Story by Ming Tappin
Vacay.ca Cruise Columnist
Cruises cover the waterways of the world, but there are plenty of choices in our own backyard that we may not think of when deciding on a voyage at sea. Here are five cruise destinations easily reached by Canadians, either sailing from a Canadian port, or one that is not too far away.
Departing from Vancouver between May and September, Alaska cruises are a perennial favourite amongst Canadians. With abundant daily flights and a beautiful departure port at Canada Place, Alaska is accessible from all Canadian cities. The most popular sailing is the seven-day Inside Passage cruise, visiting Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and a glacier-viewing opportunity either at Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm Fjord, or Hubbard Glacier. Although popular for the convenience of a roundtrip sailing from Vancouver, the Inside Passage cruise only touches the Alaskan panhandle — which makes up just six per cent of the sprawling state.
For a more immersive Alaskan experience, we recommend the seven-day glacier route cruise, sailing between Vancouver and Seward, plus a tour through Anchorage, Denali and McKinley National Parks, Fairbanks and beyond. Lasting up to two weeks, these cruise tours include rail travel, stays at wilderness lodges, a deeper insight into Alaska’s gold-rush history, and opportunities for wildlife viewing. Here is where you will experience Alaska’s majestic mountains, abundant wildlife and vast wilderness. If you only go to Alaska once, this is the trip to do.
Cruise Tips: Prices are lowest in May but temperatures may also be at the lowest and ice conditions may prevent up-close glacier viewing. Even when sailing in the summer, bring all cold weather gear including gloves, hat, scarf, waterproof and windproof wear. Pack clothing in layers so they can easily be added on or removed as weather changes.
Canada and New England
This often overlooked cruise deserves mention because it is a good opportunity to discover Canada’s east coast as well as the New England states. A Canada and New England cruise takes in the Maritime provinces, Quebec, and states of Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Itineraries are as short as five nights, sailing from New York. Longer sailings can be up to two weeks, either roundtrip from New York, or sailing between New York and Montreal or Quebec City. These cruises incorporate untamed Atlantic coastlines, quaint seaside villages, and colonial American history. Of course, a trip to these parts wouldn’t be complete without sampling the region’s fresh seafood.
Cruises during September and October offer a bonus attraction when the fall foliage colours are at their best. The deck of a ship gives a stunning perspective when viewing the fiery colours of the coniferous forest beyond, and guests are rewarded with ever-changing scenery as the ship sails through the region.
Another highlight is a jaunt up the Saguenay River. Flowing from the Laurentian highlands into the Saint Lawrence River, this 170-kilometre (105-mile) waterway was an important trade route for the French explorers and First Nations people, and later for logging and pulp industries. Today, the Saguenay River is home to Saguenay Fjord National Park, with hiking trails, kayaking and boating excursions. Wildlife-viewing opportunities abound as the river is home to beluga whales and other marine mammals.
Cruise Tip: Only one or two sailings occur during the height of the fall colours, so plan accordingly if you would like that seasonal attraction to be a part of your experience. Not all cruises include the Saguenay River as it is inaccessible to large ships, check the itinerary carefully if it is on your to-do list. If you sail on a cruise between Montreal or Quebec city and New York, we highly encourage spending a few days before and after the cruise to explore these world-class cities.
Newfoundland and Labrador
Newfoundland can be visited as part of a Canada-New England cruise or a transatlantic crossing, generally calling at St. John’s or Corner Brook. Known for its rugged coastline and colourful wooden houses dotting the shore, the island is also called The Rock for good reason. Its geology is one of the oldest on earth, with continental rock dating back 3,800 million years. The entire island is a haven for outdoor activities from hiking, biking, boating, photography, wildlife and bird watching, including puffins, murres, gannets, and kittiwakes. Most of all, the friendliness and warmth of the Newfoundlanders is sure to bring you joy. Spend enough time chatting with them and you’ll end up having dinner at their house.
A few cruise lines sail to Newfoundland between spring and fall. Once a year, expedition cruise company Adventure Canada operates a sailing circumnavigating the island. The 10-night cruise takes visitors to major sites including Gros Morne National Park, L’Anse Aux Meadows and Labrador’s Red Bay.
Beyond the spectacular scenery, the trip is truly a chance for guests to delve deep into Newfoundland’s rich history and culture and engage with the locals in the communities visited. The expedition is staffed with a team of experts including an archeologist, photographer, naturalists, geologist, musicians and social hosts.
Cruise Tips: Because of its northerly location, Newfoundland visitors should be prepared for cool temperatures and wet weather even at the height of summer. Waterproof and windproof clothing are a must. The waterways may be packed with sea ice into the summer, providing rewarding views of icebergs and ice dams. However, sometimes this can intervene with the ship’s route, requiring itinerary modifications.
The High Arctic
Ranking first on the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2018, the high Arctic is certainly the nation’s last frontier of unspoiled wilderness. Visiting by ship is by far the most feasible, and most comfortable way to go. Cruises visit remote outposts on Baffin Island, Greenland, Labrador and Resolute Bay. Here you will find pristine fjords, glaciers, icebergs, polar bears, beluga whales and walrus. Traverse the lands by hiking and explore the waters by Zodiac boat. Most of all, immerse with Inuit communities by attending cultural presentations, sampling local cuisine, and learning arts and crafts.
There are longer voyages through the Northwest Passage in the height of summer, traversing the entire maritime route between Greenland and Alaska. In recent years, luxury ocean cruise line Crystal Cruises made headlines for being the first large ship to sail the Northwest Passage, increasing public interest to discover these unspoiled lands. But by the most part, these voyages are operated by expedition companies, with small ships purpose built with ice-strengthened hulls, carrying the necessary equipment and Zodiacs to offer shore landings.
Travellers can retrace the steps of famous explorers, including Sir John Franklin and Roald Amundsen. A full Northwest Passage voyage will take up to three weeks, while shorter segments are available between Greenland and Nunavut.
Cruise Tips: Early booking is a must on Arctic cruises, as there are only one or two departures per year on small ships. Due to it remoteness, expedition companies will require guests to be in good health and carry sufficient emergency medical insurance. Travellers must be able-bodied, can walk and climb steps without difficulties or the need for mobility aids. Along with warm clothing, pack your sense of adventure and your adaptability for itinerary modifications. Weather and sea conditions can cause schedule changes.
Rideau Canal Cruises on Le Boat
Self-drive boating tours is a new concept coming to Canada but has been in existence in Europe for more than 40 years. United Kingdom-based Le Boat offers self-drive boat rental holidays in the European waterways in eight countries, and starting this May it will bring its program to Canada on the 202-kilometre (135-mile) Rideau Canal. With Smith Falls, Ontario as a jumping off point, rentals range from three to 14 nights, and boaters can go as far as Ottawa to the north and Kingston to the south. There are plenty of sights to see along North America’s oldest continuous operating canal system, with historical towns, rolling countryside, sparkling lakes, and serene bays. Endless activities can be enjoyed along the way, from hiking, biking, water sports, and fishing, to discovering quaint villages and sampling the region’s cuisine and wines.
The boats used for the Rideau Canal program will be a premier fleet class called the Horizon, ranging from a 37-foot vessel perfect for a couple, to the five-cabin, 49-foot cruiser that sleeps up to twelve. All boats feature a fully equipped kitchen, bedroom, shower and flush toilet, dining area and sun deck. Optional add-ons include bicycle rentals, portable BBQs, and grocery packs.
Le Boat stresses that no boating license or experience is necessary, all rentals come with hands-on piloting lessons, with additional boat-handling videos and online resources available for those looking to familiarize themselves before arriving for their vacation. Once in possession of the boat, renters can chart their own course, and stop wherever they like.
Cruise Tip: I am not entirely convinced that renters do not need boating experience to charter from Le Boat. It is recommended that at least one member of the rental party has basic grasp of operating a vessel, and general knowledge about water safety and maritime rules, before chartering a boat. It would make the journey that much more enjoyable for everyone on the water.