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New England Fall Cruise

The best way to see the sights and colors of the Northeast autumn may just be—who knew?—an ocean liner.

Crystal Symphony anchored in Bar Harbor, Maine
Photo caption
The Crystal Symphony drops anchor for a day in Bar Harbor, Maine.

It dawned on me sometime between the unexpected fireworks over New York Harbor and the maple-syrup-and-blueberry-juice cocktail in Nova Scotia. The thought may have struck the morning I bicycled past a Tyrannosaurus rex in Boston, or the night New Hampshire vanished, or the afternoon I lay by the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick with a park guide, both of us wriggling on the ground pretending to be herring caught in a net.

Then again, it was probably the sight of the arm-flailing woman running at me from a pier in Newport, R.I., that made it clear my 11-day foliage cruise from Manhattan to Montreal last September would be memorable for more than just colored leaves.

Hardly had my wife, Pamelia, and I stepped off the Crystal Symphony in Newport, our first stop, when the tourist charged toward us, gesturing wildly. "Lobsters!" she yelled. "Big!" At pier's end, sure enough, crew members of the Hedy Brenna were unloading 3,000 pounds of lobster and 6,000 pounds of crab they'd just hauled in. On this lovely morning, with the very first hints of gold and vermilion tingeing leaves in the postcard-pretty town, the seamen waxed philosophical. "Life is like a box of lob-stahs," said one. "You nev-uh know what you're gonna get each day."

That, of course, is the delight of a good cruise: Every port is a new world, filled with surprises. The number of passengers on fall cruises of the Northeast has increased 50 percent since 9/11, suggesting that travelers are drawn not only to the flaming foliage and white-steepled churches but also to a destination that feels safe—one where the surprises tend to be pleasant.

Still, as I packed fleece and binoculars for our 2,140-mile voyage, I couldn't help pondering the obvious: A 940-passenger cruise ship seems a strange way to explore the woods.

As it turns out, it isn't. When not being pampered aboard the Crystal Symphony, passengers could take in the foliage by foot, bicycle, bus, helicopter, trolley, kayak, horse-drawn carriage, or amphibious vehicle. A key point about fall cruises in the Northeast is that leaves are not the sole—or, for some passengers, even the primary— attraction. For some, they're just the gilding on a visit to Newport's mansions or a flash on the ride to Boston's Fenway Park.

But even to those who have seen them before, New England's autumn leaves can be a revelation. Their multihued vibrancy comes from the particular mix of hardwoods here, the seasonal onset of cold nights, and the hilly landscape—mountainsides turn earlier than valleys, creating what Tufts University biology professor George Ellmore describes as "a lava flow of color." Sugar maples and white ashes glow in spectacular reds and purples by generating a pigment called anthocyanin, the same antioxidant found in blueberries and grapes. By contrast, the trees that shout with bright yellows and oranges—such as poplars, birches, and

hickories— change color by shutting down the production of chlorophyll. The absence of that greening agent reveals other pigments that have hidden in the leaves all summer, awaiting their moment of glory.

The show is unparalleled. Crisp, blue-sky days sharpen the colors. And other fall trappings—farm stands piled with apples, frost on Revolutionary War monuments, the glow of the harvest moon over a glassy harbor—evoke the season's place in the region's soul.

New England's rich past comes to life more fully when framed in fall colors. "It's the total package this time of year," said Dick Burroughs, our Boston bus driver, as we began a tour that took us to (among other sights) Harvard, Lexington, Concord, Old Ironsides, America's oldest continuously operating restaurant (the 182-year-old Union Oyster House, where we lunched on fresh scrod), and the houses of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The next morning Pamelia and I biked a leafy three-mile route from the 50-acre Boston Common past the homes of patriots (Paul Revere) and Patriots (Tom Brady), through the campus of MIT, along the Charles River, and finally by that startling T. rex—a huge plaster one outside the Museum of Science.

That we didn't see peak foliage was no big surprise. We were two weeks ahead of the typical mid-October fire show, and having grown up in New England, I knew that autumns could be fickle in the timing and intensity of their flush. Even Canada, which normally guarantees robust colors to fall visitors, was still showing green in early October because of unusually hot weather (paging Al Gore ...).

Not every visitor, however, accepts the vagaries of nature. As we reveled in the rocky coastal beauty of Maine's Acadia National Park the day after leaving Boston, former Chief Ranger Norm Dodge told us of a magazine crew that had come from New York several years earlier for a fall fashion shoot. Unhappy that the leaves hadn't fully turned, the crew had spray-painted them in more "authentic" autumn colors. "That was quite a sight," Dodge said, shaking his head.

It was on the voyage from Massachusetts to Maine that, peering through my binoculars, I lost New Hampshire. It turns out, cruises leave Boston so late in the day that the nation's second most tree-covered state vanishes into the dusk before passengers can get a glimpse of it. To see autumn leaves by cruise ship, in fact, is to redraw the map of New England: New Hampshire (passes unseen in the night), Vermont (landlocked), and Connecticut (blocked from view by Long Island) are gerrymandered out and replaced by ... Canada.

Nothing wrong with that. A flag with a red maple leaf flies over New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, all of which we visited. And if redrawing the map seems a real sea change, well, stand on the shore of the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia and take in the world's most dramatic tidal shift. During our visit, Anna Holdaway, a national park guide on the New Brunswick side, coaxed me into flopping around on the ground to demonstrate tide-driven fish-netting.

Our stop that same day at a lake in Canada's Fundy National Park brought to mind some advice from Ellmore, the Tufts biologist: "The most consistently vivid color is around ponds and lakes—it will burn your retinas with beauty." Another piece of advice rang true as the Symphony swung left into the Gulf of St. Lawrence toward Quebec City and Montreal. "If you cross a mountain range," says Tim Perkins, director of the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center, "you're more assured of hitting spectacular foliage."

It might be a stretch to say that the Symphony crossed mountains, but the Appalachians do, in fact, run right under the Gulf of St. Lawrence on their way from Quebec to Newfoundland. From there, we headed up the St. Lawrence River to 400-year-old Quebec City, which rises impressively on a cliff. The colorful roofs in the old quarter of that charming French city offer a foliage-like show of their own.

When we reached Montreal, some passengers took an excursion to the nearby Laurentian Mountains, but Pamelia and I found leaves right in the city. One beauty was a burnt orange maple leaf sign for a gourmet shop that sold only goods made with maple sugar. Others covered the trees in Jean Drapeau Park, where we visited the Biosphère environmental museum, housed in a 200-foot-high geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 world's fair. Looking out on the just-turning trees through the dome's triangulated steel framework, we could see the Symphony docked in the distance, a sad reminder that our voyage was over. While on board a few days earlier, I'd read something that stuck in my mind: The leaf is an ancient heraldic symbol. It signifies happiness.

Photography by Pamelia Markwood

This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.