Plan ahead for your shore excursions
Above: Locals and visitors stroll among the compact, centuries-old streets of Quebec City’s Lower Town.
CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island, Canada — Cameron MacDonald, who never met Edward Palmer, is busy trashing the man: “He was a politician, and a landowner who taxed his tenants, and he was a pretty horrible man!”
Looking quite comfortable despite the heat in his knee-length frock coat, high collar and tall hat, MacDonald actually is portraying Palmer as MacDonald’s part-time job with the Confederation Players. This troupe relates to tourists how and why isolated Charlottetown, on smallish Prince Edward Island, initiated the effort to unite all of sea-to-sea Canada into one nation.
Now chances are if you’ve bought a ticket aboard a seven-night cruise – as I recently did for a trip from Montreal to Boston as I did — you weren’t looking primarily for a history lesson. Nor do the majority of cruises, whether in this hemisphere or around Europe, offer an in-depth look at the ports of call:
On my cruise aboard Holland America’s Maasdam, these visits were eight to 10 hours, with the cruise line selling more than 60 excursions. Often, however, passengers might reject scheduling two of these guided visits in one port due to overlapping of the stops or departure times too close to the end of an earlier excursion.
So, how to get the most out of a typical cruise? While the trip may be for relaxation, spending time checking each port’s tourism or chamber of commerce web site:
/ Look for special events or festivals during your visit. It’s a chance to see what the locals enjoy, or even celebrate.
/ Review the site’s suggested “to-do’’ list. These might include activities such as fishing, sailing, hiking, biking, visiting a farm or vineyard, even sharing a meal with locals.
/ There will also be tours of historical sites – that means you, young Mr. MacDonald – such as forts, palaces, government buildings, homes/mansions of notables.
/ Comparison-shop; send e-mails to or call local operators/attractions listed on the sites. That’s how I learned that my 90-minute sailboat ride on a Nova Scotia lake sold for just $35, though the cruise line priced the sail – and a 50-mile bus ride to and from its dock –at more than four times that. I even priced a rental car to get to the sailboat: another $69.
On the other hand, while the ship offered a three-hour trip to a picturesque fishing village near Halifax — in charmless, 50-passenger buses – either of two locals would charge me more than twice as much for tour by minivan or Jeep.
/ Contact your destination’s tourism agency about hiring a guide available for individuals or only a few visitors at a time.
The main advantage of buying from the ship’s excursion desk is that the cruise line has experienced the tours it sells, understands the minimum amount of time needed, and it has vetted the local operators for reliability, narration ability, even cleanliness of the transportation.
The main disadvantage is that the cruise line charges a sometimes-hefty fee for playing middleman.
On my cruise, I bought three excursions off the ship but also did my own walkabouts and thus saw more of each port than the narrated tour provided. Among my favorites:
MONTREAL — Most vessels offer only perfunctory 2- or 3-hour bus tours in the cities where they load and unload passengers, essentially to fill time before you board your ship, or your plane home.
I contacted Montreal’s tourism agency and was hooked up with Ruby Roy, an articulate native who knows her city so well, some vendors in the daily market she showed me called her by name. By the way, you couldn’t get a busload of 50 through the market’s aisles, so the ship doesn’t offer this attraction.
This market was a short drive from Montreal’s walkable Old Town, the cobblestone neighborhood that is the most-popular shore excursion. Also offered by locals are culinary arts/tasting tours and a three-hour trip combining architecture, culinary arts and history lessons.
But from my guide I learned candid insights I was unlikely to hear on a standard tour:
“Montrealers’ passions, in order, are hockey, food, cycling, dancing and art,’’ advised Ms. Roy.
“Montreal is nothing like the rest of Canada, nothing like the rest of Quebec province: This is a European city. Quebec is a French city.
“We are North America’s only functioning bilingual city; English language instruction starts no later than first grade. Yet Montreal is a mosaic, not a melting pot. Speaking in your parents’ language is encouraged. Our neighborhoods are ethnically mixed.’’
Then she showed me several, as well as a special observation point between stately homes near Mont Royal. No tour buses there …
QUEBEC CITY – If Jacques Cartier claimed at least the eastern portion of what is now Canada for France in 1534, and then Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City as a trading post in 1608, so that there were about 75,000 French merchants, trappers and farmers living in Canada a century later, why isn’t Canada French?
The answer is the history lessons that is Quebec City.
Many of the original French settlers were trapping the lowly beaver, so its fur could be made into proper hats for the heads of European gentlemen, guide and lifelong resident Michelle Demers related as she drove me around.
But in September 1759, British troops successfully followed a siege of walled Quebec City by turning away their French counterparts. The British would soon seize the city. Though battles for what was then “New France’’ raged for four more years, Britain eventually claimed all the French lands.
That decisive fight took place in the Upper Town, at what is now Battlefields Park, near the Citadelle, a star-shaped fort. Both are on a high bluff above the Lower Town, where your ship is docked. Prominent in both sections are charming, twisting, cobbled streets past European facades.
To get an excellent view of the city and an easy-to-absorb history of Quebecers, head to the Observatory of the Capital, nearly 700 feet above the street and the provincial Parliament Building (where staff maintain a vegetable garden on the front lawn). At the Observatory windows on all four sides, touchscreens offer a photo of the view, with some places noted; touching these noted spots brings up a ground level view and a history of the building or neighborhood.
Prime among those communities is the Vieux-Quebec, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the preservation of so many centuries-old buildings along charmingly crooked little streets.
Cruise passengers are often content to spend an hour in the imaginative, chockfull-of-artifacts Museum of Civilization, across a parking lot from the dock. Or they wander and window-shop boutiques or have an al fresco meal in the narrow lanes of the Lower Town.
It is worth the time to admire the open square of the restored-to-antiquity Place-Royale and the shops on North America’s oldest merchant street, Rue de Pettit-Champlain.
But much of this is a facade to amuse tourists. Just a 10-minute walk from the iconic Fairmont Chateau Frontenac hotel, Rues Saint Jean, Saint Paul and Saint Pierre are residential/commercial streets that are home to art galleries, antiques shops, bistros, chocolatiers and the daily farmers’ market.
Yet if you had not asked the tourism office, or a guide such as Michelle Demers, you wouldn’t know that the real-world Quebec City was so close to the version preserved more for visitors than residents.
Charlottetown, PEI — Unlike fellow islander Cameron MacDonald, Mark Jenkins does not focus on 19th-century history, and the only costume he dons for work is his polo shirt and ball cap bearing the logo Top Notch Lobster Tours. Then he becomes Capt. Mark, a lobster, crab and bluefin tuna fisherman.
And between the two-month lobstering season and the briefer tuna season, Jenkins and his brother Cody — sometimes Mark’s wife Patti-Lynn fills in — Mark takes tourists out on how-we-do-it trips on his boat.
The morning trip is strictly instructional, as he hauls up traps to display rock crabs and lobsters, while the two afternoon trips include full meals of lobsters cooked earlier that day.
Jenkins earned a degree in engineering electrical “because I didn’t want to follow my father and fish,”he explains. “But I’m not gonna’ lie to you — I love my job.” Even after 20 years at the helm, “I love getting up early and going to fish.”
With his paying passengers, Jenkins candidly discusses the prices of lobsters and how the supply seems to have no relationship to the fees the boat owners collect.
Even with his brother or wife on board, Jenkins has one more co-worker. Pulling his final trap for the passengers, Jenkins hauls out “Larry,” an 8-pound lobster. Larry measures about 18 inches long and Jenkins estimates him to be 28-30 years old.
Larry appears to be equipped not with claws but with opposable shovels. As Jenkins explains it, lobsters are buoyant and swift underwater, but Larry’s claws are so large he cannot lift them to defend himself against Jenkins.
He plans to “pay” Larry by setting him free as soon as lobster season is over.
That is the part of the year Jenkins likes best, when he can fishing for the massive bluefin tuna.
Those who come from around the world to fish them for sport will pay huge fees to charter a boat such as Jenkins’. But Mark is just as happy trying to land one himself, to sell to the Japanese market.
In 2012, brother Cody hooked one that took 7 1/2 hours to land. It weighed 847 pounds, and the borthers sold it for about $11,000.
Mark’s license allows him to put 273 lobster traps in the water during May and June, when he earns 60-70 percent of his year’s income. He runs his three tourist trips seven days a week in July and August. Says the nonpracticing electrical engineer:
“Fishing is all I’ve ever done, and I can barely wait for the tuna season to start.”
Former Tampa Bay Times travel editor Robert N. Jenkins has been on about 60 ships to write about them.