If you want “kisses” of many Canadian cultures, a cruise is the way to go. During the spring, summer and fall, many of the same luxury liners (all major lines are here) that visit tropical ports in the winter head into Canadian waters bringing savvy travellers who aren’t afraid to kiss a cod or two. And that’s no fish story!
Canada has more cruise ports than you might realize. Book a cruise that stops in Charlottetown, PEI, for a date with Anne of Green Gables history. Blow a kiss to killer whales during a shore excursion from the port of Nanaimo, BC. When you’re ready to get to know Canada (it’s best to at least meet before the smooching begins), here are six ports you’re likely to visit, and five tips for falling in love with each if you’ve only got time for a quick peck.
West Coast. Canada is the launch, stopover, or end point for Alaska cruises.
Vancouver, BC. Canada’s undisputed cruise capital (some 275 Alaska cruises during 2008). You’ll definitely want at least one extra full day here.
- Walk! Vancouver is a magnificent walking city. From Canada Place, where most ships dock, walk along Coal Harbour to Denman St., then stroll Denman through one of Vancouver’s most densely populated, vibrant neighbourhoods. When Denman runs into English Bay, you’re at the perfect place for a hotdog on the beach.
- Have a drink. The place to relax and really see Vancouver is the rotating Cloud 9 Revolving Restaurant atop the Empire Landmark Hotel—it’s only open for dinner after 5 pm, the same time many ships are departing, so do this on your extra day in Vancouver.
- Don’t miss the fireworks. On two Wednesdays and two Saturdays in July and August, Vancouver holds Celebration of Light, a fireworks competition like no other. The show launches from a barge in English Bay. It’s choreographed to music, and you tune in on any radio.
- Taste the continent’s most fabulous sushi. Vancouver is famous for its large Asian community, and sushi restaurants are everywhere. Sushi’s popularity means it’s relatively inexpensive in Vancouver. For a really unique experience, try Japanese fusion at Hapa Izakaya, a five-minute taxi ride from Canada Place cruise terminal.
- Go skiing in July. No kidding. You’ll definitely need to be in town an extra day for this, perhaps two days. The Horstman Glacier atop Blackcomb Mountain, at Whistler, is open for skiing.
Victoria, BC. Many ships sailing to Alaska from Seattle choose this exquisite, compact port for a Canadian stop. Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, it’s the capital of British Columbia and is loaded with history.
- Do take tea at the Empress. The castle-like Fairmont Empress Hotel is a divine setting for a cup of custom-blend tea, raisin scones (pronounced “scon” in Canada) with clotted cream and strawberry preserves, plus crust-less sandwiches. Pricey and worth it.
- Shop the Elephant’s Graveyard. Victoria isa well-kept secret as one of North America’s great antique-shopping spots. You might even find a love seat to kiss on. Walk and shop along Fort St., aka “Antique Row,” where you’ll find unique art, furniture, etc.
- Take a float plane tour. Float planes are a common sight in BC, quickly connecting commuters between many islands and cities. A float-plane tour whisks you from Victoria Harbour for great views of these islands, and even over the majestic Olympic Mountains, in a couple hours’ time.
- Go organic. The area around Victoria is one of the world’s leading regions for organic farming. Book a small group tour with Dave Friend of Friendly Organics; he’ll take you from an organic garlic farm to an organic winery to an organic bakery, and include a sublime organic lunch. It’s like a kiss for your health.
- Gardens and more gardens. The Butchart Gardens is magnificent and is world-renowned. But it takes most of the day to drive there and see the gardens. For a bit of exercise and glorious gardens in town, walk from the harbour to Government House, home of BC’s Lieutenant Governor.
Halifax, NS. It’s been a sailors’ haven for centuries, and now, with a busy cruise-ship schedule, it’s a haven for sailors like you. Buy a sailor enough drinks and you might get a real Halifax kiss!
- Sample Canada’s best major beer. Well, that’s my opinion. Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale is infinitely drinkable, friendly beer. The cleverly-presented tour of Keith’s historic brewery includes actors in period character, awaiting the arrival of Mr. Keith. At the end, you get samples in a pub setting while the actors sing and entertain.
- Eat Digby scallops at 5 Fishermen. Nova Scotia is famous for this bivalve, and the region produces some of the world’s finest. The 5 Fishermen restaurant is an easy walk from the cruise terminal, and its chefs prepare scallops (and other seafood) beautifully.
- Stroll Spring Garden Road. It’s one of Halifax’s main shopping zones, and on a summer day it’s the perfect place to stretch your sea legs with a bit of browsing, dining and exploring nearby Halifax Public Gardens—filled with statues, fountains and a wide array of flora.
- Take a history lesson at the Citadel. This early 1800s hilltop fort is in the shape of an eight-point star, and provides great views of Halifax, plus a fascinating look into the region’s military history. Halifax was once a strategic spot in the British Empire and remains a key Canadian naval region today. During the summer, the kilted 78th Highland Regiment and Royal Artillery groups offer demos and tours.
- Experience the world’s highest/lowest tides. The Bay of Fundy is a nearby day trip, and you can watch the ocean floor as it seems to rise from the deep—tides can be over 15 vertical m (50 vertical ft) here. At certain times when the tide is out, people harvest dulse, a type of seaweed that is dried into “chips” and considered a delicacy. Try before you buy…it tastes distinctly of the ocean.
St. John’s, NL. It’s the most easterly city in North America—closer to Europe than to western Canada, and the culture is equally unique. The remoteness means fewer ships call here, but check the schedule—even biggies like Cunard’s QE II make the stop.
- Kiss a cod. What, you thought I was kidding? Newfoundland was founded on the basis of the cod fishery, although today the Atlantic cod is debatably rare. Nonetheless, it’s a tradition to “kiss the cod” in many St. John’s bars—any along George St. will have a plastic fish ready for your lips. It’s part of a ceremony called a “screech-in,” which means you’ll also be served a shot of Newfoundland’s signature booze, a Jamaican rum called “screech.”
- Chat up a local. ‘Tis da best ting about NewfunLAND, b’y.Newfoundlanders are sometimes called the friendliest people in Canada. Just start talking with one. Newfoundland’s traditional accent is rooted in the region’s Irish pedigree, but it’s all its own.
- Great travellers’ shop. Surprisingly, St. John’s is home to one of the continent’s best travel-product shops: The Travel Bug (709-738-8284). Filled with innovative and cool travel products, this is one cool store.
- Head for the “Rooms” with a View. Newfoundland’s main provincial museum, archives and art gallery facility opened in 2005. Called The Rooms—which mirrors the traditional “fishing rooms” where families came to process their catch in design and name—the facility sits high atop the hill in St. John’s. Even if you’re not particularly museum-ish, the view from The Rooms’ Café is worth it, and the walk up will be all the exercise you need!
- Meet Joe O’Brien. A trip to Bay Bulls (the name of a village) and time on the O’Briens’ whale-watching boats will eat up most of a day—but wow, is it fun! If Joe, the company owner, is driving your boat, be prepared for a crazy dose of Newfoundland spirit and culture. Joe makes it so fun that you don’t care if there are whales or not.
Québec City—kiss a 400-year-old culture. Québec City, QC, is debatably the oldest, continuous major settlement in North America, and it’s justifiably referred to as the “most European” city on this continent. Indeed, a kiss of Old Québec may make you feel like you booked a European cruise—and according to the schedule, you have plenty of ships from which to choose.
- Take in the view from Observatoire de la Capitale. Atop a downtown office building, many travellers miss this spot, as it’s a taxi ride outside the traditional “old city” area. But the obersavtory provides a fantastic overview and understanding of the Québec City area.
- Take a walking tour with someone who can really explain the history to a non-Canadian. Tour guide Brian Hickey loves Québec. He’s quite a character, and a rare find among tour guides: an Anglophone (native English speaker) who has lived in the US and has a fantastic grasp on the two countries’ histories. He can be booked for groups through Maple Leaf Tours or for private walking tours (call him directly at 418-262-3037).
- Salute Canadian “royalty”—Celine Dion on the Plains of Abraham. She’s practically Canadian royalty, and in August ‘08 Celine performed a free outdoor concert at this incredibly historic battleground. She’ll be back. Other concerts, including jazz evenings, are held throughout the summer at the Plains’ Edwin-Bélanger Bandstand.
- Explore the “real” Québec City. While the walled city is charming, the zone just outside the walls is a bit more “real.” Many hip, urban Quebecers live in the ‘hoods of St-Roch and Faubourg St-Jean Baptiste, both of which are easy walks and filled with great boutiques, eateries, bookstores and the like. Possibly the coolest gourmet grocery store in existence is J.A. Moisan, in the St-Jean Faubourg area. Its appearance has hardly changed since 1871; it’s sometimes closed for use as a movie set.
- Snack around Île d'Orléans. This island in the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway is located just outside of Québec City. It’s filled with vineyards, cider houses and all sorts of fresh produce stands, along with the occasional gallery and even a spot claiming to sell cheese made from the oldest recipe in North America. Don’t miss Ciderie Domaine Steinbach’s divine cider. Print off the map, rent a car, and ahhh…. Just don’t get so relaxed you miss your ship!
Montréal, QC. Some eastern Canada cruises start and end in Montréal, and if your itinerary does so, lucky you! Book at least one extra day to explore this vibrant destination. Montréalers always greet each other with a double-cheek kiss…and you shouldn’t be surprised if they greet you that way, too.
- Have a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s Deli. Canada’s beloved version of cured beef is called “smoked meat,” and Montréal is its undisputed home. I find it more flavourful and moister than it’s cousin, pastrami. Several spots claim to be best, oldest, etc., but Schwartz’s (opened in 1928) gets most folks’ nod.
- Climb “The Mountain.” Get your exercise as you climb up Mount Royal—the very spot Montréal was named for (233 m or 764 ft). Taxis and tours will take you, too, but you’ve gotta earn that smoked-meat sandwich, right? The views of the modern city, the historic “old port” area and St. Lawrence River are excellent.
- Catch a festival. Montréal is a festival city. Your ship might dock in time for the world-famous Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the hilarious Just for Laughs Festival, the huge, Gay Pride Festival or even the Grand Prix du Canada car races. Festivals are a great time to get close to the locals—they’re well-known for enjoying their city.
- Experience Canada’s most vibrant, openly gay village. Despite its traditional Catholic roots, Montréal (and all of Quebec) is one of the most socially open places in the world. Montréal’s traditional gay neighbourhood, known locally as “Le Village,” is popular with everyone. It’s filled with interesting shops and restaurants.
- Meet locals for lunch. Montréal’s Jean-Talon Market (Marché Jean-Talon) is a magic find. You’ll need to take a subway or taxi, but it’s worth it. This is a public market at its best—filled with local produce and local characters. It’s the spot to get your maple sugar products, and perhaps even a locally made jam. Grab lunch at one of the market’s eateries, say bonjour to the folks at the next table, and be warned—you might get a double-cheek kiss when you say au revoir!
Other Canadian ports:
- Saint John, NB
- Sydney, NS
- Nanaimo, BC
- Prince Rupert, BC
Cruising to Canada means choice—both in destinations and cruise lines. Celebrity is a great choice for younger hipsters. Carnival is ideal for kids. And Holland America tends to serve seniors. There are also “soft adventure” cruises that head to the Canadian Arctic, including the Canadian-owned Cruise North Expeditions. If you’ve never cruised before, contact a travel agent that specializes in cruise travel.