A mesmerising autumnal palette provides the perfect backdrop for an already colourful North American cruise
Bottomless bubbles in the fridge of our elegant suite on board Silversea’s Silver Whisper: it’s a great start, and then it just gets better. Sliding out of Boston harbour on a golden autumn evening, ahead lies a route that will include luxury, lobster, Alexander Graham Bell, multiple lighthouses, a man on fire, and a shipwreck.
Not of Whisper, of course. This luxury ship, where 382 cossetted guests are looked after by 292 solicitous staff, has all the expertise and equipment necessary to deal with anything the sea might throw at her.
Being on second-name terms with Whisper is, incidentally, the great giveaway on board, marking out those who are Silversea regulars; and there are plenty. Almost half of the passengers have sailed with the line before, one of them aboard Whisper for the second time this year, another clocking up an incredible — and enviable — 749 Silversea days altogether.
What brings them back? Service that’s friendly and unstuffy but includes a butler for every suite, superb surroundings, 10 great restaurants, a small but talented entertainment team, and virtually everything, from WiFi to tips, already included. Plus, like all Silversea ships, Whisper is small enough to be able to visit ports inaccessible to larger vessels, discovering places that are both quirky and uncrowded.
‘Leaf-peeping’, as it’s officially known, is the prime attraction of this route. In September and October, from Boston, all along the New England coast, on the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and along the banks of the great St. Lawrence River itself right into Montreal, there is a mind-blowingly vivid and beautiful backdrop of red, orange, yellow and gold leaves — entire hillsides, for mile after mile, glowing in the sun. It’s a simple but intense pleasure that is the crowning glory to what would anyway be a fascinating and picturesque journey.
In just 10 days, book-ended by the historic cities of Boston, Quebec and Montreal, with all their varied attractions, the cruise takes us to colourful fishing villages perched on craggy rocks, past irresistibly photogenic lighthouses, to harbours bobbing with little fishing boats. At each stop there are excursions offered and activities suggested.
In Bar Harbor I swap into a lobster boat for an introduction to the area’s prime industry from Captain John, resplendent in orange dungarees and a Santa beard. Back in town, I lunch on the seafood in question before taking the chance for a walk along the edge of Arcadia National Park, where a silver sea breaks on round boulders, skeins of geese head south for the winter, squirrels are busy collecting acorns — and a local fishing boat beached on the rocky shore is causing much tutting amongst the locals.
Overnight we enter Canadian waters and in Halifax unexpectedly encounter men in kilts: Nova Scotia means ‘New Scotland’, and they are proud of their heritage here. The Maritime Museum has some fascinating stories to tell: a riveting account of the catastrophic explosion of a munitions ship in the harbour in 1917 and the subsequent fire, but most notably about the town’s role after the nearby sinking of the Titanic, in what started as rescue and sadly became body recovery. Some people visit the Fairview Cemetery to find the grave marked ‘J. Dawson’ — not actually of the character Jack in the movie, but still regularly marked by flowers left by fans.
I, though, head out of town, seduced by pictures of Peggy’s Cove. It’s every bit as pretty as I was hoping: colourfully-painted wooden houses along a rocky inlet, piles of lobster pots, a welcoming cafe serving hot gingerbread, and a dramatic lighthouse on a headland swirled about with low cloud.
On Cape Breton Island, Sydney shines brightly in the autumn sunshine — but not as brightly as the leaves in the woods we drive through to Baddeck, where I discover that Alexander Graham Bell lived most of his life and, besides inventing the telephone, did valuable work with the deaf and with hydrofoils, amongst other interests.
Cape Breton raises the bar even higher with its vivid autumn foliage on the way to Cape Percé which, against stiff competition, is the most spectacular sight of the cruise: a massive 500-tonne block of sandstone just off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula. Here a boat trip finds us minke whales, seals and gannets, and afterwards we spot a red fox, trotting calmly across someone’s lawn.
The place names are just one indication that we are now deep into French Canada, as are the baguettes tucked under elbows as people go home to lunch, the arret (stop) signs on the road, and the familiar redstriped KFC bucket instead labelled PFK, for ‘Poulet Frit Kentucky’.
From here we follow the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, stopping to enjoy not only the picturesque charms of old Quebec, but also quaint little towns along the shore, isolated in Canada’s vastness but linked by the river, and full of both character and characters. None of them, though, is so memorable as Saguenay.
Tucked away at the end of a fiord, far beyond the reach of the big ships, it’s a typically charming town of attractive French-style houses. Back from the harbour in an ordinary suburb, though, is an extraordinary thing: a huge purpose-built theatre where, for 30 years, around 200 versatile locals have performed an eye-popping show. It tells the lively history of the town, and no special effect is spared. Across the stage comes a procession that includes Indians, French aristocrats and colonists, a tank, two cars and a Jeep, cantering horses, a pig, a flock of geese, a cow and a goat, cannon fire, bombs, abseiling soldiers, a boat, flames, a man on fire, and a flood. The show is called La Fabuleuse.
Fabulous: it’s the perfect description of this cruise.