If you and your family are looking for a summer cruise that offers the best aspects of family cruising in one destination region - water sports, scenic byways by land and sea, and bit of history presented in an entertaining way - then cruising to New England and Canada might just fit the bill.
From tugboat rides for little ones in Halifax harbor to exploring Portland's and Boston's children's museums -- and even "dumping the tea into the sea" at Boston's Tea Party Ship -- there are plenty of "edu-taining" attractions and excursions for kids of all ages on these itineraries. Some ports also offer water sports or swimming options for youngsters to blow off a little steam.
Another plus - this one for parents - is that families won't spend as much money on shore excursions in New England and Canada compared to other summer family cruise destinations like Alaska and the Mediterranean. Many attractions and excursions in New England and Canada can be explored and/or booked independently, saving plenty of money, since cruise line shore excursions can really add up for a family of four.
Following is a roundup of kid-friendly activities in the New England and Canadian ports of: Newport, RI; Boston, MA; Martha's Vineyard, MA; Bar Harbor, ME; Portland, ME; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; St. John, New Brunswick; and Quebec and Montreal. For additional details, contact Destination Canada New England, 1-888-478-1777 or go to www.destinationcn.com.
NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND When your kids say "show me the money," grab their hand and take them to Newport, home of many mansions built during the Gilded Age. While there are lots of chose from, my recommendation for kids is either The Breakers - the most opulent of them all, which is sure to wow your kids - or the Astors' Beechwood Mansion with its Victorian Living History Museum tour where actors in period costumes portray historical figures of the late 1800s. After a mansion tour, youngsters can get a little fresh air with a jaunt along the famed Cliff Walk. Here you'll be awed by mansions on one side and cliffs and the ocean below on the other. Make sure you hold little ones' hands here!
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS The hardest part about a port call in Boston is deciding what to see, since one day is certainly not enough time to explore this historic yet modern city. (Keep in mind that cruise ships do not dock in the center of Boston Harbor. The cruise ship pier is a short shuttle or cab ride from Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market.)
Some of my top picks for kids include: the Children's Museum, which is the forerunner and still one of the leading kids' museums today; the expansive New England Aquarium; the Boston Tea Party Ship, where kids can re-enact "dumping the tea into the sea;" a walk through Boston's Public Gardens and a ride on the Swan Boats, featured in the kids' classic Make Way for Ducklings; visiting colonial sights along the Freedom Trail, such as Paul Revere's home and The Old North Church; and dining and shopping at Faneuil Hall marketplace.
MARTHA'S VINEYARD; MASSACHUSETTS You'll feel like you stepped into another world when you disembark your tender in the quaint town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Here you'll find fanciful Victorian cottages, plenty of boats dotting the harbor, and bikes to rent for exploring the island. Save time for the Flying Horses carousel, the nation's oldest carousel in continual operation.
You can hop on a bus in Oak Bluffs (by the gazebo) to travel to Edgartown, with an optional stop en route at nearby Joseph Silva State Beach, where tranquil waters are perfect for little ones (there are no facilities at this long stretch of beach). Edgartown is resplendent with whaling captains' homes and plenty of upscale shops to explore by foot.
BAR HARBOR, MAINE In Bar Harbor, nature is the main attraction -- and rightly so, due to Acadia National Park's proximity to the town. I suggest either booking a shore excursion through the cruise line, which will transport you by motor coach to the scenic highlights in the park; or renting a car ahead of time to explore the park independently. We did the latter, and while it was an expensive and long ride to the airport-based car rental agency, it did afford us the flexibility often needed with kids to stop where and when we wanted. We also got to dip our feet in cold Maine water at one of the park's beaches.
Back in town, there is plenty of shopping at unique stores, along with restaurants for lobster rolls. This area is also a good spot to book a whale-watch at one of the many operators along Bar Harbor's small waterfront.
PORTLAND, MAINE Portland is a good, compact walking city for youngsters. The cruise ship pier is within walking distance of my kids' favorite attraction in Maine, the Portland Children's Museum. If you have younger and older children, you might want to take the little ones to the children's museum while your spouse brings the older ones to the Portland Museum of Art, since they are right next to each other.
Closer to the pier, you can independently enjoy a ride on Downeast Duck Adventures and also the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum. Make sure you book a ride on the Downeast Duck amphibious vehicle ahead of time. It's an entertaining way to get a little local history; kids love it when the vehicle splashes down, and they also enjoy the free kazoos that sound like duck calls! Right next to the pier is the Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. where you can go on short train rides along Casco Bay and view the collection at the small museum.
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA While mostly uphill, Halifax is also a good city for walking. We took a cab from the port to the Museum of Natural History and then walked downhill back to the port area. Although the museum is small, my kids enjoyed the displays of local stuffed animals as well as the bug bistro - yes, it is what you think!
Two great stops en route from the museum to the port are the Public Gardens, which is finely manicured and offers plenty of benches to rest your feet, as well as Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. Re-enactors roam this massive 19th-century, star-shaped fortification and fire guns at noon. You may want to have lunch in the harbor area, lined with shops, water oriented excursions, and a few fast food kiosks. If you have little ones, book the Theodore Tugboat ride. This short but sweet boat ride around Halifax harbor is great for young kids, since coloring books and crayons are provided for coloring in the sights seen along the way.
CHARLOTTETOWN, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND If you're calling at Prince Edward Island, make sure your kids read Anne of Green Gables or watch the movie/video version ahead of time. This quiet, rural island is best known as the home of Green Gables, so many tours revolve around visiting this homestead. Another idea for families is bicycling along the Confederation Trail, which offers great scenery and lovely spots for a picnic lunch. Next summer, the cruise ship pier will be extended; expect more large (hence, family-friendly) ships to start calling once construction is complete.
ST. JOHN, NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA The small city of St. John offers some historic sights; but head to the Bay of Fundy with kids for more action. The Bay of Fundy is known for having the highest tides in the world, which can be seen via a motorboat or an exhilarating jet boat ride to Reversing Falls, full of swirling whirlpools and waves. You'll need to book an excursion for these.
Many years ago, we took my daughter on the St. Martins excursion, which afforded us lovely views of the island's coastal and rural scenery. My daughter enjoyed this low-key motor coach tour since we stopped by the bay for a lobster roll lunch and also explored the sea caves in St. Martins, which are home to tons of "wish rocks" (small rocks with circular, light-colored bands on them) that your kids can collect.
QUEBEC, CANADA Before calling in Quebec, tell your kids it'll be like visiting France but without the long airplane ride to get there! Right across from the cruise ship pier is quaint Quartier Petit-Champlain -- a cobblestone, pedestrian zone full of shops, outdoor cafes and street performers. Just a four-block walk from the pier is the funicular that takes you from the lower town to the upper town and the city's fortifications. On top, the three-mile rampart is an historic monument with walking paths for great views of the St. Lawrence River and the city. While there, explore the Citadelle, which was constructed in a star shape in the early 1820s and offers a daily changing of the guard in the summer.
If you'd like to see a bit of nature, hop in a cab (about $20 Canadian each way) to Montmorency Falls, which are even higher than Niagara Falls.
Also, while on board your ship, keep your eyes open for whale sightings along the St. Lawrence River, which connects the Great Lakes, Montreal and Quebec with the Atlantic Ocean.
MONTREAL, CANADA There are a number of activities for children right in the Old Port area, including a playground and life-sized labyrinth, complete with obstacles, as well as bike trails along nearby Lachine Canal. Kids of all ages will enjoy a water shuttle between the Old Port and the nearby island of Ile Sainte-Helene, home to Six Flags' La Ronde amusement park.
Old Montreal, next to the Old Port area, has narrow, cobblestone lanes with cafes and shops. This quaint area is great for strolling or eating outside.
Spots for panoramic views of the city and river include Mont Royal Park as well as Montreal's Olympic Park. These scenic spots are an approximately $20 to $25 cab ride from the port.
Montreal is home to many museums and indoor facilities featuring the natural world. These include the Montreal Biodome, with four different habitats to explore; the Montreal Botanical Garden and Insectarium (the former is the second-largest in the world); Montreal Planetarium, with shows in both French and English; and the interactive Montreal Science Center located in the Old Port area.
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