With Canada/New England itineraries emerging as an important homeport option for many cruise lines, and with a season that spans nearly six full months, we decided to take a fresh look at some of the excursions offered by cruise lines in region's ports.
No longer the provenance of smaller ships carrying a predominantly older crowd during peak fall foliage periods, Canada/New England has become a destination in its own right, with large ships filled with families and young, active types joining the more traditional senior travelers. Many of the port cities have buffed up their piers and expanded their shore operations to accommodate the more-varied-than-ever influx of ship passengers.
And shore excursion options have changed as well, with choices that were not available even a few short years ago. Active opportunities abound for the athletic types, family-oriented sojourns are offered, and wine lovers and foodies will be delighted with some of the trips.
In selecting these extraordinary excursions, we weren't aiming for the "most spectacular," but rather for options that are unique to a particular area, port or region. And, while we heartily encourage walking at least part of the Freedom Trail in Boston or taking the funicular to Lower Town in Quebec City, for example, we chose experiences that would be harder to do on your own. Almost every excursion we have cited is widely available (there are plenty more that we didn't list, of course, but here are a few to get you thinking).
And a final note: In some cases these tours can be booked independently; check Cruise Critic's port profiles for more details.
Baseball fans will love this tour because, depending on availability and game schedules, you might be able to walk around the warning track right on the field itself. It also includes a look at the broadcast booth and press boxes, dugout seats and the Hall of Fame. Who knows -- a real, live Red Sox team member might show up too.
Who Should Go: Any baseball fan or history buff who wants to walk the hallowed ground of Babe Ruth's first home, the oldest continuously operating baseball park in the U.S., and the home of the 2004 World Series winners.
Why It's Extraordinary: It's Fenway Park! There's only one in the whole world.
Boston by Duck
Kids (of all ages) absolutely love this tour, which takes you in an amphibious WWII vehicle throughout the city and then goes straight into the Charles River from the street. Many of Boston's highlights are featured, including Boston Commons and the Swan Boats, parts of the Freedom Trail, a glimpse of Fenway from the river, Cambridge, and the U.S.S. Constitution, "Old Ironsides." The tour drops you at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace for some shopping (and Boston clam chowder).
Who Should Go: Families, seniors, history lovers, photographers, architecture and gardening enthusiasts, first-timers.
Why It's Extraordinary: Boston loves its Ducks -- they are a city institution. And it's certainly a unique means by which to explore the many areas that you might not otherwise get to see.
L.L. Bean Kayak Adventure
The legendary L.L. Bean store in Freeport has been providing outdoor clothing and equipment for over a century, but few know that the company also sponsors a wetland protection program in the region. The tour includes training and a two-hour paddling excursion through these protected lands, from Wolf Neck Farm to the waters of Maine's Cisco Bay. Seals, osprey and cormorants are some of the fauna that you'll see on this journey.
Who Should Go: Seniors in good physical condition, families with kids over eight years old, nature lovers, athletic types.
Why It's Extraordinary: This is a tour that is only operated by one company, so it's more isolated than most others -- in other words, your quiet time in nature will be really quiet. It's an excellent means by which to get close to the sights of Maine sea life and at the same time, be an active participant.
Whale Watching Tour
Almost all of the cruise lines offer whale-watching expeditions, and they're available in almost all of the cities in the itinerary of any Canada/New England cruise. One of the best is the Friendship V catamaran that operates out of Bar Harbor, Maine, with its knowledgeable guides who lead you to seals, porpoises and wild sea birds as you hunt for the whales. Halifax also has excellent whale watching tours as well, depending on the weather.
Who Should Go: Nature lovers, first-timers, seniors, families, photo buffs.
Why It's Extraordinary: Whales! Several types of whales are found in these waters, including minke, finback and humpbacks. Some of these tours even guarantee that you will see whales or will refund your purchase price.
Gigantic boulders worn smooth by up to 450 million years of pounding waves surround the natural landscape here, anchored by a picturesque lighthouse (perhaps the most photographed in the world). Peggy's Cove was originally settled by six families in the early 1800's; that number has now reached 60. This is one of the most popular of all shore excursions because of the scenery, the photo ops and the ease of access.
Who Should Go:First-timers and shore excursion novices, photo buffs, lighthouse lovers, nature lovers, athletic types who'd enjoy climbing around the boulders.
Why It's Extraordinary: This trip, in particular, gives you the opportunity to wander paths or to climb boulders, to be as passive or as active as you choose. And for the first-timer, it lets you discover your pace so you can select from more strenuous or more restful tours in the future.
Treasures of RMS Titanic
It's been almost a century since the Titanic sank about 750 miles from Halifax, but the gravestones for 150 of the victims are still there, the church where memorial services were held is still going strong, and the Maritime Museum has exhibits and artifacts chronicling the disaster.
Who Should Go: History buffs and sea-lore lovers.
Why It's Extraordinary: You can watch the movies and read the books, but it's hard to get much closer than this to actual items from the Titanic, to the stories and lore that grew from the sinking, and to the role that Halifax played in the recovery of survivors and the bodies of victims alike.
Tall Ship Sailing
Whether you haul the lines yourself or just sit back and watch, this trip on an accurate replica of an ancient tall ship will show you what it was like in the days of yore. The excursion is highlighted with facts about the history of Halifax.
Who Should Go: History and ship lovers, seniors, families.
Why It's Extraordinary: It's a unique experience, a hands-on means by which to relive history, and you can be part of the crew if you'd like.
Imagine a 45-room mansion on 33 acres ... and then imagine that the meticulously groomed gardens of the estate include 80 sculpted trees and shrubs in animal shapes. These trees and shrubs were sculpted in 1880 and have been maintained ever since. Newport is all about the mansions, which were called "cottages" by their owners.
Who Should Go: Families, seniors, lovers of architecture and gardening, photo buffs and history buffs.
Why It's Extraordinary: Wandering through these old mansions and their grounds offers a glimpse into the U.S.'s industrial age as no other tours can, showcasing the wealthy lifestyles of the founders of American business and industry in the late 19th century. And this one in particular, with its green menagerie, adds a unique twist. Note: Green Animals is located in Portsmouth, about a 20-minute drive inland from Newport.
Saint John, New Brunswick
Reversing Rapids Jet Boat Ride
Where Canada's Bay of Fundy meets the St. John River, the tides are so fierce it causes the river to reverse and run upstream! A jet boat is the only way to see this unique phenomenon. You'll get wet (raincoats are supplied) but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Who Should Go: Adventure seekers, families, nature buffs.
Why It's Extraordinary: It's an opportunity to see the forces of nature at work, and a thrill ride at the same time.
Sydney, Nova Scotia
Bird Island Boat Tour
Located in the Bras d'Or Channel, the rocky pillars of the Bird Islands are dramatic enough, but when you consider the wildlife that inhabits them, they become spectacular. Glide to the heart of the Cape Breton region on a narrated boat tour and visit with bald eagles, puffins, kittiwakes and seals.
Who Should Go: Families, first-timers, nature lovers, photo buffs, seniors.
Why It's Extraordinary: It's one of the few places available to see more than 300 pairs of Atlantic puffins, for one thing, and is a refuge for hundreds of endangered species of marine birds and mammals.
St. John's, Newfoundland
St. John's Exploration
This is an overview tour of the city -- the oldest on the continent -- and its surroundings, including the spot where Marconi got his first radio transmission and Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. It includes a visit to the fishing village of Quidi Vidi, largely unchanged in 400 years.
Who Should Go: Seniors, history buffs, first-timers, photo buffs, nature lovers, architecture enthusiasts.
Why It's Extraordinary: St. John's, the oldest city in North America, is located on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. It's not easily accessed; in fact, the entry to the harbor is extremely narrow and the weather has to be good in order for a cruise ship to call here. This tour gives a nice overview of this region and the city.
Corner Brook, Newfoundland
Bay of Islands Tour
Located on the west coast of Newfoundland, surrounded by wilderness and craggy coastline, Corner Brook is the ideal jumping-off spot to explore the Bay of Islands, surveyed and named by Captain Cook, who is honored by the city's most prominent monument. The tour takes you through pristine valleys filled with wildflowers and along the coast, where you can often see whales from the shore.
Who Should Go: Seniors, families, photo buffs, nature lovers, history buffs, first-timers.
Why It's Extraordinary: This remote region is not one that you are likely to visit very often; this excursion shows off the beauty of the area and will create lasting memories.
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
Anne of Green Gables and Dalvay by the Sea
This tour starts in Charlottetown, and then allows you to explore the famous Anne of Green Gables homestead in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island's national park, and to visit the P.E.I. Preserves Company in New Glasgow, where the island produces its world-renowned jams. The tour concludes with an elaborate lobster lunch at Dalvay by the Sea, the summer "cottage," completed in 1895, of wealthy Standard Oil president Alexander McDonald.
Who Should Go: Seniors, history buffs, gourmands, photo buffs, architecture enthusiasts, families with kids old enough to enjoy the luncheon.
Why It's Extraordinary: Prince Edward Island is not very big, and this tour highlights most of its sights and attractions. The lobster lunch, complete with tri-color coleslaw and sticky date pudding, is unique in the world.
Biking the Confederation Trail
Originally a railroad right-of-way, this seven-mile bike trail is primarily flat and even, following St. Peter's Bay from Morel to St. Peter's. It includes vistas of the ocean, forest and farmland, and is at its most spectacular when the fall foliage is at peak. The tour is guided and narrated, and includes a snack and water bottle.
Who Should Go: Cyclists, of course, but also active seniors in good health, families (some cruise lines limit the age of children to over 12, so check first), nature lovers, photo buffs.
Why It's Extraordinary: The route was purchased in 1989 under the Rails to Trails program, turning this abandoned route into groomed bike paths for all to enjoy. It's a wonderful way to get exercise and see the countryside of Prince Edward Island.
Sugar Shack Tours
Maybe a visit to the unique "Maple Museum" hasn't been high on your list of priorities, but the Sugar Shack experience will change all that. See how maple sugar is made, from the tapping of sap to the final process, and be entertained along the way by musicians and local folkloric dancers during an all-you-can-eat meal served family style.
Who Should Go: Families, seniors, anyone interested in the history and folklore of the region.
Why It's Extraordinary: Kids love watching the process, especially as they are chewing on the final result while they learn about it. The music, dancing and storytelling are also a great introduction to Quebec and French Canada.
Beaupre Coast and Ste. Anne Winery
This excursion takes you to the remarkable Sainte-Anne Canyon, where three suspension bridges allow views of the magnificent scenery including the nearly 300-foot waterfalls. The Moulin de Petit Pre is a 300-year-old flour mill, the oldest in North America, now a winery where you can learn about the grapes that flourish in the region and see how wine is made.
Who Should Go: Photo buffs, couples, lovers of historic buildings and architecture, families (note: the suspension bridges could frighten some younger children) and wheelchair-bound guests.
Why It's Extraordinary: The 900-million-year-old canyons are worth seeing, especially from the suspension bridges; Montmorency Falls is one and a half times as high as Niagara Falls. On this tour, special "vehicles" assist non-mobile visitors so they don't miss a thing. The winery tour offers samples and you can purchase the wines that are made there.
--By Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor
Photo of Peggy's Cove appears courtesy of Destination Halifax/Nova Scotia Tourism, Culture and Heritage/W. Hayes.