Swimming, poolside movies, beach walks, basketball, baseball, bike rides. These are the things we typically do on a summer vacation, so we (okay, maybe mostly me) were intrigued by the idea of a June cruise to Canada. It would be less swimming but more exploring, and the setup reminded me of a Mediterranean sailing my family went on a few years back -- which is still ranked a family favorite, despite its scant beach time.
While the culturally different Canadian itinerary and shorter cruise length bared little resemblance to a Mediterranean or Caribbean cruise, it did offer opportunities to explore Atlantic Canada's provinces (exciting for me and my geography-loving older son), have a relaxing family vacation where we didn't have to cook (a big deal for my husband and me) and try a different yummy dessert every night (all the enticement my younger son needed).
Our vessel for this voyage was Disney's first-ever cruise ship, the 84,000-ton, 1,754-passenger Disney Magic, which has become the line's go-to ship for traversing new seas and new ports. Past passengers of Disney's Mediterranean cruises will notice that the destinations visited are not incorporated into everything from dining room menus to kids programs, as they were in Europe; however, the Canadian sailings offer a few specially designed shore excursions, Disney Canada merchandise in shipboard stores, and some fun character wardrobe additions, including Statue of Liberty Minnie, fisherman Mickey and Goofy decked out in plaid.
During our sailing -- Magic's first Canada/New England Coast Cruise from New York -- the ship added Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Saint John, New Brunswick, to the list of the more than 40 ports it has ever visited. We met fellow passengers from around the U.S., many who had sailed Disney before.
Photo: Jay Yuan/Shutterstock.com
Setting Sail From New York City
As Disney Magic departed from New York, all the typical Florida sailaway party elements were present -- fruity frozen drinks, wind in your hair and cruise staff leading the Cupid Shuffle with young and old alike. Yet, sailing out past Manhattan's skyline toward the Statue of Liberty at dusk was definitely special, so much so that people stayed out on deck long after the music stopped.
Photo: Disney Cruise Line
Sea Days Are for Game Shows
Wind and cooler Canadian temperatures made for much different sea days than we'd experienced in the Caribbean. Instead of spending most of our days poolside, we played foosball, had a family air-hockey tournament and tried game-show-ish activities, something we'd never done on shorter, hotter sailings. They turned out to be great fun -- lively games of bingo, a scavenger hunt and a family-oriented version of the Newlywed Game, where four parents guessed their respective kids' favorite music group, career ambitions and impressions of their household's cooking. The tables were then turned, and kids speculated on parental favorites and what they could take away if they had to punish Mom or Dad -- "the cell phone" was an enthusiastic answer for two in this crew.
Photo: Disney Cruise Line
Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia
The postcard-pretty fishing village of Peggy's Cove is quintessential coastal Canada with its rugged coves, lighthouse, lobster meals and William deGarthe Art Gallery. If your family isn't up for browsing the artist's seascape portraits, they may enjoy the outdoor stone wall deGarthe, carved to depict village fishermen. While Peggy's Cove is not kid-oriented per se, we easily filled our allotted hour climbing over rocks to reach the shore, snapping photos of colorful village homes and exploring shops. (Don't miss Beales' Bailiwick for espresso and Nova Scotian crafts.) The hour's drive to the Cove was made enjoyable by our guide's history talk, peppered with factoids like: Decades ago, lobster sandwiches were the poor kids' lunch, while a peanut butter sandwich meant you were well-to-do.
Photo: Jay Yuan/Shutterstock.com
Big Pink Bus
Though Halifax and Saint John are quite walkable, our family was a fan of the cities' double-decker Big Pink buses. They're similar to Boston's Old Town Trolley, offering "hop-on, hop-off" guided tours. We used the buses to reach high-up-the-hill sites like the Public Gardens and then walked downhill toward the dock past cafes, shops and seafood restaurants. Lobster-lovers will find the crustaceans plentiful there, even at McDonald's -- McLobster, anyone?
Theodore Tugboat in Halifax
Inspired by the Halifax waterfront, the Theodore Tugboat children's books and television series tell of the adventures of Theodore and his floating friends: good-humored Hank; big tug on the harbor, George; and father-figure Dispatcher. (The characters are similar to those from Thomas the Tank Engine.) My sons and I revisited these early-childhood pals at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic's Theodore Tugboat exhibit, which includes the original models from the television series. You can also book a jaunt around the harbor on a life-size replica tug, a 10-minute walk from the cruise ship dock (available as a Disney shore excursion).
Titanic Exhibit at the Maritime Museum
Immerse ourselves in the ill-fated journey of the "unsinkable ship," Titanic, as we're in the midst of a cruise? My husband and younger son opted to return to the ship for a game of basketball, but my older son and I were game. The lady at the desk had advised: "If you're short on time, spend it in the Titanic exhibit -- some of the things can only be seen here in Halifax." She was right; none of the items we saw -- a re-caned deck chair, artifacts, the ship's manifest -- were back home at the National Geographic Museum's exhibit in D.C. During your museum visit, be sure to say hello to Merlin, the museum's resident Rainbow Macaw. He'll most likely reply.
Photo: Thomas Duff/Flickr
Halifax Public Gardens
At the Halifax Public Gardens, our kids enjoyed climbing a tree for a closer look at the mini-Titanic model floating in the pond. My husband and I preferred walking the serpentine paths past colorful flower beds and a Victorian gazebo. And we all enjoyed stopping for ice cream at a nearby cafe and buying souvenirs at Canadian clothing store Roots. Garden aficionados can also visit the award-winning Kingsbrae Garden in St. Andrews, a roughly 90-minute ride from the Saint John port. While my sons had little interest in Disney's full-day Kingsbrae Garden Party excursion, I was pretty sure my younger nieces and nephews would have loved the live ladybug release, tea party with Alice in Wonderland and playtime in miniature houses.
Photo: The Tedster/Flickr
Bay of Fundy
Since our 10-year-old was too young for biking or kayaking tours, we opted to see Saint John via the Coastal Photography tour, which included a visit to a picturesque fishing village, a park and two stops to see the Bay of Fundy's reversing falls. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world and a river that reverses direction, sending 100 billion tons of swirling seawater into the Saint John River. We got to see it from Fallsview Park during "slack tide," when the rising tide slows the river current to a stop and the water is calm, and also at the end of slack tide when the river's flow is reversed.
Chillaxing at the Bibliotheque
While searching for a pharmacy in Saint John's wharf-front mall, we stumbled across this beautiful bibliotheque that anchors the mall, complete with black rocking chairs overlooking the atrium. Inside, we perused magazines in the reading room and kicked back (or "chillaxed" according to our son) to enjoy the best view we've ever had from a library -- a harbor full of glistening ships. Libraries seem to be thriving in Canada; the day before, we discovered that Halifax was building a Central Library, intended to serve as a cultural hub.
Pirates of the Caribbean ... in the Atlantic?
Disney's famous pirate party apparently goes on, despite the distance from the Caribbean and the cool Atlantic night. The decks were packed with people wrapped in blankets and bathrobes for this once-a-sailing, pirate-themed soiree of music, dancing and fireworks. My boys laughed when I had packed the Ugg slippers they'd given me for Mother's Day, but I had the warmest feet at sea that night -- so warm we stayed outside after the party to watch a poolside movie (just like we do on beach vacations). Pirates or cold, there's nothing to fear when you're bundled beneath a blanket watching Johnny Depp's Captain Jack on the poolside big screen.
Photo: Disney Cruise Line