Cities that ooze Old World European charm. Fairytale castles and historic lighthouses. Storybook islands and whale watching adventures.
Those are the kind of experiences that you’ll find when you sail on the St. Lawrence River with Victory Cruise Lines. The cruise line offers St. Lawrence itineraries in 2020 on its ship, the 202-passenger Victory I, that run from Portland, Maine, to Niagara Falls; Halifax to Buffalo; Niagara Falls to Boston; and Montreal to Portland.
The St. Lawrence sailings are a logical extension of the regional expertise that Victory Cruise Lines developed with its Great Lakes cruising. In its maiden 2019 season, Victory’s Great Lakes cruises gave passengers an up-close view of the best of the region, with stops in the classic cities of Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, as well as lost-in-time treasures such as Mackinac Island; a full complement of Great Lakes voyages will be run on Victory II, the line’s second vessel.
The 744-mile St. Lawrence River is a fascinating waterway. Flowing in a northeasterly direction from Lake Ontario, the river serves as the vital link between the interconnected Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. It drains lake water into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the largest estuary in the world. Serving as a natural boundary between the United States and Canada, the river also features a system of locks, channels and canals that form the St. Lawrence Seaway, the crucial shipping lane from the Atlantic right into the heart of North America.
In this 1,868-mile day-by-day journey from Toronto to Portland, we take you along on this unusual itinerary as we explore grand cities, captivating islands, postcard-worthy scenery — and spot frolicking whales — in the Great White North.
*In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts that tear nations apart, Canada stands as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity and mutual respect. ~ Bill Clinton * This quote, emblazoned in the hallway of the Hilton Toronto where I'm staying before boarding Victory I, welcomes me to Toronto. It couldn't be a more perfect introduction to the multicultural melange of Canada's largest city with 6 million people.
Perched on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto is an ethnic phenomenon whose residents speak more than 200 languages and dialects and whose neighborhoods include several Chinatowns, Little Italy, Koreatown, Little India, Greektown, Little Jamaica, Little Tibet, Little Japan, Little Iran, Little Portugal and Little Poland (now called Roncesvalles). Yes, New York may be more diverse but it's not nearly as friendly. Toronto is New York without the scowls, I soon discover.
As I make my way to the BoHo neighborhood of Kensington Market, the multiculturalism smacks me in the face almost immediately -- from my South African rideshare driver to the Emirati barista who serves me coffee to the Jamaican street vendor and Chinese and Colombian cops I chat with along the way.
I head out along Queen Street West, an eclectic mix of hipster and mainstream, where head shops, tattoo parlors, vinyl shops and yoga studios alternate with name-brand boutiques and trendy eateries. Dozens of people are lined up to buy memorabilia at an Elton John storefront pop-up in anticipation of his upcoming concert.
Suddenly, the street vibe changes when I turn onto Spadina Avenue and enter Chinatown. I pass cozy teashops and dumpling restaurants, produce markets whose fruits and vegetables spill onto the sidewalk, jade street vendors and herb shops with hand-scrawled prices in Chinese.
Kensington Market is not a market, per se, but a vibrant warren of side streets packed with boutiques, art studios, groceries and restaurants. Jamaican reggae and Mexican boleros fill the air as I examine the spicy stew of international eateries -- from Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean to Turkish, Mexican and Portuguese. Signs herald all-day dim sum, hot pot, empanadas and jerk chicken. There's innovative fusion, too, but with a few head-scratching combos: Hungarian-Thai (schnitzel-pad Thai, anyone?), Jamaican-Italian (think gnocchi marinara with ackee and saltfish), and Japanese curry poutine, an unfathomable version of Canada's national dish of French fries, cheese curds and brown gravy. I opt instead for the popular Pho Hung Vietnamese restaurant, which is packed with locals hunched over steaming bowls of pho.
As I walk back to Queen Street West, I check out the head-snapping street art on Graffiti Alley, where tourists are posing for photos in front of the wild and crazy designs. Street art is a source of civic pride in a city bursting with artistic expression.
For a completely different view of the city, I head to the landmark 1,815-foot CN Tower, the tallest freestanding building in the Western Hemisphere. From the observation floor, I survey the clusters of glass towers that are still sprouting all over the city, as the many cranes attest. Brushed with wispy clouds, they seem to strut and preen with all the swagger of a city on the move. At the cafe at the top, the Bangladeshi barista tells me the city is very safe, even at 2 a.m. He's been here for 20 years and likes the safety and security. The tower abuts another prime attraction, Ripley's Aquarium of Canada with 16,000 exotic sea and freshwater specimens from around the world.
Before making my way downtown, I pass two nearby landmarks: the large Beaux-Arts Union Station, Canada's busiest transport hub and second-busiest railway station in North America, and across the street, the massive chateau-style Fairmont Royal York hotel, once the tallest building in the British Empire at 28 stories high.
The heart of the city is Nathan Phillips Square, home to the Toronto City Hall and the iconic multicolored "Toronto" sign, site of countless selfies. I spot a United Nations of humanity -- men in turbans, Asian women and chattering Latin teenagers -- strolling around Canada's largest city square whose reflecting pool turns into an ice skating rink in winter. Just steps away on Yonge Street, the longest street in the world, I pop into the Eaton Centre, a fancy three-story mall, alive and well at a time when malls are shuttering all across America. A gorgeous sculpture of 60 life-size Canada geese, "Flight Stop," by Canadian Michael Snow hangs from the massive skylights that soar over the tony shops.
I end my whirlwind tour of Toronto at the St. Lawrence Market, an indoor foodie emporium where lamppost banners proclaim, "No. 1 Food Market in the World/National Geographic." An eye-popping cornucopia of artisan food stalls sells everything from meats, cheeses and condiments to produce, baked goods and seafood. I sample two famous specialties: a Montreal-style wood-fired bagel (slightly sweeter, crispier and thinner than the New York version) from St. Urbain Bagel Bakery and a traditional peameal bacon sandwich (a bun filled with brined pork loin rolled in cornmeal) from the legendary 40-year-old Carousel Bakery.
As I leave Toronto for the ship, my Indian rideshare driver, Kuljeet Singh, who's been here two years, observes: "There's peace of mind here. After this, you don't want to live anywhere else."
We're welcomed onboard Victory I with warm celery soup and focaccia sandwiches. At 6:45 p.m., Wendy Stickler, our excursion director, introduces us to the Thousand Islands we'll see tomorrow during our day on the river. Cruise director Katherine Boelter, meanwhile, asks how many have never been here before and a majority of hands shoots up.
We set sail as the sun sets, bathing Toronto in a rosy glow. During dinner, we watch the lights twinkling as we leave the city behind.
Today dawns slightly overcast as we enter the legendary Thousand Islands, an archipelago of 1,864 rugged islands that straddle the Canada–U.S. border in the river as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. They sprawl for about 50 miles downstream. The waterway serves as the dividing line between the two countries with the province of Ontario on one side and the state of New York on the other.
Scattered houses dot the shoreline, tucked securely into trees that wear their showy fall colors with aplomb: deep rusts, brilliant golds and tawny ochres. The water, slate blue and calm as a pond, is dead quiet in the early morning while occasional Canada geese sweep by. By 8 a.m., a knot of passengers has already gathered on the outdoor decks to watch the riveting panorama unfold.
They form a remarkable tableau, these isles and islets -- ranging from 40 square miles to small as a thimble. To qualify as an official member of the group, an island must be 1 square foot of land and sustain at least two living trees! Some barely support their lone houses, which prompt us to wonder aloud about their plumbing and electricity. Not to mention the isolated existence of their residents. "I marvel at the people who want to plant themselves on a postage stamp," observes passenger Don Parrish of Phoenix. Indeed, the popular tiny house movement could take some lessons from these mini-dwellings.
As we roll down the river and the sky clears, the scenes turn postcard pretty with tidy New England cottages and barns and magnificent Victorian mansions, all perched right on the water's edge. In fact, I'm surprised by how close to shore we are -- close enough for me to spot many American flags waving proudly from their lawns, though rarely a Canadian one. Like a steady refrain, I hear comments of "it's so gorgeous" and "how charming" as fellow passengers sigh over the passing landscape.
"I had no idea the Thousand Islands were so beautiful," says Pat Squire, a passenger from Lake Oswego, Oregon. "We didn't know about these islands before. If the rest of the trip isn't good, it will still be have been worth it."
Classic lighthouses and graceful bridges stand out, too: Rock Island Lighthouse, with its fire engine-red keeper's house sitting sturdily on its own island, and Sunken Rock Lighthouse, which has lit the way for more than 170 years. A series of six bridges provide connecting lifelines between the two bordering countries.
As Instagram-worthy as these are, it's the #fairytalecastles that really get our cameras clicking. First comes opulent Boldt Castle, a 120-room, five-building compound that occupies its own heart-shaped 5-acre island on the New York side. Its ghostly turrets and towers, swathed in pines and maples, create an astonishing sight in the middle of the river. Millionaire hotel magnate and Waldorf Astoria owner George Boldt built the Rhineland-style palace in 1900 for his beloved wife, Louise. When she died just months before it was finished, Boldt abandoned the nearly finished mansion, which is now open for tours and private events.
Boldt is often credited with popularizing the salad dressing that was supposedly born in and named for the Thousand Islands. Various colorful legends describe the origin of the classic mayonnaise-and-ketchup-based condiment. Apparently, it took off after Boldt asked his maitre d' to serve it to the diners of Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria.
In the golden light of late afternoon, we pass Singer Castle built just five years after Boldt Castle by Frederick Bourne, president of the Singer Manufacturing Company (ergo the name). Crowning 7 acres of rock known as Dark Island, the four-story, 28-room mansion and massive boathouse sport brilliant orange roofs that counterpoint the island's dense green foliage. Built by one of the leading architects of the time, Ernest Flagg, the structure was inspired by Sir Walter Scott's novel about the medieval Woodstock Palace in Scotland. No less than Cornelius Vanderbilt and Vincent Astor were guests.
There was nothing modest about these homebuilders of the Gilded Age when the well-to-do flocked to the Thousand Islands as an exclusive summer retreat. That's when many of the lavish country estates sprang up along the riverbanks, homes to the likes of the Astors, the Pullmans, Helena Rubinstein, Irving Berlin and Mary Pickford.
That was also before part of the river became the St. Lawrence Seaway. In 1959 a system of locks, canals and channels was completed that allowed oceangoing vessels to travel from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Construction of the 189-mile stretch of the seaway between Lake Ontario and Montreal, part of one of the most spectacular lift systems in the world, is considered an engineering marvel to this day. Seven locks were built in this section of the seaway to raise vessels 246 feet on their way from the sea to Lake Ontario. It eventually made the Erie Canal obsolete.
By 2 p.m., cruise director Katherine Boelter introduces us to the system of five Canadian and two U.S. locks that we pass through today and explains that locks are like stairs for ships. Each lock that we traverse during daylight -- a process that can take 30 minutes -- brings curious passengers outside to watch Victory I skillfully navigate through the narrow channel, dropping up to 45 feet in some cases. Overnight, we can hear the clanging and rumbling of our passage through the final few locks.
"The St. Lawrence Seaway really interested me because I'd never been," says Marjorie Wolf of Oakland, California, who's traveled widely. "I chose the cruise because of the Thousand Islands and the small ship. This seemed like a nice gentle way to see them."
Like Wolf, many of the passengers -- almost all Americans -- are extremely well traveled, much to my surprise. "Many passengers have done it all," says Scottish-American Captain Gary Kerr. "That's why they're here on this itinerary. It's new to them."
Tonight after dinner, a trio plays from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. with Katherine Boelter on piano and assistant cruise directors Samuel Gautier on drums and Joshua Cates on guitar and horn. Some folks take to the small dance floor enthusiastically, setting the pattern for the rest of the trip. Turns out, this is a dancing crowd, I happily discover.
Next up: Montreal where its famous Botanical Garden, Notre-Dame Basilica and Old Montreal await.
Today's half-day bus excursion, like all of them from Victory I, is included in the cruise at no extra cost. Our guide, Christian, introduces us to the largest French-speaking city in the Western Hemisphere by telling us it's actually an island in the St. Lawrence River.
As we drive through Montreal, he notes that most of the buildings are made of greystone, a locally quarried limestone that lends the low city a monochromatic look. With the 18th-century facades of Old Montreal, it feels far more traditional than Toronto. It differs in other ways, too. Its architecture is a mix of French and English, reflecting its binational history, with Saint Laurent Boulevard as the demarcation between the French and English sides. While Toronto is the country's economic engine, Montreal is its cultural hub with some 250 theater and dance companies and more than 90 festivals.
Founded in 1642 as a French Roman Catholic colony, this "city of a hundred spires" is renowned for its churches. So it's only fitting that our first stop is the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica, one of four Roman Catholic basilicas in the city. The 1829 Gothic Revival church has two notable features: The stained-glass windows depict the religious history of Montreal rather than more traditional Bible scenes and the entire interior is made of wood. Its famous Casavant Brothers organ boasts 7,000 pipes, the smallest at just a half an inch and the tallest at 30 feet. The acoustics are so extraordinary that Luciano Pavarotti recorded a Christmas mass here.
We continue our tour along elegant avenues lined with glittering shops and the world-class restaurants for which Montreal is famous until we reach the city's namesake, Mount Royal. It's just a 750-foot-high hill, really, but home to a lovely, sprawling park.
An urban oasis of another kind is the 190-acre Botanical Garden, one of the largest in the world. It includes 10 greenhouses, more than 22,000 plants and trees, and 30 thematic gardens. I wander through the themed greenhouses -- from succulents to orchids, to ferns and tropical fruits -- which are a steamy antidote to the chill outside. They feature wonderful educational displays about the plants' history and uses. The garden is across the street from the Olympic Stadium where, Christian tells us, Romanian Nadia Comaneci famously earned the first perfect 10 in gymnastics back in 1976.
The tour ends at lunchtime, my opportunity to sample a local specialty. Montreal claims three signature dishes: Montreal smoked meat, an Eastern European-style brisket serve on rye bread; Montreal bagels; and poutine. I gobble up the artery-clogging but oh-so-delicious French fries smothered in cheese curds and brown gravy at Pub BreWskey in the Marche Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market) in Old Montreal. One of Canada's finest heritage buildings, the grand white-columned marketplace, dating to 1847, once served as the city hall.
Among its 15 artisan boutiques, cafes and patisseries is the Sucrerie Haut Bois Normand gift shop, where I find a cascade of maple products. How many? Let me count the ways: lollipops, hard candies, sugar, spread, fudge, butter, jelly, nougat, mustard, vinaigrette, popcorn, cotton candy, cookies, tea, coffee, caramels, chocolate, soap and candles. And you thought maple was only for syrup! Still, 80 percent of the world's maple syrup comes from Canada, the majority from right here in the province of Quebec.
Even on a superficial drive-by, it's evident that the metropolis exudes European flair and sophistication while maintaining its historic charm. Seventeenth-century Old Montreal, near the port, is alive and well in its cobblestone streets and ancient stone facades. I soak it all in along on Rue St.-Paul, where three- and four-story greystone buildings are festooned with wrought-iron lamps and hanging plants, New Orleans-style.
The city's oldest street bustles with Montrealers and tourists, skirted by young men zipping past on scooters. You can grab a cafe au lait and croissant at a patisserie, indulge in a dessert crepe at a creperie and shop for handmade artisanal goods, furs, artwork and designer fashions. Among the many high-end galleries is Galerie Images Boreales, one of the largest Inuit art galleries in the world, representing more than 200 artists. Collectors come from all over the world, the salesgirl tells me. I admire its sinuous serpentine stone and marble sculptures, not to mention a carved fossilized whalebone!
Back on the ship, I ask Captain Kerr about his favorite ports on this itinerary. He names Montreal ("You've got to explore the back streets") and Quebec City for their restaurants and European flavor. He whets my appetite for tomorrow's stop in Quebec City.
Today we're in for a treat: French-flavored, steeped-in-history and sweet-as-maple-syrup Quebec City. We set out on foot with our tour guide, Miriam Lemieux, through the living museum of winding cobblestone streets, 17th- and 18th-century houses and towering church spires that is this city of half a million. She tells us that Quebec is a First Nations word that means, "where the river narrows."
On a brief introduction to the city, we learn that French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded the city in 1608 (just one year after Jamestown, the first English settlement in North America). After trying repeatedly, the British finally captured Quebec City in 1759, symbolically giving birth to British Canada. They soon introduced their own building styles to the growing city, which Miriam points out as we cross Rue du Porche, a dividing line between the French stone buildings with their tall, steeply slanted metal roofs on one side and the British neoclassical structures on the other.
To see where the two 18th-century colonial powers clashed, we drive via motorcoach to the cannon-lined Plains of Abraham, the sprawling site of the decisive battle when the British army defeated the French in less than an hour. The grassy plains are part of the landmark Battlefields Park, which is to Quebec City what Central Park is to Manhattan. And no wonder. Like Central Park, it was laid out by the celebrated landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted.
Next stop is the 272-foot-tall Montmorency Falls, a 10-minute drive away. At 105 feet higher than Niagara, the falls powered the first hydroelectric plant in Canada, says Miriam. We ride the cable car to the top and walk out across a dazzling suspension bridge to watch the rushing water cascade down the cliff beneath our feet.
Our excursion ends back in town at the iconic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, whose massive castle-like hulk perches on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. High-profile guests from Charles Lindbergh to Queen Elizabeth to Ronald Reagan have checked in during the hotel's storied 126 years. Just steps away, past an imposing statue of Samuel de Champlain, I hop on the Old Quebec Funicular, which has been ferrying people between Upper and Lower Town since 1879.
Before I explore Lower Town, I stop for a lunch of gooey French onion soup, a city specialty, at La Pizz, a cozy eatery on the historic Place Royale bearing a statue of King Louis XIV. Commanding the plaza is the 1687 Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, the oldest stone church in North America -- another record breaker in a city filled with them. Just off the square, I hear the melancholy sounds of Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" played by a street guitarist. He's the third busker I've seen today, despite the fall chill.
It's easy to see why North America's oldest French-speaking city and the only remaining fortified city north of Mexico has earned status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The well-preserved historic core is a fetching seductress decked out with come-hither bistros, cafes, boutiques and galleries crammed within its crenelated town walls. Blue and white porcelain house plaques proudly announce their names and dates: Maison Leduc 1725 and Maison du Roy 1725. Throngs of smartly dressed Quebecers rub shoulders with wide-eyed tourists along some of the oldest and narrowest streets in North America. Such as Rue du Tresor, a pedestrian alley where local artists set up to paint and peddle their work each day. With each Old World scene more photogenic than the next, the city is Instagram gold.
That includes astonishing trompe-l'oeil murals. The showstopper at a whopping 4,500 square feet is the Fresco of Quebecers, which tells the story of the city on the side of a five-story building. Dozens of larger-than-life figures appear, including Jacques Cartier, the first European to explore the area; onetime governor Louis de Buade de Frontenac, namesake of the iconic hotel; and, of course, founder Champlain.
Specialty shops brim with woodcarvings, Inuit art, pottery, jewelry, Canadian furs and designer fashions. In some, you can see the craftsmen themselves at work in their studios. I enter the Richard Robitaille Signature fur shop on Rue St.-Pierre, a living reminder of when the city began as a fortified fur-trading post. As I chat with the manager, Jean-Luc Mallais, he unexpectedly asks me: "Do you want to see something special?"
Then he takes me deep into the basement workshop to see one of the city's original 400-year-old underground vaults that once stored precious cargo. "Et voila," he says as he proudly points out an original well and the crudely made walls of yellow ballast bricks and stone. I remember that Miriam had told us all ballast bricks coming from Europe -- typically bright yellow -- were reused for construction, rather than being dismissively discarded. And here they are, embedded randomly among the gray stones! It's a special discovery in a city full of them.
Back onboard, South African Daan DeWitt tells me, "My favorite part of the trip, so far, has been Quebec City because it's so well preserved." The private yacht captain chose this cruise -- his first -- to check out the route as a possible itinerary for his luxury vessel.
During cocktail hour, Wendy tells us to prepare for whale watching tomorrow, when we'll pick up an expert on the whales in the St. Lawrence River.
Today begins with a 7:30 a.m. announcement by Captain Kerr that we're entering Quebec's glacier-cut Saguenay Fjord, lined with craggy 1,150-foot-high cliffs. By 9:30 a.m. Melanie Bourque, chief naturalist of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, starts her hourlong lecture on the whales of the area to a packed audience. She has boarded our ship from village of Tadoussac at the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers.
This area is especially attractive to whales, we learn, because the fresh water from the Great Lakes meets the salty water from the Atlantic to create a rich marine environment loaded with krill, i.e., whale food. Between May and October, up to 13 species of cetaceans -- "a great variety for such a small area," says Melanie -- make their way upriver from the Atlantic Ocean to take up residence here.
As warm-blooded mammals, whales need to breathe at the surface, though some can hold their breath for an hour. Whales only half sleep. One hemisphere of their brain is awake at all times because their breathing is conscious. For that reason, they're hard to tag since they can't be put to sleep, Melanie tells us. Scientists have to shoot suction cups that emit radio signals onto them from a distance. On the other hand, because of individualized markings on their tails or behind their blowholes -- almost like unique fingerprints -- scientists and captains have identified specific whales in these waters and given them names: Zipper, Captain Hook, Orion and Siam. That makes them easier to follow and study.
At about 11 a.m., as if on cue, the whales start to put on their watery show. The day is bright and calm, with an expansive sky speckled with puffy clouds lining the horizon. Passengers don jackets and parkas and head to the outdoor decks, binoculars and cameras in hand. The first performers to appear are some playful minkes, which can leap completely out of the water, though scientists don't know why says Melanie.
Then we're rewarded with a group of belugas, which show off their distinctive white backs against their gray-blue bodies, to the sounds of "oohs" and "aahs" as cameras click. "It's very special to have belugas here," Melanie tells us. "They're an Arctic species and considered endangered." With fewer than 900 left in the St. Lawrence, belugas are the only species that stays in the river all year long.
Finally, we see a pod of mighty humpbacks, those acrobats of the deep, as they spew their powerful blows before presenting their tails with forceful flicks on their way back into the sea -- to yet more oohing and aahing. "We actually got to see whale tail fins," says Roger Meyer from Peoria, Illinois. "That was exciting!"
"Females tend to travel together for more efficient gathering of food," says Melanie, speculating that we might be seeing a female group. "Males tend to stay on their own, perhaps because of competition with other males for reproduction." We can hear her running commentary from the top deck through our individual headset communication systems. She also explains that whales feed closer to the surface during the day when krill ascend for sunlight. All the while, tiny seals poke their heads out of the water, like inquisitive marine prairie dogs, to check out the action. "They're very curious," says Melanie.
Two inflatable Zodiac boats filled with whale watchers suddenly appear. They chase the marine mammoths around in the water, making it easier for us to follow the animals' trajectory. According to regulations, our ship can't get closer than 650 feet from an endangered species like belugas. Zodiacs, on the other hand, can come as close as 330 feet. "We can't approach the belugas," explains Melanie. "We have to keep our distance."
For an hour and a half, we're mesmerized by nature's show-stopping ballet.
With our whale cravings satisfied, we relax for the rest of the afternoon as Victory I motors along a wide stretch of river. Some sit in The Tavern playing cards or board games; others join in rousing games of Name That Tune and bingo in the Compass Lounge. We look forward to another low-key day at sea tomorrow.
The day dawns bright and sunny as we make our way toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Some passengers report seeing occasional belugas and humpbacks in the morning, but otherwise all is quiet and calm on the water. While others enjoy the crew-led card games, charades and trivia contests, I explore our maritime home away from home.
The 101-cabin, five-deck Victory I is a cozy, intimate ship -- not fancy, but very comfortable. Cabins tend to be smaller than those on newer ships of comparable size. But, they boast large double windows, signature 14-inch mattresses with 100% Egyptian cotton linens, plush robes and slippers, safes and William Roam toiletries made with Hawaiian deep seawater. Flat-screen TVs include a very helpful closed-circuit channel that shows a real-time map of the ship's location. Cabins on Deck 4 open to the outside only, which means that passengers in those cabins must walk along an outside terrace to reach an exterior door that leads back inside the ship, cold or rainy weather notwithstanding. Wi-Fi, albeit weak in some parts of the river, is complimentary.
Socializing takes place in one of two venues. The chandeliered Compass Lounge on Deck 2, the heart and soul of the ship, is the place to gather for coffee and baked goods, games and lectures, reading or chatting with friends. A self-serve coffee/tea station provides breakfast pastries in the morning and freshly baked cookies throughout day and evening. Ample windows are perfect for scenery watching. A small band area and dance floor at one end get a good workout each night.
Adjacent to the lounge, the smaller Tavern is a bar/lounge in the front of ship. Richly decorated with stained-glass windows, marble tables, leather lounge chairs and a gleaming wooden bar, it's popular during cocktail hour when the bartender serves a signature drink each day: Montreal Sling, Quebec Royal, Tadoussac Smash or Prince Edward Cobbler, for example. Cocktails, wine, beer and sodas are all included in the cruise fare.
Passengers, who tend to be age 60-plus, uniformly rave about the 84 international crew members. "This is my 27th cruise," says Maureen Parrish of Phoenix. "I love the small ships, they're very personal. On our second night, the bartender said to me, 'Maureen, do you want a chardonnay?'" Her husband, Don Parrish, agrees. "The crew are excellent."
That includes Luis de Sousa Marques, the Portuguese hotel manager, who tells me that the ship has slowed down by midmorning because of the whales. "We can't exceed 9 nautical miles as we enter the gulf, according to coast guard regulations," he says. It includes the South African spa manager who keeps her tiny spa and salon fully booked. A tiny workout room rounds out the facilities.
The whale traffic jam notwithstanding, lunch starts promptly at noon. Diners have two choices for meals. The main one is the a la carte Coastal Dining Room, where lunch and dinner are multicourse meals, often regionally inspired, at open-seating tables. Breakfast there includes a buffet and hot dishes to order. A more casual venue is the buffet-only Grill on Deck 4. In addition to several entrees, sides and a salad bar, there's roast prime rib for dinner every night. A self-serve soft serve ice cream dispenser and self-serve espresso machine add a nice touch.
To facilitate your choice, the ship posts the daily menus for both venues at the purser's desk and the dining room displays samples of that night's dishes at its entrance. Regardless of where you eat, the Indian chef excels at soups -- everything from potato-leek to broccoli-cheese, fennel, split pea and carrot-ginger -- and drool-worthy desserts.
Speaking of desserts, today we're treated to afternoon tea, Indian style. Tables in the Compass Lounge are draped with white linens and set with individual three-tiered cake stands bearing chocolate chip scones, ham sandwiches and Indian samosas, and raspberry cream tarts, macarons and pistachio Madeleines. In a scene straight out of the Raj, waiters dressed in Indian outfits pour tea to the sounds of sitar music.
The rest of the afternoon is filled with a lecture on "The Great Lakes: A Changing Ecosystem" by assistant cruise director Sam Gautier and tours of the bridge, where we learn that our ship needs a harbor pilot who comes aboard at every river port to help navigate in and out.
After two days at sea, we look forward to our visit to Prince Edward Island tomorrow.
Prince Edward Island may be tiny -- it's Canada's smallest province -- but it's huge in endearing local charm, sigh-worthy landscapes and an outsized role in Canadian history.
From the wharf, I follow the walking Heritage Trail into the tidy, compact capital of Charlottetown, population 36,000. Known as a "city of churches and trees," it has maintained its small-town appeal with rows of pastel clapboard houses, redbrick Victorian buildings and impressive stone churches. Towering over the historic downtown is the neo-Gothic double-spired St. Dunstan's Basilica on Great George Street, a visible landmark from anywhere in town. I hear its famous Paccard Bells peal on the hour.
Nearby is the neo-Classical Province House, where the Prince Edward Island legislature -- Canada's second oldest -- has met since 1847. In 1864, it played an important role in helping PEI, as the island is known, host the Charlottetown Conference that resulted in the Canadian Confederation, uniting the colonies of British North America.
I wander over to Victoria Row, a pedestrian-only cobblestone street lined with galleries, boutiques, eateries and Crayola-colored picnic tables -- as pretty as a painting. Inside the Kuriosities gift shop that specializes in local handmade items, PEI-born-and-bred salesgirl Allison Wolvers tells me: "There's so much beauty and uniqueness on the island … and so much culture with lots of artists and actors and musicians. There's something really magical about PEI." Though she moved away a few times, she always returned. "The people who come here are so enthralled by the landscape because of 'Anne of Green Gables'," she adds. "I really love that."
Indeed, it doesn't take me long to stumble on my first evidence of the classic 1908 children's book, "Anne of Green Gables," which is set on the island and long ago put it on the international tourism map.
Fans of the plucky freckle-faced red-haired heroine -- and I count myself squarely among them -- can get their Anne fix at The Anne of Green Gables Store on Queen Street. Doilies, tea sets, jewelry, books, dolls, teas, soaps and embroidered-and-smocked nightgowns -- many plastered with Anne's name or likeness -- recall the turn of the century when native daughter Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her popular novel. I chuckle at the island-made "raspberry cordial" soap, inspired by a famous episode when Anne gets her best friend drunk by mistake. A ceiling-mounted TV screen runs a continuous loop of the classic 1985 TV miniseries, "Anne of Green Gables."
Across the street, The Guild theater shows the musical, "Anne & Gilbert," from May to October each year. Nearby, the Confederation Centre of the Arts has been showing "Anne of Green Gables -- The Musical" each summer for 55 years. The island even boasts a Green Gables Golf Club, for heaven's sake!
Before joining the afternoon excursion, I enjoy a classic lobster roll lunch at the Water Prince Corner Shop, which specializes in PEI's famous seafood. Islander-owned and operated for 28 years, it sources just-plucked crustaceans, mussels, clams and oysters directly from local wharves and fishermen. Like the island itself, the downhome restaurant has a casual maritime vibe.
As our afternoon bus tour heads out of town, our guide, Tammy Pickering, points out The Culinary Institute of Canada. "Eating out is a hobby on PEI," she says of the growing food and craft beer scene, thanks in part to the culinary school.
Cityscapes quickly give way to pastoral scenes straight out of a storybook. Neat green pastures ("We love to cut grass on PEI," Tammy says), clapboard farmhouses and barns, seaside villages and pocket coves sparkle in the afternoon sun as we head north toward Cavendish, where author Montgomery grew up. I watch as the descriptions in her book come alive with each passing mile. We stop to admire the red-earth cliffs on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, whose iron-rich soil shows up in the signature red sandstone buildings on the island.
At the tiny fishing community of North Rustico, Tammy gives us a hands-on lesson in lobster fishing as we gather around a weathered wooden trap. Ducks and Canada geese dot the harbor, which is rimmed with brightly painted fish houses and rows upon rows of rope-strung traps. Because of good management, the stocks of lobsters are increasing she tells us. Although the fishing season is only two months long, the 1,300 licensed lobstermen on PEI make a handsome living.
Finally, we head to ground zero for "Anne" pilgrims: the 1830s House of Green Gables in Cavendish, which inspired the book. We enter through a brand-new visitor center-cum-museum and gift shop (more "Anne" memorabilia). "Visitors all come with their own impressions of the story," says the docent who guides us through the property. Indeed, the house is a personal mecca. Ever since I read the book aloud to my three young daughters, I have wanted to visit.
There it is: the crisp white clapboard house, adorned with those distinctive forest-green gables and bordered by a white picket fence. It's picture perfect. I'm surprised to learn that Montgomery never lived here, but rather visited as a child when her cousins owned it. She would wander the surrounding woodlands, which also show up in the book and have been as carefully preserved as the farmhouse itself.
Inside, however, the blend of fact and fiction can be disorienting. "Anne's" bedroom sports the gabled window, floral wallpaper and period furnishings straight from the pages of the book. Her clothes, meanwhile, are neatly laid out on her bed with her boots at the ready by her nightstand. It seems like she'll walk in at any moment. The rest of the two-story house is just as beautifully furnished to re-create the era.
"L. M. Montgomery is the cornerstone of our tourism industry," says Tammy. That industry has only grown as "Anne of Green Gables" has been translated into at least 36 languages and has sold more than 50 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books in the world. Just ask the Japanese, who revere the fictional orphan girl and visit the house in large numbers -- including Japanese Princess Takamado. As the international patron of the L. M. Montgomery Institute, she participated in the opening of the new visitor center in August 2019.
As we step back onto the ship, we're welcomed with warm washcloths and either hot chocolate or bouillon soup. I soon learn that it's rock 'n' roll night in the Compass Lounge. With a relaxed sea day coming up tomorrow, passengers hit the dance floor.
Our sea day is bookended by two activities: a morning lecture by Katherine on the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway and a Viennese-style afternoon tea, when waiters in 18th-century-style white wigs pour tea while we indulge in sachertorte, apfelstrudel (apple strudel), blueberry tarts, cream puffs, linzer tarts, Austrian mini-cakes, and cucumber-watercress and roast beef sandwiches. Classical Viennese string music fills the air as we motor along.
In late afternoon, all the passengers are called to the lounge for an announcement by Captain Kerr. Because of stormy weather and expected swells of 14 feet, he has canceled tomorrow's port call at Halifax. "It's wicked what's coming," he tells me later. We'll spend the day at sea instead, followed by a full day in Portland in place of Halifax to finish the cruise.
The day ends with a fiery sunset that paints the sky with molten streaks of red and pink and gold. It holds no hints of the storm to come.
On our final day at sea, Sam gives an interesting lecture on Maine to prepare us for Portland tomorrow. The rest of the day is spent relaxing, socializing, playing parlor games and hitting the spa -- a hot spot on days with no port stops.
It's Country Western music night in the lounge, which brings out enthusiastic line dancers. "My favorite part has been the band," says Janet Kukulinsky of Gualala, California, in between numbers. "They're so good and talented and entertaining. And I love to dance."
We awake in Portland Harbor to find lingering evidence of the storm. As we climb into our motorcoach for our morning excursion, Gloria, our guide, welcomes us. "You're seeing Maine on a true honest day," she says, "all rainy and gray."
We drive through the historic Old Port with its 19th-century warehouses, cobblestone streets and salty sea air and along Congress Street through the funky Arts District. On our way south to Cape Elizabeth, we pass tidy clapboard houses in pastel colors and showy Victorians still wrapped in late fall colors. Classic New England scenes unfold along Casco Bay. With just 67,000 people, Portland may be small in population but not in wealth as these mansions attest.
We're on our way to see some of Maine's famous lighthouses, those proud sentinels that guard its rugged coast. The rain and fog only dramatize the role these beacons played in keeping ships safe over the centuries. Of the six lighthouses within 20 minutes of the city, we visit three: Breakwater Lighthouse, built in 1855, is more symbolic than functional these days; Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, dates to 1897 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and finally, the landmark 1791 Portland Head Light. The oldest and most photographed lighthouse in Maine perches on a rocky wave-lashed shore on Cape Elizabeth. At one time, it served to inspire Portlander Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who walked here often, our guide tells us. We linger in the museum and gift shop in the former keeper's house before heading back to town.
I decide there's no better away to spend the rest of the rainy day than indoors -- feasting on lobster and visiting cultural venues. So I start at the casual Eventide Oyster Co. for lunch where I'm greeted by 13 types of raw oysters -- be still my heart! -- laid out on a large ice-covered stone slab at the bar. I order two standouts: giant Winter Point fried oysters dusted in cornmeal and lobster roll, a sweet steamed bun stuffed with seafood chunks coated in sublime brown butter (rather than traditional mayo). They're both lip-smacking good. No wonder Bon Appetit named Portland Restaurant City of the Year in 2018.
Next up is the three-story Wadsworth-Longfellow House, where the 19th-century poet grew up. The first wholly brick dwelling in Portland, it housed three generations of this influential New England family before passing to the Maine Historical Society in 1901. Built in 1785–1786 by Longfellow's grandfather, it is the oldest standing structure on the Portland peninsula and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The docent who guides our small group through its many restored rooms tells us that 95 percent of the furnishings and artifacts -- including many family portraits, a lock of George Washington's hair on the mantel and the blue and white china that inspired one of Longfellow's poems -- are all original.
Midway through the tour, the docent stops to read aloud the Longfellow poem, "The Rainy Day," which he wrote on a day like today right on the desk in this very room. As I gaze out the window at the rain-splattered garden, Longfellow's words perfectly capture the gloom outside:
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary It rains, and the wind is never weary; The vine still clings to the moldering wall, But at every gust the dead leaves fall, And the day is dark and dreary.
With those stanzas ringing in my ears, I slog along Congress Street toward Longfellow Square to see the poet's seated statue. First I check out Longfellow Books, which honors Portland's most famous son with works by many Maine authors among its thousands of new and used titles. Clearly the town is not shy about its Longfellow connection.
Portland's most historic street is an eclectic mix of galleries, thrift shops, boutiques and hip coworking spaces, such as the female-only CoworkHERS. I duck into Soakology, an inviting teahouse-cum-foot spa, for a pick-me-up of spiced peach tea.
At Maine Craft Portland, a nonprofit run by the Maine Craft Association, I admire the beautiful jewelry, woodwork, ceramics, woolens, candles and more. The largest craft gallery in the region, it represents 140 state artists. I ask Katy Gaebler, a ceramicist who works there, what she likes about living in Portland. "I like the walkability. It's really beautiful and our waterfront is a working waterfront," she says. "I love that it's small and has a great art scene. Plus, it's growing nicely, not just sprawl."
For art of another sort, I enter the Portland Museum of Art, the cultural heart of the city. I'm gobsmacked by the heft of this world-class institution, which belies the size of tiny Portland. I beeline for its famous Winslow Homers and works by other artists who lived and worked in Maine: Rockwell Kent, Frederic Church, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper and George Wesley Bellows. The airy, light-filled building highlights Maine's rich artistic tradition among its more than 18,000 pieces, from French impressionists to American classics.
"Portland is the smallest big city, with lots of culture and entertainment," observes my rideshare driver, referring to its many museums -- from the Maine Irish Heritage Center to the Maine Jewish Museum. "You don't hear people blowing their horn at each other," he adds. "It's a very quiet, pleasant atmosphere."
With my cultural exploration at an end, I join several friends from the cruise for a classic lobster dinner. We settle into a booth at Becky's Diner on Hobson's Wharf and tuck into our plucked-from-the-tank 1.5-pound crustaceans with all the trimmings -- including warm, fluffy biscuits. Tempting as they are in their display case, we forgo the desserts made onsite: cakes slathered with cream cheese frosting, glistening fruit and cream pies, and, of course, giant Maine whoopie pies the size of saucers.
Still, the meal turns out to be the perfect last hurrah for this remarkable and memorable trip.
An award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world.
We have had so much fun learning more about Victory Cruise Lines' expansion plans and experiencing its authentic style of travel on our St. Lawrence Seaway cruise. To read more, check out all our stories in Cruise Critic's "Travel Farther, Travel Deeper, with Victory Cruise Lines" series, that focus on this innovative cruise line.