Going Ashore in New England and Canada

On cruises from the East Coast to New England and Canada, there are many excursion options in every port, and a number of them can be done on your own, at lower cost than the ship's organized programs. It's often more fun this way, and as all ports are English-speaking, language is never a problem.

Our suggested alternatives below involve walking (with distances and level of difficulty described), convenient public transportation options, biking, and renting a car, in advance or on the spot. I have visited all the listed ports on my own. By doing some homework in advance, you are guaranteed to have a much better time, and see more at lower cost. And if a ship's tour is the best way, I shall mention it.

Newport, Rhode Island www.gonewport.com

Nearly everything of interest can be reached on foot from the cruise ship landing. Outings range from an easy walk for shopping and historic sites to an outstanding all-day hike. To visit Newport's mansions in the height of the season, book in advance or buy the ship's shore excursion to avoid waiting in line or disappointment. Bear in mind, Newport offers much more to see than the past opulent lifestyle of the idle rich.

The cruise landing is steps away from the tourist bureau on America's Cup Drive; check there for street maps and opening hours. Thames Street's touristy shops and restaurants begin to the right and run for more than a mile, while the city's 18th and 19th-century historic district is directly ahead, featuring an attractive New England-style aspect that most visitors know little about.

Trinity Church, built in 1726, was designed after the Old North Church in Boston, completed just three years earlier; and Truro Synagogue (1763) is the oldest in North America. Walkers will find the 18th and 19th-century residential district rising up a gentle hill, just in from the tender landing; it displays an attractive, low-key lifestyle that contrasts sharply with Bellevue Avenue's extravagant, so-called summer cottages.

For the best outing on foot, walk up Memorial Boulevard, poking your head into the Newport Casino housing the International Tennis Hall of Fame, then continue straight on to the start of the famous Cliff Walk as Memorial Blvd. begins to drop down to Easton's Beach. The path extends for several miles, passing directly in front of many of the most opulent mansions – Salve Regina, The Breakers, Marble House, Tea House. You can choose your distance before turning right at Ruggles Avenue or Rough Point to follow Bellevue Avenue, then left down to Thames Street and back to the landing. The Cliff Walk was a favorite Sunday picnic outing when I attended the boarding school located on the next rise about one mile away. There are benches along the way where you can pause and look out to sea.

Martha's Vineyard Island www.mvy.com

From the Vineyard Haven landing, the busy town is at your feet. To get away from the tourist bustle, buy one of the island's VTA day passes, and for a very small outlay you can use scheduled bus services to get to gingerbread Victorian Oak Bluffs, the beach, upscale Edgartown and the Chappaquiddick ferry at the foot of Main Street, which can take you over to the island and its beaches. At each location, everything is within easy walking distance. At Oak Bluffs, be sure to walk across the town green facing Nantucket Sound and enter the rabbit warren of narrow lanes that made up the original Methodist summer camp. In Edgartown, stroll the length of Main Street and branch off on the side streets to see the attractive Cape-style summer houses. Bike paths fan out from Vineyard Haven, and VTA buses will carry bicycles.

Boston, Massachusetts www.bostonusa.com

Beantown is best visited on foot, combined with a day pass on the MBTA or the "T", one of the country's best transit systems. The Black Falcon Cruise Terminal has taxi service, a bus route and sidewalk paths into the center of Boston; the direct pedestrian route to South Station takes about 25 minutes. From here you can access the entire T, consisting of subways, elevated trains, street cars and buses, plus the circular tourist trolley bus route.

The most popular outing is the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail that begins in Boston Common within the shadow of the gold-domed Statehouse. Following the red brick line, the route visits Quincy Market, Faneuil Hall, the residential and restaurant North End, Old North Church, Cropp's Hill Burial Ground, the USS Constitution at Charlestown Navy Yard and the Bunker Hill Monument to the Revolutionary War. Buy the booklet or read the posted signs along the route, which can take half a day or a full day, depending on how often you stop.

A second rewarding walk, beginning about a 20-minute stroll from the ship, parallels the waterfront from Rowes Wharf extending to the North End. The footpath passes the ferry landings for boats to the harbor islands and to Boston's tonier suburbs; whale-watching boats and the former Nantucket Lightship; residential housing built out on the piers; offices and restaurants. In the North End, the Freedom Trail passes two blocks inland and you can continue on that to Charlestown or back into the center and Boston Common and the adjoining Public Garden for a stroll, a Swan boat ride or a picnic lunch.

The "T" runs to all of Boston's popular neighborhoods such as Cambridge and Harvard University, and to Back Bay for Copley Square, Newberry Street, Prudential Tower and Skywalk, and out to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Some routes are above ground and scenic. Fares are reasonable and a day pass is available.

In addition, suburban trains run frequently from North Station to Salem (30 minutes) for the newly reopened Peabody Museum and its China Trade Fine Arts Collection, its connection to the Witch Trials and its beautiful residential district; and on to the north shore communities and fishing harbors of Gloucester and Rockport (about an hour).

Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert Island, Maine www.barharborinfo.com

The town of Bar Harbor itself is a big draw for shopping and restaurants, but to visit the scenic spots on Mt. Desert Island, rent a car for the day. The more energetic can cycle through Acadia National Park over its 44 miles of carriage trails and 27 miles of paved, and hilly, roads. In the summer months only, Island Explorer shuttles take visitors from the town and ferry landing to the park and several villages.

In a car, join the 27-mile Park Loop Road up through 41,000-acre Acadia National Park to Cadillac Mountain (1,530 feet) for terrific views of the Atlantic Ocean, Frenchmen Bay and your ship at anchor. There are many stopping places on the coastline -- viewpoints, small sandy beaches (but the water is cold), marked nature trails and interpretive centers.

To visit the attractive resort towns, leave the Park Loop at its southern end for upscale Seal Harbor and larger Northeast Harbor. Be sure to take woodsy Sargent Drive, an auto-only road, to see some of the handsome, traditional summer homes; then continue along Somes Sound to tiny Somesville, more of a village than a resort town. If time permits, Southwest Harbor is prized by its summer residents as low-key and off the main tourist circuit.

Lobster lovers who want the real McCoy -- a steamed Maine lobster, New England clam chowder, potato salad, corn on the cob and fresh blueberry pie -- will find numerous places to eat along Main Street in Bar Harbor. You will never get such a meal on any cruise ship.

Saint John, New Brunswick www.sjnow.com

The city itself is walkable from the pier and offers a Victorian town center, Old City Market and King Square. Most attractions are best accessed by renting a car; then on the way west out of town, visit the upscale turn-of-the-last-century residential neighborhood overlooking the port and make a short stop at the so-called Reversing Falls. During high tide, the Saint John's River flows upstream, creating a series of dramatic rapids, and Jet Boat rides are available on the spot.

The favored destination is seaside St. Andrews, an easy 90-minute drive over good roads. First planned as an Acadian (French-speaking) settlement, St. Andrews then developed into a residential and hotel resort anchored by the venerable turn-of-the-last-century Algonquin Hotel, built by the mighty Canadian Pacific Railway and now part of the Fairmont chain. A formal afternoon tea is served in the main building.

During the fall foliage season, the residential streets, planted with a variety of trees introduced over the last 100 years, are awash with displays of reds, yellows, oranges and lingering greens, making for a most pleasant one-hour stroll and looping drives. The main street is lined with attractive tourist shops, restaurants and cafés. Halifax www.halifaxinfo.com

Halifax's cruise pier is within easy walking distance of the city center via the Boardwalk. Visit the active waterfront, maritime museum, and the lovely 19th-century Public Gardens. A visitor's kiosk, car rental desks and Canadian craft shops are directly on the pier and another tourist information center is at Sackville Landing at the heart of the waterfront attractions.

My favorite destination is Pier 21, Canada's superb immigration museum located alongside the ship and loaded with artifacts, photographs and poignant memories. The depot operated from 1928 to 1971, and many immigrants, war brides and returning soldiers who came through here are still alive today. Their stories are told in video cameos set up in individual compartments, in a mock-up of a Canadian National sleeping car. Other memorable tales can be heard while sitting on the gallery benches facing the harbor. The railway station where the immigrants embarked for western Canada is across the street.

On the waterfront, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has displays on the Titanic disaster and the Halifax Explosion, a World War I era disaster that leveled much of the city. Outside, you can tour the hydrographic ship CSS Acadia and the convoy escort corvette HMCS Sackville. The cemetery where many Titanic victims are buried is located just outside town, and best reached by taxi or in a rental car heading down the coast. The 10-minute passenger ferry crossing to Dartmouth gives good views of the waterfront and the shipping.

It's a bit of a climb, but worth it, from the waterfront up past the Old Town Clock to the Citadel, a stately national historic site housing the city's former naval station and the present-day Army Museum. The firing of the noontime cannon has been a daily ritual since the mid-19th century. Leave the Citadel via the Garrison Grounds for a walk through the Public Gardens, established in 1836, to enjoy the serenity of the plants and flowers, duck ponds and fountains and the red-roofed bandstand for summer Sunday concerts. Walk back to the ship along Spring Garden Road through the Dalhousie University campus, and past the Old Burial Ground, St. David's Church, St. Matthew's Church and St. Mary's Basilica.

The most popular day trip by car heads down the coast to Peggy's Cove, a picture postcard fishing port; and historic, hilly Lunenburg. The outing is highly scenic, but during fall foliage season, the woods are not of New England standards in terms of color-rich oaks, maples, elms, and birch.

Quebec Tourism

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