Canada/New England Cruise
"You're taking ANOTHER cruise to Canada?" This was the reaction of many people when we told them of our plans for a Canada/New England cruise -- our fourth in the region. Some wondered why we would cruise to an area so close to our home. Others told us they would never do this itinerary as it "sounded so cold." Yet as many who have visited eastern Canada know, the area offers much to do and see, and boasts a rich history, wonderful architecture, natural beauty, and some of the warmest and welcoming people anywhere.
The cruise was chosen for its itinerary -- Montreal, Quebec City, Saguenay Fjord, Charlottetown, Sydney, Halifax, Bar Harbor, and Boston -- and that was clearly the highlight of the trip. And our other destination, ms Maasdam, did also not disappoint. While no cruise is perfect, this one was more than satisfactory and made for a very enjoyable vacation.
EMBARKATION DAY TRANSFERAs this was a one-way cruise, we took advantage of HAL's complimentary motorcoach transportation to Montreal. The pick-up was at 6:00 AM the day of embarkation at Boston's Black Falcon Cruise Terminal, where we would disembark from the ship a week later. The six-hour ride was very comfortable, as the bus was equipped with plush seats, footrests, individual tray tables, and lavatory. We were also shown a movie. We made two stops along the way. The first was a snack stop at about 9:30, followed by a very quick stop at the Canadian border at 11:00. We enjoyed the bus trip as it was effortless for us, and also enabled us to meet and chat with some of our fellow passengers before boarding. Plus, the scenery of the inland portion of northern New England was beautiful.
CHECK-IN AND EMBARKATIONCheck-in was quick, although there was one minor glitch, which HAL handled nicely. Apparently, all of the keys for cabins numbered 700 and higher had been erroneously taken by the Express Check-in agents for one of the local hotels. After a short wait -- no more than 10 to 15 minutes -- we had our cabin keys, which were packaged nicely in a folder that also contained a ship map and information on luggage delivery, Lido hours, and a reiteration of the new gratuity policy. (More on the last item later.)
After posing for our Welcome Aboard photo, we entered ms Maasdam on the lowest level of the three-story atrium, a magnificent sight with its bright, yet understated, green Glass Pillar by artist Luciano Vistosi. A steward took our hand luggage and escorted us to our stateroom on A-Deck, two levels below.
CABINWe had selected cabin 728, a standard outside triple just forward of amidships on A-deck, the lowest passenger deck. Although this cabin was directly across from the steward station, we heard no noise whatsoever from this area or from neighboring cabins. We did, however, feel some vibration and hear a loud buzzing from below when pulling into port, but it was only mildly bothersome and we eventually starting joking about it. The cabin was laid out well and offered plenty of storage for all of our clothing, books, cameras, etc. The three wardrobes contained a variety of storage options, including shelving, hanging bars, and a small safe. The desk/vanity area provided more drawer space, as did the two night tables. I loved the lighted make-up mirror on the vanity. The only area that could have used additional storage was the bathroom, which had just one shelf. The bathtub was a nice bonus. Our convertible twin beds were very comfortable, as was the sofabed that was made up for our son. We were also provided with two waffle-weave robes, and a fruit basket that was replenished daily. Overall, the cabin was clean and comfortable and, therefore, suited our needs.
DININGShipboard dining is fairly important to us, and we value good service and the variety, presentation, and quality of the food. ms Maasdam excelled in all of these areas.
Rotterdam Dining RoomWe had what HAL refers to as "Early Upper Seating" for dinner. That meant that we ate at 5:45 PM in the upper level of the two-deck high Rotterdam Dining Room. We dined at table 49, a four-top that was a few feet from the large windows, enabling us to enjoy the lovely sea views throughout the meal. We had dinner in the Rotterdam Dining Room on six of the seven nights. The veal, in particular, was excellent, and I also enjoyed pheasant and orange roughy. I had the cheese platter for dessert each evening, and it was nice to see the actual cheese selections listed on the menu -- it's usually hit or miss on most lines. Breakfast and lunch in the dining room were also nice. Because these two meals were open seating, we were able to enjoy several breakfasts with our friend Hazel and her husband. On the first morning, I ordered a wonderful yogurt and fruit parfait that immediately became a favorite. I only wish the dining room hours for breakfast and lunch had not been so limited. Breakfast was offered for just an hour and a half each morning (7:30 - 9:00), and lunch was typically just one hour (12:00 - 1:00), and the dining room was closed for lunch on two of our port days. I suppose this is a sign of the times.
The LidoWe utilized the Lido more on this cruise than on any other, partly due to the limited dining room hours, and partly due to the wide selection for breakfast, lunch, and the occasional snack. I am generally not a fan of buffets but the Lido on Maasdam demonstrated just how far shipboard buffets have come. There were many, many items from which to choose, going well beyond the standard cheeses, cold meats, and salads. Among my favorites for breakfast were the made-to-order omelets (egg whites, green pepper, and onion was superb) and Dutch mueseli (lots of raisins and not sweet, just the way I like it). Lunch was just as varied, with hot meals including choices of fish, poultry, beef, or pasta. There was also a nice selection of sugar free desserts. (Look for them in the glass-fronted refrigerator.) We also returned each afternoon for ice cream and frozen yogurt. I highly recommend the pineapple yogurt - very tasty.
Pinnacle GrillAs we had heard such wonderful reviews, we chose to dine one evening in the extra-tariff restaurant. As we had a youngster with us, we opted for an early dinner and the best timing happened to be on the first formal night. The room was much larger than it appeared from the outside, yet was still intimate. As we had expected, everything was wonderfully presented, from appetizers to the fine desserts. For our entrées, my husband had filet mignon, I had the rib-eye steak, and our son ordered halibut. Everything was excellent. (I admit to sneaking a piece of halibut before my son finished off the rest.) Pinnacle Grill was a nice change of pace from the main dining room, and I imagine it would be even more so for those with a large table in the dining room who are looking forward to dining alone for an evening.
SHIP LAYOUT AND DÉCORAt approximately 55,000 GRT with a passenger capacity of 1,266, Maasdam was perfectly sized for me. She was neither too large nor too small, and it was easy to find my way around. The indoor spaces were wonderfully decorated -- not flashy, yet still visually appealing. For example, I loved the two-level Rembrandt Show lounge, adorned with many of HAL's signature blue and white Delft tiles. The library was another favorite, and I spent a lot of time writing at the beautiful desks that overlooked the water. I also enjoyed the sheltered views from the Crow's Nest Lounge atop the ship.
I was most intrigued by the artwork that was onboard. There were numerous paintings, furniture, porcelain, and other pieces dating from the 17th century to the present. My personal favorites were five paintings by Stephen Card, each depicting a ship that carried the Maasdam name. An "Art and Antiques" pamphlet detailing the many pieces on board the ship was available at the Front Office.
I was also quite pleased with the amount of outdoor space on the ship. In addition to an aft pool located on a deck open to three sides, there were several tiered decks aft as well as a full, shaded promenade deck with wooden chairs. Deck stewards provided comfortable chair mats and, when the weather turned chilly, wool blankets. This is the life!
SERVICEAs with any cruise, the level of service from one crew member to the next ran the gamut. We found the dining staff wonderful in all venues. Our waiter and assistant waiter in the Rotterdam Dining Room were excellent and took extra special care of our son. As soon as he finished his first serving of macaroni and cheese, another one would appear almost instantaneously. Good service extended to the Lido, where I never had to carry my own tray. One time in the Lido, when I was waiting for my made-to-order omelet, the passenger next to me asked if I knew where the butter was. Within seconds, a steward came by and placed several pats of butter on her tray. Now that's service! The attendant at the Java Café remembered our names and that I enjoyed a cup of Earl Grey in the evening. We also thought the photography staff excellent. They were very patient in setting up photos, and I also liked the borders they created for the port-of-call shots (location and date) and how our photo with Captain Albert Schoonderbeek also included his name.
Our only sub-par experience was on the first night, when our cabin steward did not prepare the beds for the evening. Ordinarily, it would not have been a big deal, but we needed the sofabed for our son and had no idea how to open it. A quick visit to the Front Desk took care of it. The person on duty called our cabin steward (it was after hours) and the cabin was made up promptly.
AUTO-TIPPINGThis leads me to automatic tipping, a policy that HAL instituted shortly before our cruise. In our document package, as well as in our boarding package, it was explained that a gratuity of $10 per guest, per day, would be automatically posted to shipboard accounts, and that adjustments could be made at the Front Office on the last full day of the cruise. The letter from the document package expanded on this policy by stating that "dining and cabin stewards are required to turn in any tips they receive directly from those guests who have removed or reduced the gratuities on their onboard bills." While this sounded reasonable to us before we boarded, our experience with our cabin steward made me wonder about the fairness of this policy. Fortunately, our cabin steward was fine the rest of the cruise, and we left the full amounts on our account (and gave additional gratuities to those we felt deserved it). But if that had not been the case and we reduced his tip, our fine dining room waiters would have been required to turn in any cash tips they received from us, assuming our interpretation of this policy was correct. This didn't seem right to us, and was duly noted on our comment cards at the end of the cruise.
DAYTIME ACTIVITIESGiven that we had six port days on this seven day cruise, I wasn't expecting many daytime activities. HAL did, however, offer a number of options, although most were fairly laid back. Among the regular offerings were daily trivia and board games (Pictionary, Outburst, Scattergories). There was also a community puzzle set up in the card room. Daily exercise classes were offered (aerobics, step, and stretch classes were complimentary, but yoga, Pilates, and circuit training had a fee, which I didn't jot down). There were a few athletic competitions as well, but I don't recall any pool games (which was fine with me, actually, as I like the quiet). One afternoon, I attended a lecture called "New England, New France, New Worlds," in which I learned about the settlement of the Americas from 350 BC through the 1700s, with a focus on the areas we were visiting on this cruise. This was marvelous, and was well attended.
The daily teas were also very popular. Regular "afternoon tea" was offered for half an hour in the lovely and comfortable Explorer's Lounge. Waiters circulated with a selection of teabags, pots of hot water, and tasty treats. A special "Dutch high tea" was offered one afternoon in the dining room. Unlike British high tea, which is essentially an informal meal, Dutch high tea was a more formal affair and was considered a between-meal snack for the elite (making it more like, but not exactly like, British afternoon tea). The Dutch high tea was different from what I had expected. Upon entering, we stood in a short buffet line, from where waiters handed out finger sandwiches (salmon, cucumber, ham), sweets, and chicken a la king. After being escorted to a table, waiters came around with pots of wonderful, strong tea -- no bags this time. Overall, Dutch high tea was just OK, and I am glad I experienced it, even if I did prefer the more laid-back "afternoon teas."
EVENING ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENTWe were pleasantly surprised with the quality and variety of acts in the Rembrandt Lounge. That was fortunate, as all other forms of musical entertainment shut down while the production shows were in progress. One of the highlights was "Up on the Roof," in which the Maasdam cast musical troupe performed radio hits from the 1950s and 1960s. Another was "Party Gras," which was billed as a "musical journey visiting parties around the world." Both had wonderful choreography, costumes and sets. Another favorite evening in the Rembrandt Lounge featured David Levesque, who combined violin melodies with comedy. Among our other hangouts was the Explorers Lounge, where the "Champagne Strings" -- violin, bass, and piano -- played light music that was perfect for after-dinner. We also enjoyed slow dancing in the Ocean Bar to the fine sounds of the Moonlighters.
CLUB HALThe children's program on Maasdam exceeded our expectations. Our son enjoyed playing basketball with the other Tweens (ages 9-12) and got addicted to the computers in the Tweens Center. What impressed me was how HAL welcomed the kids right away by giving them a soft CD carrying case at embarkation. Inside each sleeve was an activity sheet for each day of the cruise. Sure beats handing the kids a single sheet of paper. By the end of the cruise, his final tally included the CD holder, one tie-dyed Club HAL T-shirt, a lanyard/room key holder, small messenger bag, and a mousepad -- and that's from just a few visits to the program! The counselors were wonderful with the children. One of the Tweens counselors mentioned that there were just 69 passengers between the ages of 5 and 17 on our cruise.
THE WEATHERWeather in the Canadian Maritimes and northern New England can vary widely, but as many people asked me how "cold" it was, I thought I'd give a report. According to the Cruise Log we received at the end of the voyage, our daytime low was 57F/14C during a rainy day in Saguenay Fjord and the daytime high was 73F/23C in Halifax. In fact, I fell asleep in a deck chair on board during our afternoon in Halifax, and woke up with a bit of a suntan. In most ports, the temperatures were in the mid-60s to low-70s on the coast (cooler inland), and except for the one rainy morning, we had sunny or partly cloudy skies.
PORTS OF CALLThe major highlight was the itinerary. This was a one-way cruise from Montreal to Boston, with visits to Quebec City, Saguenay Fjord, Charlottetown, Sydney, Halifax, and Bar Harbor.
Montreal, Quebec. It had been a long travel day for us, so we decided to stay onboard once we reached the ship. Montreal looked lovely, however, and there was a harbor walk close to the ship. While the rest of my family napped, I went to the promenade deck for a quiet sailaway. I had a nice conversation with a gentleman from Florida as the ship pulled out of Montreal and made its way down the St. Lawrence River. Scenery along this part of the St. Lawrence is magnificent. We passed an amusement park, farmland, and many small houses and villages. This part of Canada is very pretty.
Quebec City, Quebec. We had been to Quebec City several years ago, and became so enchanted with the city that returning was like coming home. With the landmark Chateau Frontenac looming overhead, we disembarked the ship for what would be a wonderful day of exploration. We joined our friends on their walking tour alongside the wall that surrounds the Upper Town. It was spectacular. Our friends are very well acquainted with the area and pointed out many sites from railroad stations (his passion) to historic buildings. The five of us enjoyed a nice lunch at l'Omelette in the Upper Town -- the pea soup, in particular was superb -- and we rode the Funicular down to the Lower Town for a quick visit and return to the ship. We had left the ship at 10:15 am and arrived back at 3:15 pm - a most splendid day.
Saguenay Fjord. Located just off the St. Lawrence River, Saguenay Fjord is indescribably scenic. There is no port stop -- the ship simply enters, turns around two hours later, and heads back out to the river. The highlight for many is the Virgin Mary statue atop one of the mountains, constructed years ago by a sailor who survived the frigid waters after his ship sank. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous -- mountains layered upon mountains. Although it was raining that day, I managed to get some beautiful photos, particularly of the sunrise. The remainder of the day was spent "at sea."
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. We arrived in Charlottetown not knowing what to expect, and it turned out to be a most intriguing port of call. I am embarrassed to admit that I knew very little about Canadian history before this trip. Thanks to the Maasdam daily program, I learned that in 1864, Charlottetown was the site of the meeting that would eventually lead to the formation and independence of Canada. We spent most of our day at this location, Province House. We saw the room where the historic meeting had taken place, as well as the room that is now used for provincial government business. We then walked around town and admired the beautiful pier area, complete with wooden pathways, flowers, and "red dirt" stones. The approach to Charlottetown earlier that morning was amazing, as our ship had to pass under the multi-span Confederation Bridge. The bridge, which opened in 1997, links the island to the mainland and is the world's longest bridge (12.9 km, or 9 miles) over waters that freeze.
Sydney, Nova Scotia. I highly recommend a shore excursion in Sydney as there is not much to do near the port. We took a ship-sponsored excursion to the Fortress of Louisbourg, approximately 40 minutes from Sydney. The walled town is a reconstruction of what the area looked like while being occupied by the French in the mid-1700s. French colonists originally landed at Louisbourg in 1713, but the British captured the area in 1745 for its strategic location at the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. By 1760, the old French town had been dismantled. The area was restored in the 1950s, and is now "stuck" in 1744. Only 20% of the site was restored, yet it provides a good representation of the era. Once we arrived, we had a one-hour tour by our marvelous guide, who happened to be a retired history teacher, and then we had another hour to explore on our own before boarding the bus back to the ship.
Halifax, Nova Scotia. This was our third visit to Halifax, and it is a port we hope to return to time and time again. On this trip I wanted to learn more about the role of Halifax in the aftermath of the 1912 Titanic tragedy. I took a ship-sponsored tour called the "Halifax-Titanic Connection" that included a bus ride past various landmarks (including recovery sites, churches where services were held, and two small cemeteries) and a one-hour visit to the fabulous Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (which houses an extensive collection of Titanic artifacts). The most emotional part of the excursion was a visit to Fairview Cemetery, where approximately 120 Titanic passengers are buried. The headstones are laid out in several rows forming the shape of a ship's hull. Most of the markers are plain, while others are more lavish, yet all have one common characteristic -- all are marked with the date April 15, 1912. Amazingly, I had the same tour guide from the previous day, which pleased me as he was extremely knowledgeable. As sad as this tour was, I do recommend it for those who want to learn more about Titanic. Our museum tickets were good for the rest of the day, so a morning tour is best for those who want to spend more time there.
Bar Harbor, Maine. As we had previously been to Acadia National Park, we decided to keep the day low-key by exploring the town of Bar Harbor by foot. We picked up a walking tour map at the visitor center, and checked out the downtown area as well as the former summer "cottages" of the wealthy that lined the street overlooking the harbor. The highlight of the day was lunch at the Island Chowder House, where my husband had clam chowder and a lobster roll, my son had fried clams, and I enjoyed a 1 ½ pound whole lobster.
DISEMBARKATIONThe disembarkation process ran very smoothly. As Boston is convenient to our home, we requested late disembarkation tags. We could have waited in our cabins, but opted instead to hang out with friends in the Crow's Nest, where we had a fine view of the city. As we were among the last passengers off the ship, finding our luggage was easy (all three pieces were even right next to each other, imagine that) and we were driving away from the pier area within minutes of leaving the ship.
FINAL THOUGHTSThis was our first HAL cruise, and it won't be our last. While I had read on several cruise message boards that some veteran HAL cruisers felt the line had made cutbacks in service recently, we either didn't experience any significant shortcomings or didn't notice them. We were too busy enjoying this nice vacation. We are already considering a repeat of this trip for next summer, or perhaps trying Maasdam's alternate Canada/New England itinerary (round-trip Boston).
Photos courtesy of Lisa & Neil Plotnick
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Lisa Plotnick, a writer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and young son, has written many SeaLetter Cruise Magazine articles, cruise ship reviews and book reviews. Lisa is a fan of the classic liners, unfortunately a dying breed in the early 21st century. The Plotnicks have cruised once or twice a year for the past twelve years and have been on most of the major cruise lines as well as several lesser-known lines.
Lisa is a SeaLetter Columnist and also assists in the management of the SeaLetter Cruise Forum. She may be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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