Credit: Shutterstock

North America: From sea to shining sea

Author: Sarah Freeman

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North America is a land of iconic skylines, awesome natural beauty and proud history. And living the American (or Canadian) dream is even sweeter when you’re travelling by ship

From the sun-kissed shores of Florida and California to the icebound wilderness of Alaska and the High Arctic, North America is simply without equal for the sheer variety of scenery and experiences it offers.

In the USA, the historic Eastern Seaboard and cinematic West Coast offer something for every kind of cruiser, from award-winning vineyards and art deco architecture to indie bookstores and wonderful wildlife.

Then there’s Canada, with its limitless prairies, mighty mountains, French-influenced cities and famously friendly welcome.

Between these two great nations stand the thundering Niagara Falls and the largest body of fresh water on the planet – so wherever your cruise takes you, from the Deep South to the frozen north, you’re guaranteed an incredible journey.

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The Great Lakes

Spanning the American-Canadian border, this freshwater playground is made for cruising.

Accounting for no less than 21 per cent of all the world’s fresh water, this 95,000 square mile network of interconnected inland seas is tethered to the Atlantic Ocean by the St Lawrence Seaway.

Thanks to a mix of unspoiled peninsulas and big-city ports, you could be kayaking through wild wetlands one day, and bargain-hunting in America’s biggest open-air market the next.

Four of the five Great Lakes power one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: Niagara Falls, the legendary, border-spanning triple waterfall that’s also America’s oldest state park.

Other cruising highlights include 122-metre-high coastal sand dunes, Michigan’s traffic-free Mackinac Island, and Ontario’s Welland Canal, a 19th-century feat of engineering with one of the world’s longest locks.

Cruises usually sail from Chicago or Milwaukee, or Toronto on the Canadian side, so urbanites are also in for a treat.

As well as its famous deep- dish pizza, Chicago serves up top-tier theatres, eye-popping street art and upscale stores along its Magnificent Mile.

Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities on earth, while other popular calls include Detroit (home of Motown records and that massive open-air market) and Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie.

Most itineraries are round-trip from New York or Boston. Credit: Shutterstock

Eastern Seaboard

From the small-town charm of New England’s cute coastal communities to the bright lights of New York City, America’s East Coast is wonderfully varied.

So the choice is yours – whether it be cruising down Newport’s 10-mile, mansion-lined Ocean Drive or roaming the pristine sands of Martha’s Vineyard, the famously upscale summer resort in Massachusetts that’s so loved by the rich and famous.

Most itineraries are round-trip from New York or Boston, sailing from spring to autumn. Scenery fans should time their visit for September or October, when the East Coast’s legendary fall colours are at their most spectacular – while for history fans there is Boston, birthplace of the American Revolution.

As a visiting Brit you won’t be allowed to forget who came out on top, but you’ll love this scenic city’s world-renowned art museums and superb Italian restaurants.

Save some shoe leather, however, because just 220 miles south lies New York City.

There’s nothing like entering the Big Apple by ship – and you could stay for a month and still not tick off your to-do list.

So pace that famous grid of avenues and streets, marvel at the artworks in the Guggenheim Museum, climb to the top of the Empire State Building, stroll around 845-acre Central Park, eat dim sum in Chinatown, then take a bite out of Harlem’s jazz scene.

Beyond its culture-packed seaports, the East Coast also delivers jaw-dropping scenery, Revolution-era sites and historic attractions such as the Portland Head lighthouse. Another ‘Maine’ attraction is Bar Harbor, gateway to the wooded, rocky shores of Acadia National Park.

‘The Great Land’ more than lives up to its name. Credit: Shutterstock


You haven’t seen wide-open spaces until you’ve experienced North America’s last frontier.

An outdoor-lovers’ paradise of snow-capped peaks, emerald green forests and alpine tundra, ‘The Great Land’ more than lives up to its name.

There’s so much to see – from Gold Rush towns to grizzly bears– and you could find yourself e-biking through coastal forest or sea-kayaking with otters on the remote, bean-shaped Tatoosh Islands.

The iconic Inside Passage – a 500-mile, wildlife- filled waterway once plied by gold rushers – is the mainstay of nearly all seven and 10-day itineraries, which usually run round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver.

Winding through glacier-hewn fjords, past towering pine forests and idyllic coves, cruisers find themselves glued to the deck as they watch humpback whales and rare silver-furred glacier bears.

Fortnight-long voyages promise more pinch-me moments, like being surrounded on three sides by glaciers at College Fjord, in the northern part of Prince William Sound.

Nature-lovers should also consider extending their trip with a land tour in Denali National Park – six million acres of pristine wilderness crossed by a single road, where you can track the state’s ‘Big Five’ (grizzly bear, Alaskan moose, the elusive grey wolf, caribou and cliff- climbing dall sheep), all in the shadow of North America’s tallest peak.

cruises usually depart from Los Angeles. Credit: Shutterstock

Western Seaboard

Also known as the Pacific Seaboard, America’s 1,500-mile wild West Coast has rugged natural beauty by the bucketload.

From the rolling vineyards of Washington State to Southern California’s sun-drenched beaches, this Pacific playground is also a hotbed of creativity that gave us everything from hippie culture to Silicon Valley.

The best time to visit is late spring through to early autumn, and cruises usually depart from Los Angeles or surf-obsessed San Diego.

Synonymous with Hollywood glamour, the City of Angels isn’t all sunshine and showbiz. LA is also the restaurant capital of America, with unbelievable shopping, galleries galore, hip ocean enclaves and a public observatory.

Sensational San Francisco is another must-visit port stop, offering vertiginous views of its harbour and famous Golden Gate bridge from ritzy Nob Hill.

It’s easy to ride around town on the trams but make time to try out a craft beer or dine at one of the city’s many healthy eating spots.

And don’t miss out on not-so-sleepy Seattle – aka the West Coast’s largest cruise port – a hipster city that serves up majestic mountain vistas, a lively indie music scene and the world’s very first Starbucks (established 1971).

Walk in the footsteps of Elvis in Memphis. Credit: Shutterstock

The Deep South

Criss-crossing steamy Louisiana, Midwestern Missouri and sun-drenched Florida, cruisers can tick off Civil War battle sites, soulful jazz venues, subtropical wetlands and Southern belle cities – but you can’t understand the South without experiencing the mighty Mississippi.

Winding its lazy way for 2,340 miles due south from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, Ol’ Man River is your passport to plantation mansions, thundering waterfalls, home-cooked Southern food and the cradle of popular music as we know it.

Itineraries may start or end in Memphis or St Louis, with highlights including Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal and the handsome colonial city of Natchez.

But the real ‘mustn’t miss’ is New Orleans. The birthplace of jazz, the Big Easy is a heady cocktail of Cajun, Creole and French culture. Exploring its 18th-century French Quarter and bar-hopping on Bourbon Street will give you plenty of good memories to take home (once your ears have stopped ringing).

A world away, on the far side of the Gulf of Mexico, lies Miami. Florida’s most famous city is also known as the Cruise Capital of the World, but it’s so much more than just an embarkation port.

When you’ve soaked up the art deco delights of South Beach, admire Wynwood Walls’ world- class murals before eating your way round the colourful Cuban quarter.

But you’re not done yet, because just 45 minutes from downtown you can be alligator-watching in the Everglades, one of the most wildlife-rich wetland ecosystems on earth.

Nova Scotia offers a mix of historic towns and rugged nature. Credit: Shutterstock


Eastern Seaboard

From its picturesque candy-striped lighthouses to its Parisian-style boulevards, Canada’s Eastern seaboard has a delightfully Gallic flavour. Ships set sail from New York or Boston to Montreal via Halifax and Quebec City, taking in a trio of historic maritime provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

So named after its triple-peaked park in the heart of the city, festival-loving Montreal is a fascinating mash-up of 17th-century architecture, converted warehouse cafes and subterranean shopping sites. Quebec’s eponymous capital, meanwhile, is the New World’s own little piece of old Europe – a fortified city with boutique-lined cobblestoned streets.

As for Canada’s best-kept secret, that title belongs to Nova Scotia – despite its 100 beaches, 12 different species of whale (come summertime), six UNESCO-designated sites and some of the planet’s highest tides.

Capital Halifax, once a British military stronghold, is the place where countless European immigrants first touched Canadian soil. Known as San Francisco in miniature, hipster Halifax claims the longest- established farmers’ market in North America.

It’s also the closest large port to the Titanic’s final resting place, and you can see artefacts from that doomed voyage at the city’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

This region is one of the hardest-to-reach places on the planet. Credit: Scenic

High Arctic

Beginning 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle and encompassing most of Canada’s Arctic archipelago, this starkly beautiful region is one of the hardest-to-reach places on the planet.

In this remote domain of expedition ships with ice-strengthened hulls, cruises are confined to the summer months when the ice has slackened its grip.

But those long daylight hours provide plenty of time to explore the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut’s treeless tundra, rocky coastal bluffs and icy inlets.

Following in the wake of early British explorer Captain Sir John Franklin, nearly all itineraries sail through the Northwest Passage – the fabled sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Key to its discovery was Lancaster Sound, known as the Serengeti of the Seas because of its exceptional biodiversity.

Bucket-list wildlife encounters are to be had in and out of the water across the High Arctic. You could be sea kayaking eye-to-eye with belugas, stalking the elusive arctic fox or eyeing Prince Leopold Island’s 500,000 seabirds as they nest in its towering sea cliffs.

Cruising in the northernmost part of the world is also a rare opportunity to interact with remote Inuit communities who have thrived in this ice-bound landscape since time immemorial.