Ports come and go, but the Madeleine Islands, an archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is one of the most memorable. By the time we drop anchor, even in the bright sunshine of a September morning, there is a discernable chill in the air made more noticeable by the wind.
If it's this chilly in September, how bearable is it in the depths of winter, I wonder. "Oh, this is pleasant," our chipper, bilingual guide Hugo Petitpas tells me. But the tiny population -- only 13,000 Acadians -- tells a story of winters that are too long and too cold.
Originally flat and barren, the existing trees were clear-cut over a century ago, conspiring to produce a relatively flat terrain comprised of volcanic rock and sand dunes. A sweeping glance paints a grim picture of few natural defenses against what nature hurls at it in this picturesque chain of islands where generations of families know and rely on each other.
These folks will also tell you that their location far from the mainland of Canada actually keeps their island home more temperate. Clearly, though, the Acadians are survivors. By 1875, when the timber was all logged, bundled up and sent back to Britain for use as flooring, lobster fishing became the islanders' primary livelihood. I'm told that today, millions of pounds of lobster are fished by these modern Acadians who survive on the profits during the off-season.
Today, nearly 200 bird species are bringing increasing numbers of birders to the islands, and tourism is on the rise. Ever the survivors, a budding artist community is designing and making exquisite works of art from local sea glass and sand, on display near La Grave and well worth a look.
While some of the ports on our itinerary don't pull out the stops like Tadoussac, there is a potent charm factor in colorful Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site whose rows of centuries-old red, blue, and yellow buildings stand like soldiers guarding this British settlement, I watch from the stern deck as the town comes into view.
A masterful example of a bona fide British colonial settlement, like most coastal towns in this part of Canada the waterfront is the heart of the city. Fishing, shipbuilding and social life revolved around some of the richest stocks of both fish and fur -- including the now fished-out walrus -- when these towns were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The same is true today with the addition of tourism revenue.
Lunenburg's annual folk art festival is a popular event, a fact my fellow cruisers seem to know as they disembark in droves. Together we wander the orderly, parallel streets, through the historic Knaut-Rhuland Museum with its authentic period garb and reproduction rooms. A knitter, I'm drawn to the little shops selling handmade, heavy woolens designed to protect tender skin in negative zero-degree weather.
After a last stop in lively Bar Harbor, I disembark in Boston, where to my surprise I feel better rested than I have in weeks. Perhaps it was the clear night air wafting through the balcony door that I left open. But another bonus promises to last longer. For the first time I've learned a little bit about one of Canada's best-kept secrets: her rich cultural heritage and spectacular Atlantic coastline.
IF YOU GO:
For more information or to book a cruise, visit www.ponant.com. Prices per person start at $4,273 and vary by cabin style.