If you enjoy active, independent shore excursions, you have something in common with the growing number of cruise passengers who do not want to be herded onto one of a long line of busses at each port.
"In the past three to four years, independent arrangements have grown because a younger audience wants something more than sitting on a bus," said Joe L'Episcopo, Holland America's Shore Excursion manager on the Maasdam ,. "Some are well-prepared with all the maps and literature and ready to go when they come aboard."
As a "young" 60+ year-old cruiser, I prefer to arrange my own excursions and find it usually costs less. While many passengers focus on the "good life" aboard ship, for me, the ship serves as a comfortable hotel that also provides the most convenient and affordable transportation to where I want to travel.
Last month, I chose the Maasdam to visit five of the most popular ports on Canada / New England cruises: Bar Harbor, Maine; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; Quebec; and Boston, where the cruise began.
Here are a few tips to help you plan independent activities to make the most of each day ashore on a Canada / New England cruise. The "If You Go" sidebar includes contact information and prices.
BEGIN PLANNING AT HOME
o Check http://www.towd.com (Tourist Office World Directory) for information about each port. With a Google search you are likely to get anyone, but the official tourist bureaus' resources are approved.
o "Research carefully to know the area area and the port's limitations."
o After studying the information, compare what interests you with what is available aboard ship.
o Be sure to bring all contact information from home – names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses.
ON THE SHIP
o If you run out of research time at home, your cell phone and the ship's internet connection are invaluable.
o While sipping a tall hot frothy cup of café latte in the Maasdam's new Explorations Café, a cyber-coffee house / library, it's fun to surf the net and browse through travel guides for more information.
o Before arriving at each port, call to confirm the time, place, and price of your shore excursion.
o Whenever you make your own arrangements, always be sure the operator has the proper insurance and equipment.
The ship's biking tour turned out to be my best choice. There were only eight of us (not 25 – 30!) Who wanted to ride along the gravel carriage trails of Acadia National Park.
Fortunately, our guide was an expert resident naturalist who also fixed my chain on a particular steep incline near Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard.
Afterwards, there was just enough time to chat with a few locals over a cold beer and sandwich at Gaylyns, a popular hang-out on Main Street.
My local contact recommended the "Big Three" things to do: Pier 21; the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic; and the Deluxe Halifax City Tour of the Victorian Public Gardens, Titanic Grave Sites, and Citadel.
Pier 21's interactive museum exhibits recreated the poignant stories of the million Canadian immigrants who had arrived at the same dock where the Maasdam anchored. It was a shame that most of the ship's passengers walked right past it, not knowing what a wonderful experience they had missed.
Sea kayaking was an option, but for some unknown reason, the ship no longer offered a biking tour through the island's peaceful countryside on the Confederation Trail. But it was easy to take a taxi to the Trailside Café at Mount Stewart, where my friend and I rented well-maintained bicycles and helmets.
Careful not to risk missing the ship's departure at 1:30 pm, we did not go too far afield on the trail's excellent stone dust surface. Had we experienced a mishap and could not contact the ship, we'd probably be left behind. If a ship-sponsored tour were delayed, however, the ship would wait.
Quebec is almost entirely French in feeling. The Old City's lower town is across the street from the ship, so you can easily wander through the narrow cobbled lanes of Petit Champlain's charming bistros and sidewalk cafés. Afterwards, a 12-minute funicular ride whisks you up to visit the fairytale castle hotel, Chateau Frontenac. Nearby, at a huge urban park called the Plains of Abraham, there are more opportunities for appreciating culture, history and sporting pursuits. Horseback riding, rafting, and bicycling are other appealing outdoor adventures in Quebec. To explore the countryside, arrange for a private minivan to meet you at the dock. Certainly, the price is right.
BOSTON AND CAPE COD
After disembarking the ship at Montreal, I returned to Boston to meet my sister for the long Memorial Day weekend.
Our hotel was conveniently close to Boston Commons and the Public Gardens, perfect places for a brisk morning stroll. Later, we walked to Boston's Long Wharf to board the 90-minute fast ferry to Provincetown, Cape Cod. The tourist office at the end of Provincetown's dock gave us directions to the island's trolley trip, bike rental shop, and Art's Sand Dune tour of the national seashore.
Back in Boston, we decided against taking the city's popular Duck Tour in a World War II landing craft painted to look like a garish carnival ride. As it drove right into the Charles River, the guide encouraged passengers to continue their "quack-quack-quack-ing.
Instead, a private guide met us at the hotel for "Boston Your Way", a tour more appealing to a National Public Radio audience. While Maryglen Vincen's tours do not have a lot of dazzle, she really knows her "stuff" and can take a car into the narrow streets of North End and Beacon Hill where the long line of tourist busses do not go.