Canadian Discovery cruise on Viking Polaris

Chris Caldicott explores the remote wilds of eastern Canada on an expedition to remember

Boarding Viking’s expedition ship Polaris for my Canadian discovery cruise in Toronto suited me perfectly. The ‘Niagara and the Great Lakes’ cruise from Milwaukee I had taken last year on board her twin sister ship Octantis had ended here, and left me wanting more. I had first seen the impressive skyline of Toronto along the north shore of Lake Ontario dominated by the iconic needle-shaped CN Tower, far below me from the height of the top of Niagara Falls. After an overnight descent through the eight locks of the Welland Canal, we docked to disembark at exactly the same dock I was now boarding Polaris. This opportunity to continue a journey from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean along the network of rivers, canals and locks that make up the St Lawrence Seaway with seamless continuity was irresistible.

After crossing Lake Ontario, Polaris began squeezing her way through a secession of canals and locks. I join other passengers on the bow to witness the skill of our captain Xavier Mongin and his crew navigating our passage with literally inches to spare either side. The sheer size of Polaris doing this attracts an audience of locals; among them we spot a family with a baby dressed as a lumberjack!

I soon rediscovered my favourite places on board like the semi al-fresco Badstamp hot tub in the Nordic Spa and the hidden Hide Lounge in the bow where evening storytelling sessions are accompanied by whiskey and bourbon tasting. The only difference between the two ships I found was the onboard yellow submarines on Polaris being named George and Ringo; on Octantis, which was launched first, they are John and Paul.

We sail past Montreal around midnight and enter Quebec, a part of Canada claimed by Breton seaman Jacques Cartier in 1534 as ‘New France’. Despite centuries of conflict between British and French colonisers of Canadian territory since then, we were soon to find that Quebec remains essentially a province of French language and culture.

The menus on my culinary tour of the ‘Taqueria de Quartier’ on our first port of call Trois-Rivières are all in French. First stop in this stylish laid back bohemian town, full of street cafe culture brimming with young people having fun in the sunshine, is the cool French hipster bar/cafe Épi, offering an exciting and innovative menu of what our Viking guide translates as ‘new age French gastronomic tapas’. These are followed by Oriental versions of ‘new age gastronomic tapas’ at the minimalist Sushizo, and Mexican versions in tequila-fulled Mezcal Taqueria.

One of the most interesting elements of this cruise are the shore options to explore the culture and heritage of First Nation inhabitants of the St. Lawrence River basin who populated it for centuries prior to European discovery. After a tour of the elegant walled Quebec City with a waterfront dominated by a traditional style of French grandeur and the imposing Chateau Frontenac straight out of the Loire Valley, I head inland on an excursion to a Huron-Wendat Village.

Here we meet a local guide Diago who shows us around a reconstruction of an Ekionkiestha’ longhouse behind high walls of timber palisades with a maze entrance to confuse any potential attackers. We learn all about longhouse living, traditions and creation myths before heading to the village chief’s house recently converted into a museum of Huron-Wendat history. A collection of art, artefacts, vintage photos and storyboards takes on a journey back into the pre-colonial era, then early trading relationships with European settlers that inevitably leads to broken treaties, subjugation and loss of lands. It’s a story we will hear repeatedly. However, the general message is a positive one, celebrating a new era of inclusivity and respect towards Canada’s indigenous populations.

On our drive back we stop at one of Canada’s more timeless natural wonders: the mighty and majestic Montmorency Falls, its roaring waters falling 272 feet to the St. Lawrence River below.

Polaris enters the Saguenay Fjord at dawn the next morning to sail up this high sided St Lawrence tributary. I can see Cantine Boivin from Saguenay dock. I have been told is the best place in Quebec to try the province’s favourite dish: poutine, an intriguing combination of cheese curds and fried potatoes in a spicy beef gravy. My only chance to do this will be a fast dash between returning from my booked Vineyard and Distillery tour and the compulsory back onboard time.

The ‘vineyard’ is a wild blueberry plantation, where we are served blueberry pie and tea during a quirky lecture about the magical properties of blueberries, followed by sampling of blueberry Champagne, wine and gin in the gift shop. More gift shop tastings are on offer at the Fjord Distillery where the award-winning artisan Km12 Gin, made with an exotic concoction of locally foraged herbs, is a popular purchase. Back in the port I just manage to order a takeaway portion of poutine and dash back on board just in time!

Poutine is more of a tasty take away after a night out than a memorable gastronomic experience. Luckily waiting for me upstairs in the World Cafe was one of executive chef Alastair Gillott’s one-off lunchtime food stations serving a dish featuring local ingredients. Today it was an Old Bay Seafood Boil of seafood treats in a piquant bisque.

St Lawrence’s transformation from freshwater river into a saline tidal gulf is complete by the time we dock in Sept-Îles. Acadian fishing communities set up alongside Indigenous Innu summer camps, attracted by rich feeding grounds for snow crabs, northern shrimp and Greenland halibut and which predated the arrival of Jacque Cartier here. Today this remote fishing outpost promotes the Côte-Nord stretching either side of it along the St Lawrence as the Route des Baleines where there are regular sightings of fin, humpback, sperm, blue and beluga whales.

We visit a preserved early European trading post settlement on a wild icy shoreline to hear about the colonial-era fur trade between the Innu and Europeans, and learn that despite the apparent similarity between the terms ‘Innu’ and ‘Inuit’, neither the words or people are related.

After sailing south overnight to Prince Edward Island, we are back in the English-speaking world in a popular tourist destination for fans of the Lucy Maud Montgomery novel Anne of Green Gables. We drive past the farmhouse that inspired the book on our way to a coastal hike with naturalist and biologist Kate MacQuarrie, who leads us along boardwalks through shifting dunes that are popular beaches during summer. As we walk, Kate shares her wealth of knowledge about the islands diverse ecosystems and warns us to give the sinister clumps of poison ivy a wide berth.

Another coastal walk is included in our last Canadian port of call: Halifax in Nova Scotia. This one a rugged trail along a rocky shoreline with views of the distant lighthouses that welcome trans-Atlantic shipping to the Americas. Today this first permanent European settlement in the Canadian Maritimes is a busy cruise port, famous for its Fairview Lawn cemetery where 121 passengers of the Titanic are buried. The last part of our voyage along the Eastern Seaboard of the USA to New York was the one Titanic never made.

After a day and two nights at sea, most passengers pack Polaris’ bow for our dawn sailing towards the most iconic skyline in the world. New York delivers Instagram gold as swirling morning mists lift and the rising sun bathes the skyscrapers in golden light. We sail right past the Statue of Liberty and dock in the Hudson River.

Next steps

If you’d like to explore eastern Canada, Silver Travel Advisor are on hand to plan and book your adventure. Call 0800 412 5678 to start your journey.

Canadian Discovery:
13 days / 12 nights itinerary in a Nordic Balcony Stateroom includes stops in: Toronto, Trois-Rivières, Quebec City, Saguenay, Sept-Îles, Cap-aux-Meules, Charlottetown, Halifax, New York City. Includes return flights from select UK airport, in destination transfers, all on board meals including wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner included excursion in each port of call, WiFi, gratuities, access to Nordic Spa, evening entertainment and enrichment talks, excursions on the kayaks, Zodiacs, Special Operation Boats and access to Viking Resident Scientists. 

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