Factor in the pine-shrouded islets, the trendy-cool cities and the frolicking whales, and you've already got more than enough reasons to love a New England-to-Canada cruise. But the thing that might catch you by surprise is how much you enjoy the shoreside dining. Fans of a certain crimson-colored boiled crustacean will be in heaven, but even if you don't feel the lobster love, you'll find plenty to get your taste buds grooving. Here's what to look for, where to find it and why it rates as a signature dish.
How odd that Boston hosts its annual Chowderfest in steamy July, perhaps the only time of the year that chowder isn't wildly appropriate. This is not a fancy dish -- just some cream, clams, potatoes, pork (no tomatoes or tomato-y goop) and a flick of herbs and spices. Simplicity is a virtue: Clam chowder reigns as the ultimate comfort food in Boston. The city's "chowdah" is thicker than its Manhattan and Rhode Island cousins, so it's a meal on its own.
Try it Here: Near the cruise port (aka the Seaport District), chowderheads throng Legal Sea Foods, a perennial award winner that has been served at every presidential inauguration dinner since Ronald Reagan's in 1981. Heading to Quincy Market/Faneuil Hall? Slip into an Irish pub called Ned Devine's and sample wondrous chowder made with a hint of fresh thyme. Doing some sightseeing or shopping in Back Bay? Atlantic Fish Co. serves its chowder in a bread bowl. Enough said.
It tastes like summertime on a plate. You can eat it on the go. And, oh, the combination of sweet pink, fresh-from-the-Atlantic lobster and buttery, grilled hot dog roll! Such are the charms of a lobster roll, best eaten in view of the ocean. We can't explain the hot dog roll, either, but it works (although most places will hold the bun and throw the lobster mixture on top of a salad if you wish.) Often, there's a bit of mayo in there to hold the thing together, but sometimes, it's just sweet, succulent lobster meat.
Try it Here: In Boston, James Hook & Co. (Seaport District) offers a "Best of Boston" award-winning lobster roll, lightly dressed with celery and mayonnaise. In Bar Harbor, the comely lobster roll at Side Street Cafe offers five ounces of hand-picked meat, accented with a dash of Old Bay seasoning.
Maine is the world's largest producer of wild blueberries, and you might encounter some on bushes along the trails if you sign on for an outdoorsy excursion into Acadia National Park. These little blue jewels are awesome eaten from the palm of your hand, and they are definitely put to good use when baked into a pie. You'll find blueberry pie on nearly every menu in Maine; expect a pie that's a little runny, because that's the way New Englanders like it, with no thickeners. It's pure blueberry deliciousness, the way nature (and Mount Desert Island's grandmas) intended.
Try it Here: Every Bar Harbor resident has a favorite pie place. Try a decadent, oozing-with-fruit wedge at West Street Cafe, located a short walk from the cruise dock.
Call it the quintessential Haligonian gastronomic experience. Similar to a gyro or kebab sandwich minus the lamb and the yogurt sauce, the donair hits all the right notes as a satisfying nosh -- it's sweet and savory, tasty and messy, In Halifax, this two-handed, five-napkin sandwich is filled with heavily spiced ground beef that's shaped into a large loaf and roasted on a spit, and then shaved and seared on a flat top range. The meat is placed on a pita, layered with tomatoes and raw onions and topped with a sauce made of evaporated milk, vinegar, garlic powder and sugar. If you need a break from all the fancy food served aboard ship, this one's for you.
Try it Here: Residents get their donair fix at "Pizza Corner," at the corner of Blowers and Grafton streets downtown. Take your pick: There's a restaurant chain named after donairs, and almost every pizza place sells them. Even Chinese takeout joints serve donair egg rolls.
You've seen the black mussels strewn along the shoreline? These are not what you see on the menu in virtually every PEI restaurant. Most likely, you're served cultured mussels, grown in mesh stockings suspended from long lines (ropes) in the cool waters that surround Prince Edward Island. Cultured mussels, they say, taste sweeter, are plumper, less gritty and have more meat than their wild counterpart. If you love these briny black beauties that taste of the sea, you owe yourself a big bowlful in this mussel mecca. (A great souvenir there: a "muscle" T-shirt that reads "Mussel shirt" with a big graphic of a you know what.)
Try it Here: Sims Corner Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, in downtown Charlottetown, is a great spot to get your mussel on. It offers mussels and frites on the lunch menu, in a seasoning flavor that changes daily.
Fishing is a way of life on the Gaspe' Peninsula, as a livelihood or recreation, so choose a seafood dish every time. The sustainable seafood movement has caught on big time there, another plus. Residents recommend a mixed platter (typically fried) so you can sample an assortment. The usual suspects include lobster, shrimp, crab and halibut. Seafood soups, stews and chowders are also ubiquitous. Try the great local take on tourtiere: fish pie (look for cipaille aux fruits de mer on the menu.)
Try it Here: Bistro Le Brise-Bise is a fun spot; try the bouillabaisse and -- in a triumphant use of another Canadian product -- maple pie.
The origins of this dish are debatable, but most folks trace it to rural Quebec in the 1950s. One thing is clear: Poutine is an indulgent, artery-clogging mishmash of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, smothered in gravy. The classic version uses fresh cheddar, but this dish lends itself to chef-ly experimentation -- foie gras poutine, anyone?
Try it Here: La Banquise offers 25 varieties of poutine, including a Mexican version with hot peppers, tomatoes and black olives, while JoJo Pizzeria boasts 34 types. But you can't go wrong with classic poutine, especially if you're nursing a hangover. It's Quebecois comfort food at its finest.
Light, eggy, slightly sweet and just the right amount of chewy -- such are the qualities of a Montreal bagel, one of the best things to come out of a paper bag. So good that New York City restaurants have imported them, Montreal's bagels are different than their Big Apple counterparts. Thanks to a honey-infused bath, they're a touch sweet, with a bigger hole and a lighter texture. Each bagel is hand-rolled and baked in a wood-fired oven to achieve crusty bagel perfection. Montreal's oldest bagel bakeries have been doing this since 1919, so they know their stuff. Order like a local and get the poppy seed bagel, or line up at Beautys Luncheonette for a bagel sandwich.
Try it Here: St-Viateur Bagel (several locations) and Fairmount Bagel are the oldest bagel shops around; you can't go wrong with either one.
This traditional, double-crusted meat pie is found throughout Quebec. The filling varies by region, but expect minced pork, beef, veal or wild game mixed with onions, parsley, celery, maybe carrots and a sprinkle of nutmeg. It's typically served during the holidays, but you can find it anytime, and it's a hearty choice after a shore excursion on a chilly autumn day. It might also be called pate a la viande or cipaille ou cipate.
Try it Here: In Quebec City, head to Aux Anciens Canadiens, which specializes in classic Quebecois cuisine.
Spend some time hanging out in this region, and you'll see people snacking on a bag of fresh cheddar cheese curd (bought while still warm), often accompanied by a cup of cola and a bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips. Snack like a local, and treat yourself to a bag. (Curd=cheese minus the whey.) Fromagerie Boivin is a popular brand, located in La Baie near the cruise port, where it offers factory tours. Rather bring back a delicious hunk of cheese to savor aboard ship with a glass of wine? Delices du Lac-Saint-Jean is considered one of the best in Saguenay.
Try it Here: Small bags of fresh cheese curd are available in corner stores (called depanneurs). Eat the curds quickly or they lose their "squeak" and become really salty.