The classic New England ‘fall foliage’ cruise starts at either Montreal or Quebec and continues via the St Lawrence Seaway, Nova Scotia and Boston to New York. It is a voyage of great contrasts, unexpected delights and a backdrop of pure natural splendour as the ever-present trees turn from green to vivid orange, russet, red and gold.
And, while the route includes a lot of small-scale towns and low-key opportunities, it begins with two modern cities that have fabulous historic aspects.
The modern face of this French-accented city in the massive state of Quebec is as fresh and bright as they come, highlighted by the annual Grand Prix around the island street course that brings out massive crowds each year.
But, for cruise visitors, tying up in the Old Port is the gateway to a treasure trove of more old-fashioned charms and attractions, highlighted by the long streets of Rue St Paul and Rue Notre Dame and eight museums sprinkled among the historic quarter, notably the Montreal Science Center, Pointe-a-Calliere (Museum of Archaeology) and Centre d’histoire de Montreal.
These pedestrian-friendly avenues (once surrounded by the original 17th century city walls) offer unique shops and art galleries, great restaurants and tempting bars, while you can also try the local delicacy of frozen maple candy – boiled maple syrup poured over snow and ice and rolled into a maple ‘lollipop.’ Delicious!
High fashions, jewellery, collectibles, gifts and souvenirs are all readily available – try Galerie Elca (dedicated to Inuit Indian art), Michel Brisson (designer fashion), Maple Delights (essential tastes of the region) and Baldaquin for a good selection. For dining, consider the romantically elegant Chez Queux, chic Aix in Place D’Armes, pub-style Restaurant Holder, rustic Galiano’s and the totally charming Narcisse bistro and wine bar.
Take time to peruse the Place D’Armes, the original central square, Bonsecours Market, with its collection of boutiques and cafes, gothic revival Notre Dame Basilica, the spectacular 19th century church, and Old Sulpician Seminary, the oldest surviving building in Vieux Montreal, dating back to 1685.
Once you have completed a full tour of the Old Port, head out to visit Mount Royal, the massive promontory that looms over the city and provides gorgeous views in all directions, as well as the magnificent urban green space designed by Frederick Olmsted (of Central Park fame); Ile Sainte-Helene, home to the June Grand Prix, Montreal Casino, La Ronde amusement park and Parc Jean-Rondeau; and West Island, full of hikers, cyclists and the forested reserve of Morgan Arboretum.
Montreal also teems with nightlife and high-quality evening diversions, from its many gourmet restaurants to the nightclubs of Plateau Mont-Royal. There are the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Les Grand Ballets Canadiens and Opera de Montreal for culture vultures, and, for gourmets, several dozen outlets offering Quebec’s ‘new cuisine,’ which features local, organic and seasonal produce with a robust flavour and innovative touches.
Most of all, though, this is a city that invites casual wandering and chance discoveries. Easy to negotiate on foot or by the efficient Metro system, it positively welcomes visitors with that sense of Old Europe in a New World setting. Vive la difference, in all its glory!
The old and new also mingle comfortably in the oldest European colony in Canada. Founded in 1608, the accents of France and England provide a unique cultural mix that adds up to its reputation as the country’s most romantic city.
The only fully fortified city in North America, Quebec was declared an international heritage site by UNESCO in 1985 and its history today is evoked by the many old churches, stolid, stone-built houses, fortifications and the cannons that still sit along the walls and roads.
Iconic Chateau Frontenac – nowadays one of the fine resorts in the five-star Fairmont Hotels collection – looms over the city like the fortress it actually isn’t (although it is still well worth a look), providing an architectural link to the cliff-top fort of La Citadelle, the real old military heart of Quebec, with daily tours and an excellent museum.
The area surrounding the Chateau is full of authentic charm, with shops, art galleries and some wonderful restaurants – notably Le Pain Beni, where the region’s own cuisine is one of the highlights. Locals insist it is impossible to get a bad meal here and, just ‘window-shopping’ the many well-displayed menus, it is hard to disagree!
Return down the hill via the funicular railway to the Old Port and the Place-Royale is another key area to demand your attention with its shops and cafes. Stop by the Notre Dame Cathedral and marvel at the 18th century architecture, then visit the atmospheric Interpretive Centre telling the full story of the city. The innovative Musée de la Civilisation adds even more historic detail, while the nearby cobblestone streets of Quartier de Champlain are a true delight to explore.
Once you have enjoyed the sights of the city, head out to discover a natural wonder. Montmorency Falls is barely 30 minutes away and features the highest falls in North America, a 275ft torrent that is magnificently fringed with autumn colour. Take the cable car to the top and walk above the falls on the suspension bridge. On a fine day, the views of the St Lawrence here are simply superb.
All in all, the two cities provide a wonderful contrast of large and small-scale; historic and modern; authentic charm and contemporary delights (especially in the many restaurants). Montreal boasts more, but Quebec is possibly a more profound experience. And, with both being so accessible for cruise passengers, they offer, perhaps, the ultimate in value – no shore excursions required!
MORE INFO: look up the excellent websites of Tourism Montreal – www.tourisme-montreal.org – and Bonjour Quebec, www.bonjourquebec.com, for all the details of any visit to either city, plus www.cruisesaintlawrence.com and www.quebecregion.com.