Down the River to the Sea – The Luxury of a St Lawrence Cruise
By Ian F Darwin
“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean” – Arthur C Clarke
The deep, dark and endless sea. Just as many city dwellers never really see the Milky Way overhead until there’s a province-wide power failure, so, too, you cannot really fathom the vastness of the oceans without experiencing them up close. A photo from a cruise ship or even from a spaceship is to the endless sea as a description of stomping grapes is to a bottle of Dom Perignon. That near-mystical experience of the sea, which I first experienced as a child, is one of the things that keeps me coming back to cruise ships.
But cruising isn’t just about the endless sea. It’s also about luxury. The luxury of having the great cities of the world appear outside your floating hotel room, usually a different one each morning, and not having to unpack and repack every day. The luxury of being pampered. The luxury of fine dining. The luxury of great onshore experiences…
We had the good fortune to sail on Holland America’s ms Maasdam down the St Lawrence to the Atlantic Ocean and around to Boston in August, 2017. Having selected this cruise because of good experiences with Holland America in the past, we took Via Rail Business Class from Toronto to Montreal, and embarked there. We spent a day in Quebec City, a day “at sea” cruising the St Lawrence, and made stops in Charlottetown, PEI, along with Sydney and Halifax in Nova Scotia. In the USA we stopped in Bar Harbor, Maine, before ending our cruise in Boston. It is possible to travel this voyage in either direction, or to do a 14 day round trip voyage. We spoke to a number of passengers who were on the return leg of the journey, having come up from Boston. They enjoyed the opportunity to go on excursions on the return portion that they had heard about from fellow passengers, or visited places in port that they hadn’t time for on the first leg of the journey.
Does this count as luxury? It sure does. Let me count the ways. Of course, Montreal, Quebec, Halifax, and Boston are some of the great cities of North America’s northeast. Charlottetown, Sydney and Bar Harbour are smaller centres, but each offers something you probably won’t find elsewhere.
Here are my top tips on everything you’ll ever need to know about taking one of the best available cruises of Eastern Canada and the US.
Adventures in Dining
There are many restaurants on board ship. The Rotterdam dining room offers fancy table service, with a dress code of “smart casual” most nights but “formal” or “gala” a few nights. You can have fixed seating (reservation for the same time each night) or open seating (no reservation, but subject to space availability). The Lido Cafe offers cafeteria-style dining, and is open longer hours. Also on the Lido deck are several smaller food outlets, one specializing in Mexican-style cooking.
Meals in the dining room and the Lido are included with your cruise fare (alcohol is not, but there are various beverage plans available). For greater elegance, you can choose to purchase meals at the luxurious Pinnacle Grill or the the Canaletto restaurant on the Lido deck. Of course, all dining rooms feature sea view seating. In-room dining is always available.
Entertainment, Shopping and more
There is always something going on aboard ship, from the early morning to well past midnight. The piano bar offers classical music in the evening, while the Mix bar offers, of course, mixed drinks, and also has wine tasting events. The Hudson Cafe offers a variety of coffees such as lattes, cappuccinos, and the like. There are trivia games most days, seminars on topics like digital photography (sponsored by Microsoft), bingo events, wine tastings, poker (there’s a full casino on board), and much more.
There are also two theatres aboard Maasdam. The smaller Wajax offers cooking shows in the afternoon (Holland America sponsors the TV series America’s Test Kitchen), and feature films just past their cinematic release (eg, in August, 2017, they ran The Circle with Emma Watson, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, and other recent films). The two-storey Showroom At Sea theatre offers entertainment including live comedy, magic, song/dance shows and more, all included in your fare. The latter theater is also used for presentations on the history and attractions of whatever place you’ll be visiting the following day.
Some people love the luxury world of fancy jewelry and art. There is a jewelry counter on the same deck as the casino and some of the other shops, as well as a more upscale jewelry boutique with limited hours. And there are two art auctions a week at which you can bid on original modern paintings.
We aren’t into the whole spa thing, but if you are, there’s a full-service spa onboard with all the expected services: various massages, facials, and exfoliation.
Shore Excursion: Cruise Line or DIY?
Like most cruise lines, Holland America offers many optional on-shore experiences. You are by no means required to buy these from the cruise line. But think about what happens if you take a bus or boat excursion to some place far from the pier, and the operator fails to get you back to to the ship in time for its departure (on a short cruise like this, the ship is only in port from around 8am to 3 or 5pm).
Flat tire? Engine breakdown? Driver took a wrong turn? Well, the cruise ship will leave on time, even if you’re not back. If you booked it on your own, either online or dockside, well, you’re still on your own! But if you booked your shore excursion through the cruise line, the cruise line will either delay departure by a little bit, or will look after getting you to the next port of call to resume the cruise.
Quebec City, PQ
Quebec City is a lovely and cosmopolitan place, one of the oldest settlements in North America (founded in 1608). People are friendly to tourists; the Province of Quebec’s Official Language Act mandates use of Quebecois French on signs, but just about everyone who works in hospitality here is bilingual. There is lots of good shopping, dining and other services. You can explore the historic Citadel and rampart walls surrounding the old town, and view the historic hotel Château Frontenac.
We spent our time in Quebec City walking the town, since the cruise ship docks close to downtown. The Museum of Civilization had an exhibit on Hergé, the famous author/illustrator of the Tintin comics, but we didn’t get in due to the lineups. We did see the smaller Naval Museum near the docks, with memories of those who served in Canada’s navy over the years. We’d been to Quebec City previously and there’s a really good aquarium there; it’s a bit away from the downtown but worth the trip.
For those who don’t know Canadian history, Charlottetown is where Canada officially began as a nation. The “Fathers of Confederation” met there in 1867 to avoid giving the appearance of bias that meeting in the competing power centers of either Ontario or Quebec would have done. They met, and hammered out, and signed the British North America Act, creating (as we like to call it) “one dominion, from Sea to shining Sea” (although it didn’t actually extend to the Pacific until 1871 when British Columbia joined Confederation after Ottawa guaranteed the building of railroads to connect it with eastern Canada).
Of course, you can see the historical sites where this political gambit came to fruition. But there is much more to Charlottetown and PEI. Somerset, north of Charlottetown, is the home of the famous Anne of Green Gables stories, and there is much tourism generated by people wanting to experience that. PEI also features rich red soil, and is famous for the potatoes that grow in it. If you wish to drive on your own, be sure to book a rental car well in advance. We tried to do so when we went ashore, but there were no vehicles available. Instead, we hired a driver/tour guide right from the parking lot to show us local areas of interest for $70/hour. He provided lots of interesting local information, and answered all our questions.
Shore Excursion: Sydney to Bird Island, NS
We booked an all-day excursion through the Tour Desk for our stop in Sydney, a former steel-and-coal town on Cape Breton Island, the eastern part of Nova Scotia. One of several on-shore excursions offered by Holland America from Sydney is the Bird Islands tour, offered by Bird Island Boat Tours, a small company run by Vince Ven Schaick and his son Ian Van Schaick, whom we met after an hour’s drive in a modern coach/bus.
“Puffin Express” is both their logo and the name of their purpose-built boat. Being a home-made craft, what it lacks in polish it more than made up for by the Schaicks’ knowledge of Cape Breton history and culture as well as the information they presented on the birds we saw on and near these two small islands off Cape Breton.
The day we went out, the sky was clear and the winds low, so we had very good viewing. We saw Atlantic puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, various gulls, great and double-breasted cormorants sunning themselves, great blue werons strutting about, northern gannets, ruddy turnstones, spotted sandpipers, and over a dozen bald eagles, including young. We also saw quite a few grey seals in the water, though they didn’t come out to sun themselves while the boat was near, so we only saw their heads.
If you’re into birding, or just want to see birds like Puffins in their native habitat this tour is for you. The guide on the bus was also knowledgeable, imparting information about the community as we rode.
We took a low-budget approach in Halifax: walking to the Citadel. The Citadel was built by the British to protect against attack from the United States before the war of 1812. It’s a pleasant and somewhat hilly half-hour walk past the waterfront and many restaurants.
You can walk around the fort and see volunteers in period costume as well as many exhibits on the history of the time: the politics, the wars, how the soldiers lived, and more. One of us paid $20 for a chance to fire a period rifle: firing blanks, but even a blank cartridge in a rifle whose bore exceeds half an inch makes quite a roar and a lot of smoke. All in fun, and it funds the fortress.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Pronounced by locals as something like “baw hawbaw” or “bah hahbah”, this small town and its surrounding terrain was once the exclusive playground for the very rich: Fords and Rockefellers and the like. It has since morphed into more of a tourist town, though it has yet to build a big, expensive pier for cruise ships to dock – this is the one stop at which we had to go ashore via “tenders”, lifeboats pressed into service to shuttle back and forth from the ship to shore.
After walking about the town for a while, we took the bus tour to Acadia Park which pretty much surrounds the town. The tour was well organized, and also well-timed: we got in before a huge traffic jam which we saw on the way out (so take the earliest tour you can!). Acadia Park was, like most of the Bar Harbor area, originally owned by the uber-rich, and donated to the National Park Service who look after it to this day. There are some great views of the town and the harbor from the tour.
After returning, we visited more shops, including the cleverly-named Bark Harbor pet store and the Scrimshaw Workshop & Gift Store. Scrimshaw is described as “the whaler’s art” of detailed hand engraving; we were please to learn that, in order to protect living species, they now only use fossilized walrus and mammoth ivory.
Well before the cruise left Montreal, we had booked our visit to the New England Aquarium through their website and also booked a whale watching outing that is associated with the NEA (through Boston Harbor Cruises). NEA is one of the world’s top 10 large-scale aquaria, and has wonderful collections and exhibits. However we don’t really enjoy packed-tight crowds, so arriving at the aquarium on a summer weekend was probably a mistake. We recommend getting there when it opens (check the website for current hours).
The whale watching was better! Although you have to ride for over an hour on the boat with a hundred or so other tourists, this company knows whales well and found about 20 humpbacks out in the Gulf of Maine, one of whom breached just a hundred metres off the starboard bow. We recommend this experience.
Pro Tip: Reputable whaling operators will not get too close to the whales, so if you want pictures, bring a long telephoto (500mm 35mm equivalent) or a modern superzoom (we used a Nikon P900 for this trip). The tour operators were very knowledgeable, though the sound from their PA system did not carry on all deck areas, especially when the boat was in motion.
The day after the whale watching, we had some time before our flight home, so we walked from our hotel to Boston’s Museum of Science. The museum was spacious and had interactive displays in good working order, with none of the crowds we encountered in the aquarium. We also walked part of the Freedom Trail, a self-guided tour marked by a red line in the sidewalk; guided tours are also available. This trail features more than a dozen cornerstones of American history including the Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, and Paul Revere House from revolutionary times, as well as Old Ironsides from the War of 1812. We generally enjoyed the architecture of the city.
What about: Staying In Touch?
If you’ve not been on a cruise before it might not occur to you that you will usually be out of cell phone coverage while the ship is at sea. No text, not email, no calls. Well, I view that disconnection as part of the luxury, but others may not be so comfortable with it. There is a satellite internet available (as on most cruise lines), but it’s rather pricey, starting at $0.75 US per minute until you log out – there are bulk purchase plans that bring the per-minute cost down. It’s mainly aimed at web browsing; it is not suitable for streaming video or video calling.
Also, your Canadian cell service either won’t work in the US ports of call, or will work with a roaming add-on, or may charge exorbitant roaming charges. This is one thing you need to check up on before you go. If you don’t mind swapping SIM cards and have an unlocked GSM phone, you can get a temporary phone number from Roam Mobility for a few dollars per day. Or, if cost is no object and you really need to be in touch 24/7, you could buy or rent a satellite phone from Iridium or one of its competitors. But don’t, really – you’re on vacation!
If you just want to stay informed of what’s happening in general in the outside world, no matter how depressing that may be at times, there is an eight-page daily summary edition of the New York Times for US readers, and similar summaries for Canadians, UK readers, Spanish and (reflecting Holland America’s origins), a news summary in Dutch. You also get When & Where, a daily schedule of all the next day’s presentations, and (on port days) the useful Port Shopping Information flyer listing the top recommended jewelry, souvenir and shopping sites, maps, and useful trivia.
Holland America: Other Cruises, Loyalty Program
Holland America offers a full slate of cruises, from seven-day St Lawrence and Caribbean cruises up to year-long round-the-world cruises. Some of their other popular itineraries include two-week Northern Isles (Nordic and Arctic countries), 23-day South America and Antarctica, and 12-day Mediterranean. Of course, they also offer Panama Canal crossings, Hawaii and Alaska cruises, trans-Atlantic “re-positioning” cruises, and so much more. Way too many to list here, and with additions and changes, any such list would be quickly out of date.
Once you’ve taken a cruise with Holland America, you are enrolled in their Mariner loyalty program, which entitles you to a Mariners’ Lunch in the fancy dining room near the beginning of each voyage, as well as discounts, advance access to new cruises, and other benefits. Since cruises are of different lengths, you accumulate more “cruise days” to gain additional stars of membership and greater benefits. As a historical note, Mariners program Customer Service was able to add a cruise that I had taken well before the Mariners program was even set up, because their computer system remembers everything forever. That’s good service!
How do they do that?
When you’re on a cruise, you have by definition left the driving to someone else. It’s worth thinking about how they do it: how they get a vehicle that is two-thirds the size of the Empire State Building or a small town from place-to-place, safely, and on time? Maasdam is 720ft long, and weighs in at about 55,000 tons fully loaded.
Well, let’s say that it takes a village to move, and feed, a village. Maasdam for example has a crew complement of about 575 looking after about 1200 passengers on our trip, out of a maximum of about 1445. About 80 of those crew members are in charge of the ship itself, including the bridge crew and engineering. Of the rest, there are food services crew, housekeeping crew, entertainment, and of course sales staff. This self-contained town consumes tons of food (they keep three industrial fork-lift trucks on board which are presumably used for moving food, luggage, and equipment), uses tons of fresh water, and burns tons of diesel fuel each day powering a set of five diesel generators in two different sizes (only the minimum needed are running at any time). These engines power everything on-board – light, heat/air conditioning, heating the pool water, running the coin-operated washers and dryers – as well as the two 12,000KW (16,106HP) main electric motors that turn the propellers to drive the ship forward and the thrusters that can alter direction, going so far as to move the ship completely sideways when docking or leaving port. Crew have to maintain two different types of diesel fuel to meet different emission standards in different parts of the world.
All of this is controlled by computers from the bridge, which looks a bit like something out of Star Trek. For example, the navigation computer will, when a course is laid in, compute whether it meets the required depth, distance from obstructions, and so on, greatly relieving the bridge team of that tedious job. Other displays show and control the weights and balance, the emergency doors, and many other aspects of the vessel. Captain Arno Jutten, the Master of the Maasdam during our cruise, has his crew on the bridge constantly looking out for the interests of the vessel, the crew and, of course, the passengers. Thanks to Captain Jutten for touring me around the bridge and control systems and for answering my questions, and to the Holland-America press team for arranging it.
An Old Ship and True
Maasdam entered service around December, 1992, making her about 25 years old as of this writing. Cruise ships usually have a longer lifespan than, say, automobiles, or cargo container vessels (both of which seem to have a maximum serviceable lifespan of about 10 years).
Cruise ships are kept longer, undergo continuous maintenance (sailors were painting parts of Maasdam at various times while we were aboard, since salt water makes ships rust). Cruise ships also undergo refurbishment several times over their lifespan to keep them up-to-date and viable. That said, Holland America does not keep its ships forever; eventually, each cruise ship will be decommissioned and, after a decent interval, its name will be assigned to a brand new ship of a similar size. The Nieuw Amsterdam that I sailed on as a child with my parents has long ago been broken up for scrap and replaced by another ship with the same name, and then another (that sentence makes me feel old, somehow). Confusingly, Holland America has both an Amsterdam and a Nieuw Amsterdam in service, which would be like having a York and a New York, I guess.
For days at sea or other downtime, Guest Services has a large library of videos on DVD. As a tell for Maasdam’s age, the DVD player in our room stopped working (they replaced it very quickly), and we had some plumbing issues (also repaired quickly). In both cases, the management followed up to make sure our repairs were satisfactory.
Sophisticated travellers will not be put off by minor problems like these. Luxury is not in how new a ship is, but how friendly the service is, how comprehensive the offerings, how comfortable the accommodations, how tasty and varied the fare. On all these measures, Holland America lives up to its slogans:
“Savor the Journey. Spacious, elegant ships. Gracious, award-winning service. Sophisticated five-star dining.”
If you haven’t tried cruising for a while and want some luxury, I recommend Holland America. And if you live in Ontario or Quebec and want a short trip, you could take Holland America down the river and out to sea. Or, from New England, take this cruise northward and see a little of what Canada has to offer.
Contributor Ian Darwin is a freelance computer software developer, trainer and author who loves to travel and tell stories about where he’s been. Visit his website at https://darwinsys.com/travel/