bare mountains, by French Explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604, the region has been a favorite attraction for decades.
Once in town -- ships either dock or anchor about 10 minutes from the shore -- most people want to see the Arcadia National Park. Your cruise ship will likely offer options for guided walks or bus rides along the 27-mile Park Loop Road, which wends around 1,530-foot-high Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic coast. My favorite mode of transport is a bicycle, and some ships offer bike tours that traverse a stretch of the 55-mile car-free carriage trails that wind through the park (you can also rent bikes in town). Horse-drawn carriage rides are another popular way to tour the park.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax is the St. Thomas of the Canadian Maritimes. Just about all ships stop there and the place is hopping. It helps that the city is a large natural deep-water port and has an especially pleasing harborside setting and tree-lined streets. The Micmac Indians, the first inhabitants, as well as the arrival of the French and British in the 17th Century have created a rich historical tapestry. The city eventually became a thriving shipbuilding and trading center as well as a military hub for the Royal Army and Navy. In recent years, it's evolved into a vital commercial and financial hub, as well as a home to a number of colleges and universities.
Within walking distance of the ship 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. You may want to check out the Halifax Citadel, built between 1820 and 1856 in the shape of a star, for panoramic views of the area.
Though there's plenty of history to keep you occupied, you could skip the bookish stuff, and head right for one of the woody English-style pubs for brew or two. Ship tours 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
To glimpse The Lives of the Rich and Famous, or at least the legacy they left behind, a day in Newport will be well spent. From the Vanderbilts to the Astors, anyone who was anyone had a summer mansion here at the turn of the century. Sitting on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay and connected to the mainland by three bridges, it's not difficult to understand how this picture-postcard seaside setting drew the elite who could have summered anywhere they darn well pleased. Yachting was favorite pastime of the Newport elite, and competition among them established Newport's reputation as a sailing center. 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.
Newport offers the beautiful sea and its scenic rocky coastline, as well as a bustling scene in town, all cobblestone streets, shady trees, cute cafes, and those famous mansions. Just a few blocks from the pier is "Historic Hill" one of the most impressive concentrations of original 18th- and 19th-century colonial, Federal, and Victorian houses in America, many of them designated National Historic Sites.
Most people, though, want to see the mansions -- including the Marble House, featuring more than 500,000 square feet of white marble, and The Breakers; an over-the-top Italian Renaissance palace, which includes two rooms originally constructed in France and reassembled in Newport. All ships will 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. For background info on most of Newport's mansions, go to www.newportmansions.org.
Other notably Newport site include the 242-year-old Touro Synagogue, said to be the country's oldest continually operating synagogue, the 1726-built Trinity Church; and the International Tennis Hall of Fame, one of the only places in North America where you can play on a grass court.
Saint John, New Brunswick
Another popular port for big ships is Saint John, with an easily accessible deep-water harbor. Set along the Bay of Fundy at the mouth of the St. John River, the city sits along a sizeable commercial port. Like Halifax, the city's lineage includes the French and British, who settled there in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the turn of the 20th century, Saint John had become an important shipbuilding hub. 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, making it probably one of the least interesting ports of the New England/Canada route.
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. This large tidal swing means some 2 billion gallons of water surge into the Bay twice a day. It's actually an amazing thing to witness, and your ship will have a guided tour here.
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.
Besides the major ports most of the big ships hit, there are slew of smaller spots rich in local charm that are frequented by the smaller ships and occasionally the big ones too.
Founded 350 years ago, New London, Connecticut, offers the visitor a taste of Colonial history in its vintage 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century homes and buildings. If you're willing to travel a few miles, other nearby attractions include Mystic Seaport, Eugene O'Neill's summer home, and the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos.
Located in the northern reaches of Narragansett Bay, about 20 miles north of Newport, Rhode Island, visitors to Fall River, Massachusetts, can enjoy a trip on some historic boats, including the Battleship USS Massachusetts, submarine Lionfish, and other veterans of World War II. At the town's Marine Museum, you'll find artifacts from the Titanic, while at the Lizzie Borden Museum, you can get the down and dirty details on that famous unsolved murder mystery. The whaling capital of the world in the 19th century, New Bedford, Massachusetts, remains a major Atlantic deep-sea fishing port. Spend your time in port at the town's Whaling Museum and enjoy ship replicas, whale skeletons and paintings, glasswork, and scrimshaw, which is carved whalebone or whale ivory. Cuttyhunk, a tiny island off the coast of New Bedford, is also included in a few small-ship itineraries. The sleepy stretch of land is all about beaches and serene strolls along rolling hills. Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, is classic New England, and was the world's top whaling hub before New Bedford's stole the show. Today, the island is vastly popular, but still manages to maintain a low-key attitude. The island's great public beaches, including the Jetties or Surfside, are the great draw. Martha's Vineyard, also 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. Francophiles will love St. Pierre & Miquelon, a group of small islands off the southern coast of Newfoundland that still cling to their French roots (many residents are descendants of Arcadians and Basques), speaking the language and offering classic French fare and wines in their restaurants. 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 can be exceedingly picturesque: The film The Shipping News, a montage of stunning seascapes, was filmed in Newfoundland.
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