Travel Review: Cruising In the Crisp Cool Air of Canada

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Why Cruising New England and Canada in October is a Great Way to Experience “The Seasons”

As delightful as it is, sometimes, you need to get away from Culver City.

One of the furthest trips from CC (while remaining on the continent) might be on a ship’s journey to New England and Eastern Canada. Here’s all you need to know (or more than) about a fall-set cruise to New England and Canada.

Norwegian Cruise Lines

For us, recently, it was a whirlwind 10-day New England/Canada Cruise aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines’/NCL’s Gem. We learned about it on a Monday afternoon, and left for NYC, point of embarkation, Wednesday, and relished the opportunity to see our attending-school-in-Manhattan son (who we hadn’t expected to see until winter break).

Norwegian isn’t the only cruise line that travels this route through early winter. Most sail from either Boston or the aforementioned NYC, but other starter ports include Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Baltimore, Bayonne New Jersey, and even Southampton/England.

Lines that cruise New England and Eastern Canada include American Cruise Lines, Holland America, Princess, Crystal, Carnival, Celebrity, Cunard, Disney, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking Ocean, and Windstar to name a few.

New York, New York

New York City was hot, humid, and crowded, but, always, a lot of fun. There wasn’t a lot of time before the Gem sailed early Friday afternoon, but we managed to get in a good deal of walking, hitting our favorite little eatery (that would be The Melt Shop in Chelsea) and visiting.

How to Appreciate What You Have

I have, what I often refer to as the “Wedding Dress Theory,” which, simply explained, strongly advises against an initial exposure to something valuable (not necessarily monetarily), thus rendering subsequent purchases/experiences lacking.  

Meaning, don’t go to Monique Lhuillier and try on dresses, knowing you’re going to have to buy your dress at David’s Bridal, or even a local charity shop. It’s better not to have the comparison – and knowledge – of “what might have been.”

Past Cruiser

That said, it’s impossible to erase the past – especially if the past represents a delightful adventure. In the interest of full disclosure, we’ve been lucky to have cruised eight times previously, including Princess, Celebrity (twice), and Regent Seven Seas. The latter (2005) was special in many ways, but it also was for a story.

It’s important that this review be considered with the obvious prejudice that, previously, we sailed on what is unarguably one of the world’s most luxurious liners. But bear in mind, for first-time cruisers, this one – “off” season, and on a cruise line with a reputation for older (thus less rambunctious) passengers, it’s a great introduction to the world of cruising.

My CC neighbors – on either side – have independently disavowed cruising, but it’s become increasingly clear that they would enjoy it tremendously if they just gave it a chance. A cruise can certainly be tied to a celebratory event and be conducive to a lively, party atmosphere. But, like many a vacation, it can be what you make of it.

Each port – whether it be the standard “local”/So-Cal stops (most ships that sail out of Long Beach or San Pedro do variations of the Catalina Island, Ensenada, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta route, or, occasionally, Hawaii)–or more exotic ports (as we considered ours on this trip: St. John’s New Brunswick, Bar Harbor Maine, Halifax and Sydney Nova Scotia, Charlottetown Prince Edward Island, La Baie Saguenay, and Quebec City)–are rich in history.

You can research a little, a lot, or not at all, depending on how much information you want.

Maximizing Benefits (For the Cruise Lines)

Cruising has changed over the years, and even in the last decade, enough shifts in style and attitude have been made, it’s important to be aware, before you undertake the journey.

Observations made here reflect our most recent experience, and you should, as always, be sure to know your itinerary well, in addition to the particulars of your cruise line and ship.

Even in the noughts, cruise lines still had two main dinner-seatings (usually 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.), with corresponding shows at approximately 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. You chose your preferred dining time before the cruise began and you were often seated at large, shared tables–which stayed the same throughout your journey, whether it was a three-night or many-night trip.

This meant you–conceivably–developed a relationship with your servers and dining companions. This was critical because it was left to the passengers to leave cash tips–whether the recommended amount or something more or less.  

You will gain weight” was the accepted conclusion, since included buffets of food and room service were served throughout the day, and featured a lavish over-the-top “Midnight Buffet,” which served as a visual exclamation and brought your innermost suspicions about just how overworked food-service staff was.  Soft-drinks were included, and you could bring any kind of personal drink or snacks aboard.

How “Free” is “Freestyle?”

Since then, “freestyle” cruising has taken over. The easiest interpretation is that passengers can choose to eat anytime in the window of service (e.g. for dinner, it’s usually 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.).

On Norwegian, and, we’ve been told, on other ships, there is a buffet breakfast-service (standard breads, omelets, etc) from about 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. There’s also a “sit-down” breakfast in one of the ship’s dining rooms, replete with a fancy menu, cloth napkins and wait service (usually ends at 9:30 a.m.). A similar set-up is available for lunch and dinner – you may choose to eat casually (serve-yourself) or more formally be served, dine on China, et etc.

In between, there are outdoor bar buffet-style eats, but limited fare; primarily sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs.

Get Your Drink On (Sort Of)

Today’s cruising (on “discount,” and, I believe, anything not Crystal or Regent Seven Seas or Windstar, or the other top-of-the-line ships) feature “included” beverages (note I am not using the word “free”); this means water, coffee, hot tea, “occasionally” ice-tea and maybe lemonade, and, for breakfast, “some” juices.

Which leaves the question – what about sodas and alcohol? Norwegian offers an “unlimited” soda, and some beer and wine “Corks and Caps” package that adds $65 per person per day. There’s also the “Ultimate Beverage Package” is $99 per person per day.

Be aware, too, that on NCL the packages pack on an additional mandatory 20% gratuity, which brings the “Ultimate” to $118.80 per day, per person. And everyone sharing a cabin must purchase the package if one person decides they want it. Also, if you are using the same method of payment for other rooms (i.e. other family members), they have to have the package too.  You get only two drinks per order.

While I can’t find it on their website, I very much recall reading that there is a $15 per drink limit (meaning, you can’t order super top-shelf alcohol and expect it to be included) and a total 13-drink (down from 15-drink a couple of years ago) limit.

Let’s break that down: if you choose the “Ultimate” package, it will add $1,188 per person (or $2,376 for two, or, if the four of us chose it, it would be a whopping $4,752 – just for drinks (with various limitations).

The drink package doesn’t include room service (which ships now level a “service charge” for anyway – and don’t forget that mandatory gratuity), or promotional drinks, Super Premium brands, bottled wine, mini-bar purchases, bottled water, fresh-squeezed juices, some Lavazza coffee beverages, energy drinks (apparently Celebrity includes these in their drink packages),

For the most part, service charges are immediately taken off bills. For example, we had an included gratuity package: the $290.00 per stateroom was “included.” But this is not the case for “additional expenses.”

Two of us went to a “Ladies’ Night Out” event at the Mandara Spa on the Gem, for which attendees were given a chocolate strawberry and a Mimosa, instruction on how to self-administer a facial, and use of the spa’s hydro-baths and heated beds.

To the $39 charge, an 18% gratuity was added. It still ended up being a relative “bargain” (as on-ship “specials” go), because we had access to spa facilities, and were able to avail of the sauna, hydrobaths, jacuzzi tub and hot “bed” (warmed, body-contouring tile lounges).

About Those Beverages

Because I drink a rather unusual soda pop (Tab), I have, when given the opportunity, brought a case along to consume during a cruise. Alas, such a practice is now verboten.

When you embark on the ship, whether for the first time or returning from a port, you must go through an airport-style security check (your bags are run through an x-ray machine, you walk through a metal detector).

You cannot bring any beverages on board–it completely mimics that limitation of pre-gate airport security. You cannot bring half a bottle of water or any liquid. You must throw it away.

Rules are meant to be broken (for some people)

Needless to say, I raised my eyebrows when an elderly couple in front of us (let’s be honest, 90% of passengers on this ship were elderly) were “caught” with a case of Dr. Pepper–and after only a little bit of whining (and a refused, but offered can of pop), they were allowed to bring it on board.

This mercurial policy was really aggravating when a security guard asked me to pour out the only-ice remaining in my Hydroflask (I didn’t do it. What can I say? I’m a scofflaw).

Free = No Charge, Unlimited = No Limits

Norwegian Cruise Lines needs to check their dictionary. There’s much to liberal use of the word “free” when the operative (and correct) word should be “included,” which means, included in the fare.

On most cruises, the “base” fare is determined by the type of stateroom you choose – this means, you can choose the tiniest of all, a “penthouse” super-fancy room with, say, a wraparound balcony and butler service, to an interior room (which is exactly as described–a small, windowless room–ideal for those who plan to be either on deck or on excursions, if the ship is sailing or in port).

When I had to call NCL to provide mandatory details, I was told with our balcony room, I had to choose two of four “free” alternative packages. They are promoted on their site thusly:
FREE at Sea: Choose Your All-Inclusive Cruise Enjoy a truly all-inclusive cruise! Choose up to 4 FREE offers which includes Free Unlimited Open Bar for 2, a Specialty Dining package, a 250 minute internet package or $50 per port shore excursion credit. When you purchase a studio or inside stateroom category you can select one of the above amenities. Book an oceanview, balcony or mini-suite category stateroom and you can choose 2 of the above amenities. Sail in style by purchasing a Haven Suite stateroom category and you will receive all four of the amenities.

Just as a reminder, both the drink and dining options are an additional daily cost, plus the mandatory 18% to 20% gratuity.

  1. A 250-minute on-board Internet
  2. A $50 credit per stateroom for NCL tours/excursions(just FYI, for the entire cruise, the cheapest excursion available was $39 pp, more on that later)And here’s where the technically “free” part ended.
  3.  A $34 unlimited soda or an $89 “unlimited” drink package (basically $10-off the aforementioned “Ultimate Drink Package” and also, would further add on the mandatory gratuity)
  4. $120 per person package to add (sans gratuity, which will be automatically added to your bill) the alternative dining available on the ship, dubbed “specialty restaurants” (these included a “Benihana”-style restaurant that normally charges an additional-to-the-fare $30 per person, a by-the-piece sushi restaurant, an “Oriental” restaurant and others)I asked the agent – “So, essentially, of the four ‘free’ packages, only two are actually free?” She conceded.

Gourmet or Okay?

Cruise lines tout their Cordon Bleu-level chefs and world-renown cuisine. In fact, a big draw is the opportunity to not only eat as much as you can (or in NCL’s case, as much as is available) but sample culinary delights, the likes of which you don’t get “back home.”

So, what’s the verdict?

Firstly, I’m no foodie. Given a choice, I’ll go to Rutt’s or Coco’s or Marie Callender’s. Secondly, I like my food pretty simple. I don’t like sandwiches so thick they’re hard to eat – salami and a tiny bit of mayo on soft bread are just great for me.

My once-a-year (courtesy of my dad) treat is Lawry’s–and I just get the small slice of prime rib, mashed potatoes, and the Yorkshire pudding. In other words, bells and whistles have little impact on me.

I just want my food to taste good. And sometimes, on NCL Gem, it was fine. Granted, I ate cold cereal with a cup of hot black tea with milk every morning (there were all kinds of fancy alternatives, though).

Some dishes were genuinely delicious–a Mozzarella-filled ravioli with lobster sauce was an oft-ordered appetizer (and doubled, twice for dinner). When the Mozarella was replaced with Ricotta (a cheese I normally quite like), it was less good. Initially, the lobster sauce was creamy and lovely. A couple of times, it arrived with a thick layer of oil (which was kind of yucky).

One of the best dishes included a bruschetta, replete with sweet and savory diced tomatoes–refreshing and lovely. Another favorite was the Ceasar Salad. The prime rib served in the casual buffet (Garden Café) on the first night was more like pot roast or roast beef, but was very tasty. The grilled or sautéed fishes were good–and served, for example, on a bed of potatoes or pureed cauliflower with asparagus.

Most of the food was fine, and welcome after walking several miles in each port (which we did). The steak was a standard, daily offering on the dinner menu in the beautiful Grand Pacific Dining Room, and while it could be lovely and well-cooked, it could also be dry and tasteless.

Unfortunately, there were some literally inedible dishes, too. At one lunch at the Garden Café, there was a choice of nine hot dishes. Literally, SEVEN of them featured chunks of green (bell) pepper (which I loathe).

There was an alleged “Green Tea Panna Cotta” that was more like a grassy-green, powdery melted-smoothie, mixed with the inexplicable addition of canned peaches. Terrible.

While most of the (sought-after) ice cream in the Garden Café appeared freshly made and was tasty, an order of strawberry ice-cream was horrific. I never thought I would describe any kind of ice cream in that way, but it was not only grainy, it was also the color of Pepto Bismol and tasted very chemical-y.

But the best part of it was, if something doesn’t taste right or suit your fancy, you can easily order something else, and that was often just fine.

If you can make it there…

New York Harbor is a great place to begin a trip, because, well, New York–there is something fun available to participate in or dine at daily.

You may board as early as 10 a.m., and your room may or may not be available. Checking luggage in with the porter was also easy-peasy.  Porters help you tag and then take your luggage and bring it to your room. They direct you to the large embarkation area where rows and rows are cordoned off to wait in line.

Lunch is served on the boat, and it’s a great time to walk the halls and get familiar with the ship’s layout.

Everyone must board at least two hours prior to the sail time of 4 p.m., because of customs and TSA. If you arrive at the ship after 2 p.m., you will be turned away.

Embarkation was a breeze – there was literally no line when we arrived. Check-in is similar to the airport, luggage is x-rayed, and you are scanned in a metal-detector arch.  The port agents were warm and funny.

The Gem, we were told confidentiality, would be sailing at less than half capacity – this made for few lines, both in dining facilities and for getting on and off the ship at various docks.

The itinerary we took (a 10-day trip for 2018) is annual trip (and, in 2019, it’s a 13-day trip, with the additional ports of Newport  Rhode Island, Boston Massachusetts and Portland, ME.)

Sail-Away in NYC is great because you get to go down the Hudson and pass by the Statue of Liberty – it’s a photo-op that doesn’t disappoint.

Ports of Call

While we did choose the “free” $50 per stateroom excursion per port, we only used it for the first two ports. Cruise-sponsored tours are notoriously overpriced. When we went on our first cruise to the “Mexican Riviera” long ago, the “excursion talk” was filled with fear-inducing patter–only through sanctioned tours will you be guaranteed to get back to the boat before it sails, only at sanctioned shops are you guaranteed not to be “taken” or swindled.

In our previous adventures since that first cruise, we simply avoided tours through the ship, but we thought we’d take advantage of the “free” $50/stateroom credit (until we realized that for each port tour we would end up paying additional $ we wouldn’t have otherwise).

St. John’s New Brunswick

We opted for the ship’s $39 per person “trolley tour”  (think school bus converted into an old fashioned “trolley,” replete with wood and metal benches). Bonnie, our local tour guide, offered up a lot of information and stories. She was kind and patient with everyone and brought items to pass around to give further depth to the visit.

The “big” stop was the unique and fascinating “reverse falls,” or “reversing rapids,” a gorgeous setting marred by a huge and looming paper manufacturing plant right at the location of the reverse falls.

Our first port was in New Brunswick and the second was in Bar Harbor, ME, which made for some tedious and seemingly unnecessary paperwork and lining up to go through customs (it seems absolutely inconceivable that any Canadian would want to stowaway to the U.S., and the 2019 trip tackles all the U.S. ports first before going into Canada, so the rigmarole of meeting with customs is circumvented).

Dubbed the “Fundy City,” Saint John, only an hour and a half drive from the U.S. border in Maine, was Canada’s first incorporated city, and best known for its unique extreme tides. It’s quite cute and after the trolley tour, we walked around Uptown Saint John, Brunswick Square, and Market Square.

A Day at Sea

I absolutely adore being at sea. I love everything about the gentle and light movement of the ship. There’s no sleep like ship-sleep and it is divine. If there’s any possible way, I strongly suggest getting a balcony, over fancy tours or on-ship restaurants. Spend the money on a balcony. We had an enclosed balcony (see photo; it refers to just the sides of the balcony), which was actually great, for the cool climes of this trip.

Dolphin’s Spotted Starboard!

At one point, we were reading on the balcony, I looked over the rail and saw dolphins! They were leaping and crisscrossing alongside the ship. This was definitely a major, major highlight of the trip. These Atlantic dolphins seemed smaller than the ones spied in the Pacific and were totally amazing.

Something for the Little Mates

We didn’t avail of them, given that we weren’t traveling with children–vand it would be weird if had–but there’s a check-in children’s supervised area (when we peeked in, there was one four-ish-year-old girl singing along to Taylor Swift, with no less than seven ship “counselors” cheering their only ward on), a video arcade, a casino, a rock-climbing wall, two swimming pools, four hot tubs (although someone we met on the elevator said that the weather was so cold, none of the hot tubs were even warm). There’s also an Internet Café and a library.

Keeping In Touch Electronically

Speaking of Internet, know that the 250-minutes package that normally costs $105 (purchased online, ups to $125 onboard) per stateroom, goes SUPER fast. This may have something to do with the fact that it could take up to 10 minutes just signing on, and you end up watching the time just tick away.

Other available packages include a pre-paid $25.50 daily ($29.99 when purchased onboard) “Unlimited Wifi Package.” And, in typical hyperbolic NCL verbiage, “unlimited” in this case means no streaming and one device at a time.

If you upgrade to “Unlimited Wifi Package” ($29.50 bought online and $34.99 when purchased on board), you still can use it for only one device but you can stream. There’s also the caveat of “Please note that some on-demand content may not be available.”

There’s an “Unlimited Social Media Wifi” ($12.50/$14.99) which allegedly allows you to “view, post and upload videos on social media and also chat on popular messenger platforms.” But “this package does not include email access or web browsing.”

Honestly, even though we had the “250 Minutes Anytime Internet”) it’s not a very reliable service and you, like the cruise staff who stream off the boat to find Wifi, may have to just find something in port to really work.

Milli at the Internet desk on the Gem was great, but he’s not a miracle worker. Sit near the router in the hallway (luckily it was right outside our room) or near Milli’s desk in the Art Gallery or at the Internet Café (the latter two did not work well for me, FYI).

Or, find a Starbucks or Tim Horton’s (that’s what staffers do) in port, buy a cup of coffee, and Internet away.

Bar Harbor, Maine

I talked our party into going on the “Gilded Age Walking Tour of Bar Harbor,” which was $49 pp. I loved our tour guide, Lynne, a local librarian (for the adjacent Seal Harbor Library), and former Grand Canyon park ranger.

While her stories were probably oft told, she was fully engaged and enthusiastic and had everyone enthralled. Unfortunately, it was cold and rained for the entire 2.5 walk, but thanks to a great guide and fascinating history, it was worth it.

The big draw for photographers and nature fans is the 41,000-acre Acadia National Park. You can also visit the Bar Harbor Society Museum, the Main Lobster Museum, go whale watching, brewery tasting and visiting, and harbor cruises.

Main Street Bar Harbor is just off the park and gazebo and it’s quite quaint. At Lynne’s suggestion, we had a late lunch at the Side Street Café – we had the delicious lobster mac’ n’ cheese and a most delectable homemade berry pie for dessert.

Halifax Nova Scotia

Halifax is a big city and we rented a car for $36 day, which is considerably cheaper than any of the tours ($300 for a four-hour taxi tour). Of course, you have to have someone in your party who doesn’t mind driving in a completely unfamiliar location (luckily we do).

Since a lot of this trip takes place in Canada, I strongly suggest you find out – before you leave — if your mobile phone carrier has a plan that includes service internationally.  

If you rent a car, as we did in several locations, you will definitely need the GPS services. We ended up going to Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, pulling the location up on Waze and hoping it all cached for when we were on the road (without service).

We also picked up a member of our party at the Halifax Airport (they missed embarkation and this was the closest port they could embark–please note that you cannot embark when there is a tender, as there was in Bar Harbor. A tender is when you take a lifeboat or local small boat from the ship to the port, i.e. the ship doesn’t dock).

Halifax is a bustling city, filled with history. The Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax, for example, has one of the very few existing/remaining deck chairs from The Titanic, in an exhibition dedicated to the tragic ship. Halifax, the nearest seaport to the sinking is also where survivors were brought — and where victims, and the many unclaimed, were buried.

Sydney, Nova Scotia

It was cold and rainy throughout, but still, a fun, if uneventful, stop in Sydney, located in Cape Breton. It’s a super easy walk, right into town from the port. We just walked to town and walked up and down the streets. There’s not a lot going on there and even the excursions available on the ship were limited.

The one-time Steel Town (mills and mines were closed down in 2001) was much renewed (after a period of depression) when the Sydney Harbour was dredged and it was introduced as a commercial port (i.e. cruise ships now come to town).

The village of Baddeck (site of the Alexander Graham Bell Museum!) is considered a scenic stop, but the first “landmark” you’ll notice, right at the port is the “Largest Ceilidh Fiddle in the World,” at the Sydney Waterfront. Other popular sites in Sydney are in Louisbourg, Glace Bay, the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and Bra d’Or Lake.

Historic homes to visit include Jost House, one of the oldest wooden buildings, was bought by Thomas Jost in 1836 and the family lived there until 1971. The Cossit House Museum is the oldest house in Sydney, built in 1785. The family lived there until 1975. Guests can partake in activities of the 1700s, like stitching a sampler or churning butter.

Maritime life is celebrated at St. Patrick’s Church Museum, built as a Roman Catholic church in 1828. If you’re interested in Native American history and culture, visit Membertou Heritage Park, where the native Mi’Kmaq tribes were relocated.

Try an “oat cake,” the town specialty.

Charlottetown Prince Edward Island

Beautiful Prince Edward Island (of which Charlottetown is the capital) may be most familiar to Americans because of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel and adapted-to-series’ “Anne of Green Gables.” It’s a very pretty town and we rented a car here, as well — if you do it through Priceline when you can get online, the savings are amazing, about $60 U.S. total, with fees, for the day).  

Cruise ships brought more tourism to the city, when the terminal was built in 2007. We visited governmental building Province House, one of the 11 National Historic Sites of Canada in Charlottetown.

We also happened upon the waterfront Beaconsfield Historic House, and had a wonderful little tour there. The home, like many of its kind (elaborate custom-detailed, a long build in 1877 at exorbitant expense), has a somewhat tragic starter story–after living there only five years, the owners lost all their money and suffered a tremendous fall from wealth, society and grace.

Still, with its 25 rooms and eight fireplaces, the home (in continuous restoration, as all the originally furnishings were sold off to pay debts and are slowly being brought back) is a sweet microcosm and insight into Charlottetown’s Gilded Age.

La Baie Saguenay

Saguenay is a stop where you can see the glory of fall in Canada, as it is comprised of three boroughs – La Baie, Chicoutimi and Jonquiere – surrounded by “nearly uninhabited” (per NCL) Canadian wildlife.

Gorgeous and beautiful, we rented a car, here, too – for only $35 U.S. total, with fees.  

We visited the exquisite Saguenay National Park/Parc National du Saguenay.

There are three remarkable national parks: Parc National Des Monts-Valin, Parc National Du Fjord-Du-Saguenay and Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. The city parks range from traditional pretty and familiar like Port Area, Parc Mars to the truly magnificent like Parc de la Rivière-Du-Moulin, Parc de la Rivière-Aux-Sables, Parc Commemoratif Sir William Price and Centre Plein Air Bec-Scie

The historic – and current – logging, pulp, and paper town is predominantly Roman Catholic (96%) and there are beautiful cathedrals and churches, including The Saint-Edouard Church (1918, but designed in 13th– Century English-style) in the Port-Alfred Sector and The Saint-Alphonse-de-Liguori Church, established in 1857 in Bagotville (the airport is also located in Bagotville).

Quebec City

With each Canadian port, locals conversed more and more in French. By the time we got to the absolutely stunning, European Quebec City, it was tout Français, toujours les jours.

Quebec City is the final stop on the NCL–and many other line–and it’s an overnight stay. Don’t make the mistake in thinking the ship stays open throughout the night to embark and disembark, though. Check with security and staff about how late you can stay out – they literally lift the gangway and close up and open up again for the final disembarkation.

A review of the cruises wouldn’t do justice to describe how lovely Quebec City, the capital, is–but simply put, there is a not insignificant walk from where NCL ports into the “lower” part of the city (other ships, like the mirroring Crystal Symphony, had a much better location).

“Lower” isn’t referencing status or quality in any way, it is literally in a geographically lower part of the city. There are many shops, ranging from tony art galleries, local crafts, with a smattering of (very low-key) souvenir shops. The narrow cobblestone streets are picture perfect.

Funiculi, Funicular

You must take the Funicular to the “upper” portion of the city – it provides a great view, is a lot of fun and brings you a very remarkable – and popular (translate crowded) area of the city. There’s a Fairmont hotel (the stunning Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac which looks like a setting for a Bond film), an actual Dali sculpture,  and a lot to look at.

We tried the Canadian gourmet’s gastric delight, Poutine (fried potatoes, cheese curds, and gravy) at the Musee du Fort, Chic Shack On Fort. Unlike what you might get at a Culver’s in the Midwest, the potatoes here are not French fries, slathered in gravy, topped with what appears to be large-curd cottage cheese.

At Chic Shack (the location is a historic house, btw) you can order the very basic or with the addition of numerous other treats (yes, bacon is one). The potatoes here are deep-fried quarters, with freshly-made cheese curds and homemade gravy. It’s rich, for sure, but delicious all the same. The restaurant specializes in seasonal, locally sourced products from local artisans.

The Ship, The Shopping, The Hard Sell

While many of the hidden costs of an NCL cruise (and likely other lines) have been discussed here, there’s still more. Again, if you remember that NCL’s definition of “free” and “unlimited” actually varies from the dictionary’s, you don’t be caught with unexpected charges.

If you order anything “off-the-menu” (meaning included in the base fare), you will be immediately charged an 18% to 20% gratuity.

So don’t forget the added 20% gratuity charge for each meal, if you purchased the “Specialty Dining Package.” There are actually additional charges for the SDP at some locations (Bayamo, Cirque Dreams, Ocean Blue, Pincho Tapas Bar, Sushi, Supper Club), from $7 to $35 pp–these are in addition to the original price of the “specialty dining package,” which ranges from three meal SDP for $69 pp to 14 meal SDP for $199 pp.

As a refresher, there are generally four beverage packages, but given how few under-21-year-olds there were on our cruise, they were not even mentioned (you probably have to ask) for this trip.

The two “featured” beverage packages are the Ultimate Beverage Package,which includes soda pop, beers, spirits, beer and wine (which don’t exceed $15 each) for $99 per person, per day (plus the 20% gratuity).

Everyone in your party must partake in the package, meaning, if they’re sharing a room or are on the same bill as you, you must purchase a package for them. The Corks and Capsis the wine, beer and soft drinks) package, which is $65 per person, per day(plus the 20% gratuity). We already mentioned what’s not included.

Needless to say, we didn’t avail of any of the packages and we were content with just iced water and iced tea when it was available (it’s available in the “included” dining rooms and the Garden Café, the buffet-style dining option).

I also brought along a bunch of packets of the available-at-the-.99 store Diet Snapple powder, which are available in a multitude of flavors (I prefer the Green Tea and Diet Peach). There are six to a box, and each box is .99. So, while you can’t bring aboard any kind of drink, the little-powdered packages were a great (and free-on-board) alternative.

When we did the “Ladies’ Night Out” at the ship’s spa it was $39, plus gratuity each. We were told that the $39 could then be applied as a voucher to a treatment on board.  The “big sell” was the self-administered facial, in which each of us were given a small amount of each product to administer to ourselves.

If you don’t think that this was a way to get us to pay for a marketing sesh on products and treatments … there were even additional “talks” given by the practitioners of injectables and other more medical and invasive treatments. They highly touted the “free consultation,” for which you would normally have to pay hundreds of dollars “on land” (I don’t think that’s actually true).

Destination treatments have always been a mixed bag – for the most part, the cosmetologist/technician (or whatever they prefer to be called) know that whatever service – massage, facial, scrub, et ect.—you’ve chosen, it’s likely the only one you’ll have on the ship. In other words, they know you’re not looking for someone to be your “go-to” person.

Unfortunately, that translates into rather mediocre quality service, but at a super premium price. A not-very-good one-hour massage (really, what you can expect) on a ship will cost between $129 and $119 (the “discount” price is for when the ship is in port). Considering you can get a fantastic massage locally for less than half of that, it’s a pretty steep price.

One day, there was a message on our stateroom phone, letting me know that I’d been given a $50 voucher towards a treatment.

For a brief moment, I was rather excited at the possibility of getting that mediocre massage for still-more than I pay at home–I had the $39 voucher, and now, I had an additional $50 voucher. But my suspicions were confirmed when I was informed I could not combine the two for a discount that was probably still too much anyway.

On-ship shops are notorious for holding “raffles” for the opportunity to win jewelry or a watch, which you could easily buy at TJ Maxx at Studio Village for a reasonable price.

Salespeople pass out raffle tickets and masses of people fill the shop, hoping to have their number called out. The second (?) night of the cruise, they held such a raffle (and, of course, we were totally sucked in by it), and it appeared the entire population of passengers were in attendance.

Of course, the motivation is to make passengers aware of the available wares – some of the jewelry is quite pretty, some of it is garish, and all of it is overpriced. But if someone is on the cruise for a celebration, the potential for purchases is quite high.

Cruise ship shop salespeople are, if anything, garrulous and friendly. And there are shops everywhere. On the main level, on par with “Guest Relations” and the “Excursion” desk, there was an obviously late-addition jewelry shop set up.

The operative word throughout the trip is “upsell.” However, that said, if you’re aware of what’s happening, you can opt to participate, participate a little, or not at all. And the latter is what we did – meaning, we didn’t partake of any upsell.

The bottom line is that there is plenty – plenty – available to passengers with just what’s already included in the base fare. You just have to resist the urge or the hard-sell – you can still have a wonderful time and be sated with meals from the buffet-style dining, or if you want all elegance with each meal, then you do have the option to eat all three meals in one of the dining rooms, and you will be presented with a cloth napkin in your lap, a fancy menu and a bevy of fancy foods from which to choose.

With a little ingenuity, research and someone who doesn’t mind driving, you can find alternatives to the pricey excursion. Again, we didn’t avail of any of the add-ons and none of us feel deprived in any way.

We still got the very best part of cruising — glorious nights’ sleep and the opportunity to view new vistas.  It really can be traveling at its finest — and actually reasonably priced – life at sea is wonderful.

On the Road

We disembarked in Quebec City, visited a bakery we went to the previous day (Paillard St. Jean, definitely recommended, but very popular) and then did a rental-car road trip to Ottawa. The much-heralded drive was supposed to be about four hours, but due to heavy congestion, it ended up being more like 6.5 hours.

Still, it was a lovely and beautiful drive. We had dinner at a chain restaurant, East-Side Mario’s, which was a little pricey, but delicious, and the waitress was amazing (675 Kirkwood Ave), and stayed at the very clean and comfortable Best Western Plus Ottawa City Centre.

Transitioning Back to Land…and Home

Even though we rented a car, had dinner at a restaurant, spent the night, and did a self-guided driving tour of the city, it was still less expensive than the four of us flying home (two of us to LAX and two to NYC) from Quebec (the flights were shockingly expensive). And, we got to see Ottawa, which was a great city.

While it was whirlwind and spur-of-the-moment, it was wonderful and memorable — and isn’t that what you want when you go on a trip?

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