Cruising the St. Lawrence River and Nova Scotia

When people call us about booking a cruise, they usually ask about the Caribbean. It’s easy to see why. The weather is usually great, with warm temperatures and lots of sun. Alaska is another popular destination for cruising. Of course, Alaska is the largest of the 50 states and has one of the smallest populations; much of the scenery is unspoiled wilderness with little or no evidence of humans. Cruising on the St. Lawrence River and the waters off of Nova Scotia and Maine is similar to cruising Alaska (without the glaciers). The land here is sparsely populated, and the towns are small, just like most of the ports of call on Alaska itineraries. However, there are far fewer ships sailing these waters and visiting these ports. On our cruise, we were the only ship in port. You will have more space to explore without running into hundreds (sometimes thousands) of other cruisers visiting the same port. We recently cruised from Montreal up the St. Lawrence River and then through the bay of St. Lawrence to Prince Edward island. The cruise then went around Nova Scotia to Maine and finished in Boston.

We cruised on the Holland America Veendam. This ship was launched in 1996 and received a complete refurbishment in 2009. The ship is not new, however every space was clean, and we didn’t notice any excessive wear and tear. The carpets all looked fresh, and the public spaces were well maintained. The front desk staff was extremely helpful if we needed them for anything. This was our second cruise with Jude, the cruise director, and we were surprised that she remembered us from a cruise in February of 2015. Holland America has reduced ship board announcements to a minimum. This makes paying attention to the “where and when” pamphlet you receive every morning critical if you don’t want to miss a specific activity. We really recommend downloading the navigator program, which you can do free on the ship to keep track of everything.

Dining options on the Veendam are varied. The traditional buffet, The Lido Market, has taken the standard ship’s buffet and made it more of a themed experience. They have added in more fresh food, and everyone we talked to that tried the salad bar loved it. There is a decided Asian and Italian slant to the offerings in the Lido Market, so we could always find something we liked. Breakfasts in the Lido Market were some of the best I’ve had on cruise ships. We did not have a bad meal the whole trip. A portion of the Lido Market is converted into Canaletto. This restaurant serves great Italian food every evening. Reservations are required for Canaletto, and there is a small upcharge. Another dining option with a small upcharge is The Pinnacle Grill. We ate twice in this restaurant on our seven night cruise. Great food and impeccable service are the hallmarks of this amazing place to eat. Dive In, the burger joint, offers pool side hamburgers and hot dogs for lunch. There is also a taco bar set up close by. We had burgers twice on our cruise and visited the taco bar one day as well. On the lido deck aft of the Lido Market is Slice. This is a pizza parlor offering fresh pizza all day. We didn’t visit this place to eat because the early May weather was cold and rainy for our entire cruise. All of the restaurants offer gluten free options, including gluten free hamburger buns and gluten free pizza. The Lido Market had gluten free toast and bagels for breakfast, and the main dining room brought gluten free rolls to our table. We were also able to order gluten free desserts at every meal.

Deck 8, The Upper Promenade, is the deck where we spent most of our time. We had really bad weather, with temperatures in the 30’s and 40’s with winds up to 25 mph and rain every day, for most of the cruise, so pool time was limited. Deck 8 has four bars, the casino, a coffee bar, and all the shops on the ship. There was classical music every night in the Explorer’s Lounge and in the ocean bar. In Mix, the combination sports bar and piano bar right next to the casino, a piano player played more contemporary selections as well as requests. Bar and casino staff were friendly and efficient, however in the evening when the bars were full, service could be delayed. Some reviews have mentioned slow drink service on this ship. We did have to wait once or twice for a moment or two to order a drink, but I found it refreshing to be able to sit in a bar and listen to the music or just people watch without have to turn down ordering a drink every minute or so. Bar service was not a problem for us. The Crow’s Nest offered live music by night that was more contemporary and of course another bar.

We visited five ports of call on this cruise: Quebec City, Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Sydney of Cape Breton Island, Halifax Nova Scotia, and Bar Harbor, Maine. You will need a passport on this itinerary.

Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America. The old city is well preserved without being too touristy. The town can be walked, and there are many nice coffee shops and sidewalk diners to get a bite or just a pastry or cup of coffee. There were even a few fur shops, which is appropriate as Quebec was founded to service the French fur trade. The town is dominated by a huge Fairmont hotel and the Citadel of Quebec. The Citadel is an impressive star fort on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River and can be walked to from the ship. We didn’t take an excursion from the ship, we just walked through the old city and had a nice time. There was snow still on the ground in early May. Take a jacket.

Charlottetown, PIMG_0062rince Edward Island is small city on the southern shore of PEI (Prince Edward Island). This city also had very little tourist feel and was charming. We walked around the city in the morning and bought some locally made ice cream as well as some local chocolates (this is a weakness of ours!) IMG_0066The children’s novel, Anne of Green Gables, is set here, and much of the town’s tourism is themed around this fictional character. In the afternoon, we took an excursion booked through the ship’s excursion desk to a local falconry for birds of prey. We had close-up interactions with two of his birds, a hawk and a falcon. This was a one of a kind experience and I highly recommend this tour.  See the video here!

Sidney on Cape Breton Island is a small town you can cover by foot in an hour or so. You will want to book an excursion here to see the area. The fortress of Louisburg is found here. This is a reconstructed fort that predates the American Revolution. The fortress has locals in period costumes and is treated like a theater, much like old Williamsburg in Virginia. A very charming time can be spent here reliving the past in a living theater.

Halifax, Nova Scotia is a large city and if you’ve been internet deprived during your cruise, this is a great place to get reconnected. The city has a hop-on hop-off tourist bus that is very convenient to the cruise port. We just did a walking tour of the boardwalk along the port and then walked up to the Citadel of Halifax. This fort, built from 1828 to 1856, is Canada’s most visited national historic site. The fort is garrisoned by men and women in the uniforms of the 78th Highlanders (a renowned Canadian regiment). These men and women conduct firing demonstrations throughout the day as well as conducting a changing of the guard ceremony every hour. The Citadel also contains the Army museum highlighting Nova Scotia’s contribution to Canada’s military operations from World War 1 through the War in Afghanistan. There are also regular pipe and drum performances. Entrance to the citadel is free and was a highlight of the trip.

Bar Harbor, Maine is a charming small town. The town has many shops and restaurants as well as some magnificent homes lining the Atlantic Ocean. There is a museum in town dedicated to preserving a record of the area’s native population. Acadia National Forest is close by, and you can take an excursion to this beautiful forest. You will clear US customs before being allowed to visit Bar Harbor. This only takes a few minutes but must be done by everyone on board before anyone can exit the ship. This is the only port where you use tender service from the ship to shore; at all other ports the ship docks at the port.

So, if you’re looking for a cruise vacation with a little less tourist feel and you want to visit this lovely part of the world, consider taking a cruise. You won’t regret the decision.