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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

<i> Marcus is a free-lance writer based in Boston, Mass</i>

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

“The weather,” grunted Crown Monarch Capt. Lennart Jonsson, as we talked in his office aboard the Crown Monarch in Provincetown’s harbor. Jonsson was navigating through a sea of paperwork on his desk after heavy winds had diverted the ship from Prince Edward Island to Sydney, Nova Scotia earlier in the cruise.

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Yet the crisp New England weather may be what you make it. “It’s nice to get out of the heat,” said Carol Fluhart of Colleyville, Tex., a passenger on the Crown Monarch. “The Caribbean? No, thank you.”

The pace of most of the Northeast cruises is slow, and the size of the ships that skim the craggy coast generally small. The ultra-luxury, all-suite Seabourn Pride, for example, carries just 200 passengers.

“You’re not in a horde. It’s not as frantic (as on the larger ships),” McCrories said of the 539-passenger Crown Monarch, whose sister ship, the Cunard Line’s Sagafjord, will take over the New England route this year.

“People come aboard on Saturday afternoon. By Monday, everybody knows each other,” said Stephen James, the Crown Monarch’s cheerful executive chef and, as one of the only New Englanders on the crew, the man called upon to interpret the native vernacular.

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Most of the ships making this New England run are small enough that all the passengers can dine during one seating, or at least find a seat behind the windows that provide a view but also protection from the chill winds.

The former Royal Viking Star spends its first fall as the refurbished Star Odyssey this year in New England and eastern Canada. Even the Queen Elizabeth II makes an annual five-day visit to the former Colonies, a jazz cruise leaving from New York Sept. 19 and stopping in Bar Harbor, Me., Halifax (Nova Scotia) and Newport, R.I. The trip will be lengthened to six days next year. The Holland-America Line will add a New England cruise in 1995, according to a spokesman.

For New England cruises, many people--mainly East Coasters--drive to the departure port instead of flying. According to the cruise lines, that keeps fares comparatively lower than on transoceanic, island-hopping cruises.

“In the luxury end of the market, the price is a bit lower, because you don’t have to fold in the trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific air fare,” said Mark Flager, spokesman for Royal Viking Line.

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“The idea of getting on a ship that delivers you to your door is irresistible,” said Carol Supplee of Alexandria, Va., who boarded the Crown Monarch there and cruised to Montreal.

It was a shift away from European travel during the Gulf War that forced cruise lines to consider the Canadian/New England market. Capacity has quadrupled in 10 years, according to the cruise lines association, and the number of individual trips has soared from 42 to 72.

“There weren’t any cruises up here, that’s why,” is Jonsson’s theory to explain the sudden interest in the market. “People are discovering it now. It reminds me a lot of Alaska (before Alaska cruising boomed).”

GUIDEBOOK: Autumn Cruising in North America

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For the autumn cruises below, the cruise line telephone numbers are good for general information; actual bookings are best done through a travel agent that specializes in cruising.

The Crystal Harmony sails from New York Sept. 15 and Oct. 5 for 10-day cruises with calls at Newport, R.I.; Boston; Bar Harbor, Me.; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Quebec City, Quebec, and Montreal. Ten-day southbound cruises leave Montreal Sept. 25 and Oct. 15 and visit the same ports. Per-person, double-occupancy fares range from $3,205 to $12,065. Passengers can board at Boston Sept. 17 for the eight-day northbound segment only. Crystal Cruises; telephone (800) 446-6620.

The Queen Elizabeth 2 leaves New York Sept. 19 for a five-day cruise visiting Newport, Bar Harbor and Halifax. Prices range from $1,545 to $5,045. Cunard: tel. (212) 880-7500.

The 836-passenger Regent Sun sails weekly through Oct. 2 (Aug. 14, 21, Sept. 25 and Oct. 2 are sold out) between New York and Montreal with alternating northbound and southbound itineraries to allow for seven- or 14-day cruises. Port calls include Newport; Provincetown, Mass.; Portland, Me. and Halifax. Cruise-only rates range from $1,285 to $2,565 per person, with deep discounts for early bookings. Regency Cruises: tel. (212) 972-4774.

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The Royal Princess leaves Sept. 8 (Sept. 8 mostly sold out) and Sept. 28 from New York for Montreal, with stops in Newport, Boston, Bar Harbor, Halifax and Quebec City; and Sept. 18 and Oct. 8 from Montreal for southbound cruises visiting the same ports. Fares range from $2,920 to $8,920 per person, double occupancy. Princess Cruises: tel. (310) 553-1770.

The 589-passenger Sagafjord leaves Fort Lauderdale Sept. 15 for a 16-day cruise to New York; Bar Harbor, Halifax and Sydney (Nova Scotia), Quebec City, Montreal and other northeastern points. The return trip leaves Montreal Oct. 1 with additional stops in Labrador, Newfoundland, Portland, Boston, and Newport. Northbound fares range from $5,140 to $11,180 and southbound prices from $5,080 to $11,050. Cunard: tel. (212) 880-7500.

The 200-passenger Seabourn Pride leaves Sept. 26 from New York for Montreal on seven-day one-way or 14-day round-trip cruises along the Long Island Sound, with a transit at Cape Cod Canal; port calls at North East Harbor (Maine) and Halifax; cruising the Canso Straits at Northumberland; port call at Perce on the Gaspe Peninsula; cruise Saguenay River off St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal. The return trip on Oct. 4 sails back from Montreal calling at Quebec City; Baddeck, Nova Scotia; Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and North East Harbor, Me. to New York. On Oct. 10 a nine-day round-trip cruise leaves New York for Nova Scotia with stops at Kennebunkport and North East Harbor, Me.; Halifax; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; Baddeck; Lunenburg to New York. Prices range from $6,075 for the seven-day cruise; 14-day from $11,465. Nine-day cruise from $7,415. Seabourn Cruise Line: tel. (800) 929-9595.

The Silver Cloud leaves Sept. 21 from New York to Montreal with calls at Newport, R.I.; the Cape Cod Canal; Portland, Me.; Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; Sydney, N.S; Corner Brook, N.S.; Newfoundland; Perce; Quebec; Saguenay River; Quebec City, and Montreal.; and Oct. 1 from Montreal with calls in Quebec City, Saguenay River, Gaspe, Bonne Bay, Charlottetown, Baddeck, Halifax, Bar Harbor, Boston, Cape Cod Canal and New York. Prices range from $4,695 to $10,695 per person one way or $8,895 to $20,395 both ways. Silversea Cruises; tel. (800) 722-6655.

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The refurbished Star Odyssey sails weekly Sept. 26 through Oct. 17 between New York and Montreal for seven- or 14-day cruises calling at New York, Bar Harbor, Halifax, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Saguenay Fjord, Quebec City and Montreal. The reverse trip adds Sydney, Boston and Newport. Fares range from $2,398 to $7,098 for seven days and $4,278 to $12,798 for 14 days per person, double occupancy. Royal Cruise Line: tel. (415) 956-7200.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. has fall cruises from Sept. 13 to Oct. 28. Journeys last from three to 12 nights and cost from $790 to $7,070 per person. The 436-passenger Mississippi Queen ranges from New Orleans, La. as far north as Prarie du Chien, Wis. The 174-passenger Delta Queen navigates the tributaries, calling at such old river towns as Louisville, Ky. and Marietta, Ohio. Delta Queen Co.: tel. (504) 586-0631.


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