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Cruising: North America : Sailing Into Fall : More Cruises Are Lining Up to Capture The Colors of Autumn Blazing Close to Home

August 07, 1994|JON MARCUS | Marcus is a free-lance writer based in Boston, Mass

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — This tiny seaside village seems at anchor in the shadow of the cruise ship, rather than the other way around. Even the tender that ferries passengers to shore is bigger than the lobster boats tied up along the pier.

But giant liners like the Cunard Crown Monarch are calling commonly these days at picture-postcard ports along the rugged coastline of New England and eastern Canada. "We've been to the Caribbean three times," said Ellen McCrories of Gaithersburg, Md., as she and her husband strolled the streets of Provincetown on a sightseeing shore excursion last fall. "We've been through the (Panama) Canal. This is a nice, relaxing cruise that's close to home, but something different."

Regular fall cruises have been offered in the Midwest since the late 1940s, with the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. now running two paddle-wheelers along the wooded Mississippi and its tributaries. But 10 years ago in New England, only three cruise ships sailed the lonely ocean off the coast. In 1994, 10 ships will ply the North Atlantic, most during fall foliage season, generally considered to be from mid-September to Columbus Day. At least one more ship is expected to be added to the lineup next year.

"A lot of the charm (of these cruises) is the history," said Ann Burguieres, spokeswoman for Regency Cruises, whose 836-passenger Regent Sun sails weekly, June to October, between New York and Montreal. "You get a taste of Europe in Quebec and Nova Scotia. It's a great diversity of scenic opportunities and different types of cultures, yet it's not too far away."

Cruise lines have been racing recently to be first to call at ports in Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Last year, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., had a visit from Cunard's Crown Dynasty on its maiden voyage. This year, the Seabourn Pride added Kennebunkport, Me., to its schedule.

The ships snake through the narrow Cape Cod Canal, past the pines and rugged cliffs of coastal Maine and through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where blue whales breach. They glide along the Saguenay River and stop in French Quebec. Port calls include isolated fishing villages in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and, in the U.S., landfalls of the early European colonists.

Passengers can disembark with relative ease in places like Bar Harbor, Me.; Provincetown, Mass., and trendy Newport, R.I., while landlocked tourists in cars fume in traffic. Many of the ships' New England destinations are all but inaccessible by land or air in summertime and early fall.

Still, stops are brief, and scheduled activities ashore occasionally superficial. One cruise line promises that passengers will "meet a licensed Maine lobsterman" in Bar Harbor, Me., but they probably won't have time to see much of Acadia National Park, the area's foremost natural attraction, with a quintessential mountains-meet-the-sea terrain.

Some shore excursions are reasonably priced. Passengers on Crystal Cruises meet the Maine lobsterman for free, and on Regency Cruises' Regent Sun, passengers can return from Montreal to New York by Amtrak train, through New England's inland fall foliage, for an add-on of $95.

Other side trips are pricier. One high-end example is on the Seabourn Pride; when it puts in for a day at St. John's, Newfoundland, passengers can fly by helicopter to Miramichi Bay in New Brunswick for a day of salmon fishing. The cost for the excursion: $700 per person.

That's about the entire cost of a three-night, fall foliage cruise aboard the Delta Queen or the Mississippi Queen, the paddle-wheelers that operate on the Ohio, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. Both ships hire a naturalist to point out the highlights of the autumn scenery.

The big draw is naturally the foliage, whose peak of color is easy to time, given a choice of frequent sailings. The paddle-wheelers depart Cincinnati, St. Louis and other heartland cities every three or four days. Timing is inevitably more difficult for cruise lines, which schedule their ships two years in advance. Also, some North America cruises cover a long, north-to-south stretch of coast, so while the leaves might be golden in Canada, by the time the ship sails to, say, New York they could still be summer green.

But, in the words of Jim Godsman, president of the Cruise Lines International Assn., "Autumn, when the last crowds of summer vacationers have retreated, is quite possibly the best time to take a cruise," regardless of the color of the leaves.

"People can use that cruise as a great way to see those places they might later want to go back and visit," in more depth, added Godsman, who said he cruised last autumn from Quebec to New York City.

The major drawback to autumn cruising, then?

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