Cruise lines are taking notice by deploying larger, more amenity-laden ships to this region. And up and down the coast, ports of call -- including Maine's Portland, Rhode Island's Newport, Prince Edward Island's Charlottetown, Nova Scotia's Halifax, New Brunswick's Saint John, and Canada's marquee metropolises of Quebec City and Montreal -- are rapidly expanding facilities and shore excursion options to keep up with the growth.
So what's new in Canada and New England? We'll break it down:
Introducing: Canada virgins... New to the market this year is Costa Cruises' 85,700-ton, 2,112-passenger Costa Atlantica, sailing 11-night cruises from New York to Quebec City and vice versa. Another Italian line, MSC Cruises, will make its Canada debut in 2010 with its brand-new 92,407-ton, 2,550-passenger MSC Magnifica, which is due out next March. It will offer mainly seven-night open jaw sailings between New York and Quebec City in September and October 2010 with the option to combine back-to-back cruises into a 14-night itinerary.
...and new ports of call. Several fresh ports are also being introduced on itineraries this year and next: Sept-Iles in Quebec, alongside the Saint Lawrence River, welcomed its first ship ever, Holland America's Maasdam, this May. Baie Comeau -- also alongside the Saint Lawrence River -- will receive Fred. Olsen's Balmoral and Maasdam this season and next.
Big-ship boom. While small ship lines continue to offer sailings from cities like Portland, larger lines are seeing a boom from major U.S. ports of embarkation. (New York and Boston are the leaders, but there are also rather new sailings from Philadelphia and Baltimore.) Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. boasts a 35 percent increase in capacity in the region with three homeports and 241 calls across its three brands -- Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises.
Interestingly, Montreal and Quebec City are Canada's major turnaround ports, but air draft (maximum height of the vessel to pass under the bridges) limits the access of taller ships beyond Quebec City. Currently, the largest ship to sail to or from Montreal is Holland America's 55,451-ton, 1,258-passenger Maasdam.
New adventures ashore. Soft adventure offerings are on the rise. Take, for example, Corner Brook, located in Canada's easternmost province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Its major attraction is Gros Morne National Park -- an hour drive from the port -- which has added new tours including river-rafting and zip-lining. Corner Brook is a stop on traditional ex-U.S. East Coast Canada and New England itineraries as well as a stopover on Atlantic crossings. Other ports of call offer adventures such as kayaking, speed-boat rides, fishing tours and schooner sailings.
2009's hot spot: Portland. Portland, which opened its Ocean Gateway cruise terminal last year, is preparing for a major increase in cruise calls. In 2009, 46 ships will either call or turn around there; 68 ships have already booked for next year. And, the number of ships visiting in 2010 will be almost twice that of 2008. Portland will also act as a homeport for smaller lines, such as American Canadian Caribbean Line and American Cruise Lines.
Although ships arrive at the heart of the city, which makes Portland easy to explore on your own, several lines have extended their port calls to 12 hours in order to accommodate shore excursions to White Mountains National Park in New Hampshire. Other popular attractions closer to port are Kennebunkport (summer home of former U.S. President George W. Bush) and the outlet stores in Freeport.
Up-and-comer to watch. The city of Saguenay, Quebec, which has been on the cruise chart no less than four years, will inaugurate its new cruise pavilion, located on the Bagotville Wharf, in September. Despite being a new destination, Saguenay -- located at the 126-kilometer-long Saguenay Fjord -- is already visited by the largest ships calling in Canada, including Princess' Crown Princess, Holland America's Eurodam and NCL's Norwegian Spirit.
Major attractions include Saguenay National Park and Zoo Sauvage de St-Felicien. Recently introduced hop-on/hop-off tourist buses make it easy to get around to local attractions.
Other terminal improvements. Saint John, New Brunswick, which is the gateway to the Bay of Fundy, celebrated the opening of its new Marco Polo cruise terminal on June 8. And Boston's Massport, which is home base this season for Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas and NCL's Norwegian Spirit, is investing in improvements of its cruise terminal. A new pedestrian walkway, more space for the passengers and cosmetic improvements will be available before the beginning of next season.
--by Teijo Niemela, Cruise Critic correspondent