TADOUSSAC, Quebec - "Dancez avec moi?" inquires a jolly gentlemen as I step off the gangplank in Tadoussac, a little bit of a port at the confluence of the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Saguenay Fjord in Quebec province. Grizzled with grey at the edges and dressed in what looks slightly more comfortable than a canvas sack, he takes my hands with a big grin and pulls me into his small circle of companions, a group of actors hired to greet cruise visitors.
This surprise request to dance on a rickety wooden dock momentarily takes me back. But why not? With fiddlers nearby sawing away at their strings, smiling women dressed in period garb clapping their hands in time to the music and giggling children leaning over an ice-laden, makeshift table twirling sticks of maple syrup into hardened candy, I figure a refusal would be downright unfriendly.
As so I find myself tooling along Canada's eastern coastline on the La Compagnie du Ponant's Le Boreal, a 264-passenger luxury ship sailing from Quebec City, around the Gaspe Peninsula and down to Boston Harbor. On this route the ship's size matters. Le Boreal, 466 feet long, gives us the advantage of dipping in and out of picturesque fishing villages and shallow ports otherwise inaccessible to larger ships.
Touted as a fall foliage tour, our journey might also be coined "In Search of the Northwest Passage" or "Eastern Canada's Remarkable Wildlife." In truth, it is all of these things. Onboard historians paint a picture of early explorer Jacques Cartier's relentless and frequently tumultuous search for the elusive Northwest Passage and his on again off again relationship with the Iroquois. And naturalists confirm this vast region is abundant with both land and marine wildlife, creating opportunities for both high-octane and reflective adventure.
Once onboard, it's no surprise I find myself amidst a bevy of dapper French tourists, bound together in search of a common history and some of the most stunning vistas in North America. This is because La Compagnie du Ponant is well known in Europe for its appealing routes and subdued elegance.
Settled in my cozy yet luxurious cabin, Le Boreal glides up the St. Lawrence towards the Saguenay fjord, dropping anchor in the village of Tadoussac where I find my hearty welcome. The town, once France's first trading post on the mainland of "New France," is still the fjord's door keeper and as such is a hub of tourism for the estuary area.
Here, where the fjord's fresh water meets the salty St. Lawrence, a nutrient rich underwater environment becomes an important summer feeding ground for several whale species: fin, mink, belugas and blue whales, as well as harbor porpoises. It is, in fact, a mecca for visitors in search of whale watching excursions by zodiac and hikers seeking the quiet, forested terrain surrounding the fjord. A stroll around town accompanied by an afternoon snack of tasty poutine - a quintessential Quebecois dish of french fries smothered in gravy - rounds out the day nicely.
But I have only a day in port, and by evening I have to be back onboard in time to join the evening's festivities. Dinner is served in one of two dining venues, and my French neighbors are dressed to the nines. I'm told a titled French woman is onboard, the chief suspect being the grand dame across the hall from my stateroom. She is my grandmother's vision of perfect comportment. Without a pin out of place she would make Miss Manners proud.
Although the ship flies the French flag, the food is pleasantly North American. And even the Anglophiles eat heartily. After dinner, however, the ship reveals its particular French sensibilities in a flamboyant Paris-style revue staged in the theater. I feel as if I've stepped back into the Paris of Hemingway and Picasso and half expect to find one of them sitting beside me.
Evenings are quiet with most guests back in their staterooms by nine. This is when the aft lounge morphs into a mini disco with tunes from the 1980s piped in via a twenty-something's laptop. No matter. I slip away to the panoramic Observatory Lounge with its svelte white bar chairs and panoramic views, and tuck into a Drink of the Day for kicks.
A bilingual program outlining activities for the next day is placed in my stateroom each evening while I'm at dinner. After I miss an important lecture early on, I realize it's important to spend time examining it each evening.
Ports come and go, but the Madeleine Islands, an archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is one of the most memorable. By the time we drop anchor, even in the bright sunshine of a September morning, there is a discernable chill in the air made more noticeable by the wind.
If it's this chilly in September, how bearable is it in the depths of winter, I wonder. "Oh, this is pleasant," our chipper, bilingual guide Hugo Petitpas tells me. But the tiny population - only 13,000 Acadians - tells a story of winters that are too long and too cold.
Originally flat and barren, the existing trees were clear-cut over a century ago, conspiring to produce a relatively flat terrain comprised of volcanic rock and sand dunes. A sweeping glance paints a grim picture of few natural defenses against what nature hurls at it in this picturesque chain of islands where generations of families know and rely on each other.
These folks will also tell you that their location far from the mainland of Canada actually keeps their island home more temperate. As a Californian, it seems like a matter of perspective. Clearly, though, the Acadians are survivors. By 1875, when the timber was all logged, bundled up and sent back to Britain for use as flooring, lobster fishing became the islanders' primary livelihood. I'm told that today, millions of pounds of lobster are fished by these modern Acadians who survive on the profits during the off-season.
Today, nearly 200 bird species are bringing increasing numbers of birders to the islands, and tourism is on the rise. Ever the survivors, a budding artist community is designing and making exquisite works of art from local sea glass and sand, on display near La Grave and well worth a look.
While some of the ports on our itinerary don't pull out the stops like Tadoussac, there is a potent charm factor in colorful Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site whose rows of centuries-old red, blue, and yellow buildings stand like soldiers guarding this British settlement, I watch from the stern deck as the town comes into view.
A masterful example of a bona fide British colonial settlement, like most coastal towns in this part of Canada the waterfront is the heart of the city. Fishing, shipbuilding and social life revolved around some of the richest stocks of both fish and fur - including the now fished-out walrus - when these towns were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The same is true today with the addition of tourism revenue.
Lunenburg's annual folk art festival is a popular event, a fact my fellow cruisers seem to know as they disembark in droves. Together we wander the orderly, parallel streets, wander through the historic Knaut-Rhuland Museum with its authentic period garb and reproduction rooms. A knitter, I'm drawn to the little shops selling handmade, heavy woolens designed to protect tender skin in negative zero-degree weather.
After a last stop in lively Bar Harbor, I disembark in Boston, where to my surprise I feel better rested than I have in weeks. Perhaps it was the clear night air wafting through the balcony door that I left open. But another bonus promises to last longer. For the first time I've learned a little bit about one of Canada's best-kept secrets: her rich cultural heritage and spectacular Atlantic coastline.
IF YOU GO:
For more information or to book a cruise, visit http://www.ponant.com. Prices per person start at $4,273 and vary by cabin style.
Andrea Kitay: email@example.com