a river cruise in canada aboard the Ocean Endeavour

Sailing the Mighty St. Lawrence, a River Cruise in Canada

You might be surprised to learn that some of the world’s best river cruises are closer than you think. True, Europe offers the Rhine and the Rhone, the Moselle, the Elbe, the Seine and the Danube, but Canada…Canada has the mighty St. Lawrence. Taking a river cruise in Canada should be on everybody’s MUST list.

Welcome to Eastern Canada – An area with rugged and wild terrain that left 14th-century explorers like Jacque Cartier speechless. I felt the same when I first embarked on a river cruise down the St. Lawrence seaway. Since my first expedition, I’ve returned many times. But this is my account of my cruise with Adventure Canada aboard the Ocean Endeavour.

Adventure Canada has been offering river cruises in Canada since the late 1980s. I opted for a 10-day journey called The Mighty St. Lawrence. This itinerary offers travellers an introduction to the geological wonders and culture of French Canada – a place brimming with biological diversity.

But don’t just take it from me: in 2015,  National Geographic Traveller called it one of the 50 tours you must do in your lifetime.

Here’s why…

An original French-Canadian experience

This small ship journey starts in historic Québec City cruises along the St. Lawrence River while also going right into its gulf before stopping in Saguenay Fjord, Gaspé Bay, P.E.I., Cape Breton, the Magdalen Islands, and finishing off in Saint-Pierre.

map of Adventure Canada's 10 day journey down the St. Lawrence river cruise in Canada
Map of the Mighty St. Lawrence itinerary

Starting off In the charming city of Québec, there is so much to see and do. I highly recommend arriving a few days early so you have plenty of time to explore this fortified city’s historic cobblestone streets. There have been many restorations to the original stone buildings, which boast incredible craftsmanship and leave you in awe of their beauty.

Wandering the cobblestone streets of Quebec City

Walking the quaint windy streets while quickly discovering folk art, antique shops, museums, and even Québec’s iconic fashion department store, Simons (like the Hudson’s Bay but even more boujee). Of course, there is also a wide variety of restaurants featuring Québec’s more traditional and delicious cuisine, such as tourtière, pea soup, and fèves au lard, and let’s not forget a plate of quintessential poutine. Don’t worry about your diet. You can always start next Monday.

Tourtiere and Poutine, two French Canadian favourites
Tourtiere and Poutine, two French Canadian favourites

After fully satiating our bellies, our next stop was at the prestigious Château Frontenac, where we introduced our palette to Ungava gin and tonic. This local gin is made using six rare botanicals from the Canadian Arctic tundra, making it a wildly distinctive drinking experience.

Chateau Frontenac a glow in the evening sky
Quebec’s famous Chateau Frontenac

On our way to the Plains of Abraham, we visited the Forts-et-Chateaux-Saint-Louis, Parks Canada’s newest park, located under the Terrasse Dufferin, the walkway in front of the Frontenac hotel – it is the original wall city!

While I was sad to leave the magical city of Quebec, it was time to board Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavour from the new terminal in the lower part of the city. I was eager to begin my journey on a river cruise in Canada. It was a gorgeous evening. The views of the city from the water were spectacular. We began our cruise further down the St. Lawrence. We sailed by Grosse Île, once the main immigration gateway to Canada and quarantine station for the port of Québec.

a river cruise in canada aboard the Ocean Endeavour
A river cruise in Canada aboard the Ocean Endeavour

Fun Fact: My great, great, great, great grandfather, Dr. Frederick Montizambert, was the medical superintendent of the Grosse-Île Quarantine Station in 1869. It was a post he held for thirty years! He was honoured to be inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame for his work during his lifetime.

Next, up the Saguenay River. We went to the Parc du Saguenay, and as we sailed back down, we spotted the famous white belugas! We disembarked at the town of Tadoussac, located on the corner of the two rivers. Here, we were greeted by the locals and their wonderful traditional music and the inviting flavours of the Charlevoix region. During our free time, we enjoyed the views from the different lookouts. We hit up the local museums and treated ourselves to a beer at the stunning Hotel Tadoussac. A perfect spot place to capture the magical sights of the bay, rivers, and La Petite Chapelle.

Aerial view of a Saguenay River cruise in Canada
An aerial view of the Saguenay River during early fall

La ‘Joie De Vivre’ continues

Our next stop was high on my list of places to visit: Les Jardins de Métis – Reford Gardens. Elsie Reford developed the gardens between 1926 and 1958. Originally a family fishing lodge, Elsie transformed the land into traditional gardens now recognized as one of Canada’s national sites.

These are the northernmost gardens in Eastern North America, complemented by an international festival of contemporary gardens. The family home includes exhibits and a dining room showcasing food procured from the gardens. Green-thumbed travellers might welcome getting lost wandering the grounds. Reford Gardens is a true photographer’s delight and a gardener’s utopia.

Parc National Forillon offers incredible walking tours
Explore the many walking trails of Parc National Forillon

La joie de vivre represents a vitality and enjoyment of life. In our last few days in Québec, the joy we felt was electric. Our final moments had us in Gaspé Bay and Percé Rock. Despite the rain and fog, we had a great hike in Parc National Forillon. As often happens in travels, the clouds cleared, and Mother Nature gifted us with perfect weather. Our zodiacs allowed us to visit Parc National de L’Île – Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé!

Luckily for us, thanks to our choice of transportation, the zodiac, we got close enough for some stellar shots. Having the ship and fishing boats in the background made it even better! Then, the zodiac took us to Bonaventure Island. Here, we got to view the hundreds of thousands of gannets and murres that nest on the rocks. We said our thank yous and goodbyes to extraordinary Québec.

Gannets can be found on a river cruise of Canada
A curious gannet questions…”Who you lookin’ at?”

Unearthing Canada’s little slice of island paradise

With open hearts, we sailed to Summerside, Prince Edward Island, where the local bagpipers greeted us. I had been to P.E.I. before. I had visited Cavendish Beach & Anne of Green Gables, so this time, I opted to go to the Lennox Island First Nation – L’nui Mnikuk. This is where the beat of the drums moved me as I learned more about the community and their history. The people were kind, welcoming, and very proud, as they should be!

a lighthouse overlooks the port of Summerside, Prince Edward Island
A lighthouse overlooks the port of Summerside, Prince Edward Island

A river cruise in Canada with Adventure Canada

Choosing the river cruise company to sail with is an important decision. At this point in the itinerary, the soul behind Adventure Canada was revealed. Adventure Canada is dedicated to sustainable and responsible travel. Fees collected go directly to support the local communities visited. Cedar Swan, CEO of Adventure Canada, has become a good friend. Seeing her in action, presenting community leaders with sizable donations for community improvements, was a special moment.

Confederation Bridge
Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Bridge

Later, we could explore the town in the afternoon or tour the Confederation Bridge. I decided to try the local craft market and the local restaurants. And if time permits, I highly recommend grabbing a craft beer at one of the local bars.

No river cruise in Canada would be complete without a visit to Nova Scotia

The voyage continued, taking us to Chéticamp in Cape Breton. For this landing, we had many options: walking the Skyline Trail or the Acadian Trail, cycling, golfing, or simply exploring the town. We chose to go for an easy hike through the Acadian Trail.

Our Parks Canada guide took us through the tranquil woods, with clear, cold running streams, up the mountain to the boreal forest. We had lunch paired with a stellar vista of the town and sea. The others who did the Skyline Trail had equally memorable views. In addition, they planted about 50 trees in a reforestation area!

Cheticamp, Cape Breton
Explore the tiny village of Cheticamp, Cape Breton

Back in town, we headed to one of the cafés, and even though we had already had lunch, we just had to have the catch of the day: lobster! And what a huge serving it was! The best part? It tasted unbelievably fresh and was super cheap. With extra full (and happy) bellies, we headed to the local pub to listen to the musicians featuring fiddling. Andre, one of the crew members from the ship and an accordion musician from Québec joined in. It made for some terrific music! Adventure Canada always features local musicians, which makes sense, as music is very big in Eastern Canada, especially the Maritimes.

A whole new world…

We left that evening, heading to the Magdalen Islands. However, due to strong winds, our expedition leader decided to go straight to Saint-Pierre, France. Mother Nature plays a significant role in expedition cruising; she gives and takes and as travellers – we embrace where the journey leads us. In this case, it took us to France, so how could we complain? 

Saint Pierre and Miquelon - the sole remaining vestige of France's once vast North American colony.
Saint Pierre and Miquelon – the sole remaining vestige of France’s once vast North American colony

It seems strange that these islands are part of France when they are so close to Newfoundland. Just 30 km away! While closely intertwined, the island feels precisely like France, something I attribute to the distinct accents, shops, cars, and houses. There are some excellent stories to be heard about smuggling escapades that happened between the two countries.

Special note: Because these islands belong to France, if you are not a Canadian passport holder, be sure to check visa requirements before embarking on this voyage.

We did another walk in the fog, giving our photos a flawless, all-natural, no-filter-needed finish.

Since we were in France, we decided to head to town for a magnifique French dinner – with French wine, “Oui, but of course!”

Time to pull out the passports; we’re going back to Canada

The next day, we took the zodiac over to Sailor’s Island. I loved this place a lot. Our local guide was brilliant and used the art of storytelling to immerse us in the island’s history in a way that made us feel transported back in time. Back in the day, the island had 800 people, a hotel, a church, a school, a pub, and a sizable cod-drying business. 

Now, no one lives on the island. With the graveyard and shipwreck, you would think it feels depressing – but it doesn’t. They have since renovated the church, the school, and many of the homes – which are now gaining popularity as summer homes. The colours of the houses are vibrant, fun, and social media-worthy. The bright yellows, alabaster blues, grassy green tones, and glowing reds brighten any shot.

Colourful homes dot the landscape in the Maritimes
Colourful homes dot the landscape in the Maritimes

A river cruise in Canada sadly comes to a close

Why must all good things come to an end?

Chaucer

For many, the adventure aboard the Ocean Endeavour ended in St. Pierre. They flew onward to St. John’s. We, however, stayed aboard the ship to complete the final leg of the journey by water. Sailing into the harbour, we did pass an iceberg, making the extra leg of the trip well worth it.

And while I disembarked in St. John’s, some lucky fellow passengers stayed aboard for the next expedition going to Sable Island, one of Canada’s furthest offshore islands with strict guidelines. Trust me, it’s easy to get hooked. Sable Island, also known as “the graveyard to the Atlantic,”  only opened to the public in 2013, and the only way to visit the island is by escorted tour. Known for its wild horses, birds, and lighthouses. I didn’t have the time to swing it then, but that only gives me a great reason to return. 

An expedition cruise is the best way to experience Eastern Canada. Sure, you can reach many places by car, but you’ll never get to experience the full monty unless you climb aboard a ship. Bon voyage! 

About the ship – the Ocean Endeavour

The Meridian club lounge aboard the Ocean Endeavour - a river cruise in Canada
The Meridian Club lounge offers guests a comfortable spot to unwind

At first glance, the Ocean Endeavour seems huge. It carries up to 198 passengers, but It is very much a small-ship experience. There is loads of deck space to explore. There is a spacious lecture theatre, room for yoga, a hot tub, a small swimming pool, and two saunas. The dining room is large enough to seat everyone at the same time yet still offers a cosy and intimate atmosphere. There is even a separate space for music and entertainment. The cabins are a good size. All cabins have an ensuite.

The ship also has certain helpful amenities, like a huge drying room where guests have a cupboard to store their outdoor gear, keeping it away from other personal items. Lastly, two disembarkment stations facilitate a smooth and seamless process.

Another selling feature for Adventure Canada is its high guest-to-crew ratio. This offers a higher level of personal service as help is never far away. And while 198 passengers may seem like a lot, by the end of the 10-day journey, I felt I’d had the opportunity to meet each one and share a travel experience.

Without hesitation, when it comes to a river cruise in Canada, I cannot recommend a more reputable outfit than Adventure Canada. They are my go-to company for all my clients.

Book an appointment with me to discuss your next trip by ship.

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Find out why taking a river cruise in Canada is the best way to explore Canada's East Coast.

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