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Cruising Canada on Holland America: Excursion desk or local guide

CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island — Cameron MacDonald, who never knew Edward Palmer, is busy trashing the man: "He was a politician, and a landowner who taxed his tenants, and he was a pretty horrible man!"

Looking comfortable in his frock coat, high collar and tall hat, MacDonald actually is portraying Palmer, a part-time job with the Confederation Players. This troupe relates to tourists how and why isolated Charlottetown initiated the effort to unite all of sea-to-sea Canada. (Palmer was opposed, apparently fearing a loss of income.)

Chances are if you've sailed aboard a seven-night cruise — as I recently did from Montreal to Boston — you weren't looking primarily for a history lesson. Nor do the majority of cruises offer an in-depth look at the ports of call.

On my cruise aboard Holland America's Maasdam, these visits were eight to 10 hours, with the cruise line selling more than 60 excursions total. Often, however, passengers can't schedule two of these guided visits in one port due to overlapping of the stops or departure times too close to the end of an earlier excursion.

So, how to get the most out of a typical cruise? While the trip may be for relaxation, spend time before departure checking each port's tourism or chamber of commerce website:

• Look for special events or festivals during your visit. It's a chance to see what the locals celebrate.

• Review the site's suggested "to-do" list, perhaps activities such as fishing, sailing, hiking, visiting a farm or vineyard, even sharing a meal with locals.

• Comparison shop; directly contact operators/attractions listed on the sites. That's how I learned that my 90-minute sail on a Nova Scotia lake sold for just $35 if bought locally, while the cruise line priced the sail — and a 50-mile bus ride to and from the sailboat — at more than four times that. A rental car to get to the sailboat was another $69.

On the other hand, while the ship offered a three-hour trip to a picturesque fishing village near Halifax — in 50-passenger buses — either of two locals would charge me more than twice as much for touring by minivan or Jeep.

• Contact your destination's tourism agency about hiring a guide.

The main advantage of buying from the ship's excursion desk is that the cruise line has experienced the tours it sells and has vetted the performance of local operators. The main disadvantage is that the cruise line charges a sometimes-hefty fee for being the middleman.

Among my favorite experiences on the trip:

Montreal

I saw a small part of this cosmopolitan city through the eyes of Ruby Roy, a native who knows her city so well. She is called by name by vendors in the daily market she showed me.

By the way, you couldn't get a busload of 50 through the market's aisles, so the ship doesn't offer this experience.

This market was a short drive from Montreal's walkable Old Town, the cobblestone neighborhood that is the most popular shore excursion. But you likely wouldn't know to look for the market, or to visit the underground shopping center located beneath — and owned by — the city's Presbyterian cathedral.

From Roy I also got these candid insights:

"Montreal is nothing like the rest of Canada, nothing like the rest of Québec province. This is a European city. Québec is a French city. …

"Montreal is a mosaic, not a melting pot. Speaking in your parents' language is encouraged."

Québec City

Explorer Samuel de Champlain founded this city in 1608. The contemporary city has preserved so many ancient structures that part of it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cruise passengers may be content to just cross a parking lot from their dock to visit the imaginative Museum of Civilization. Or window-shop boutiques and pause for an al fresco meal in narrow lanes such as North America's oldest merchant street, Rue de Pettit-Champlain.

But just a 10-minute walk from the iconic Fairmont Chateau Frontenac hotel, Rues Saint Jean, Saint Paul and Saint Pierre are neighborhood streets that are home to art galleries, antiques shops, bistros, chocolatiers and the daily farmers market.

Yet if you had not asked the tourism office, or had a guide such as Michelle Demers, you wouldn't know that the real Québec City is so close to the version preserved more for visitors than residents.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Unlike fellow islander Cameron MacDonald, the only costume Mark Jenkins dons for work is his polo shirt and ball cap bearing the logo Top Notch Lobster Tours. Then he becomes Capt. Mark, a lobster, crab and bluefin tuna fisherman.

And between the lobster season and briefer tuna season, Jenkins and his brother take tourists out on how-we-do-it trips: He hauls up traps to display rock crabs and lobsters. On the two afternoon trips full lobster-and-sides meals are served.

Even with his brother or wife on board, Jenkins this season had another co-worker. Pulling his final trap for the passengers, Jenkins hauls out "Larry," an 8-pound lobster. Larry measures about 18 inches.

"I earned a degree in electrical engineering because I didn't want to follow my father and fish. But I'm not going to lie to you — I love my job," says the captain.

Former Tampa Bay Times travel editor Robert N. Jenkins has two e-book anthologies of his articles — "End Bag" and "Casting Off!" — on the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords sites.

.if you go

For information on Holland America cruises, go to hollandamerica.com. The Montreal-to-Boston and Boston-to-Québec City cruises operate from May through early October. Prices start at about $700 per person for inside cabins for the 13-day cruise.

Cruising Canada on Holland America: Excursion desk or local guide 10/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 11, 2013 12:45pm]
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