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Originally published Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 7:00 PM

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Cruising into history and small-town fun in Eastern Canada

Cruising along the St. Lawrence River and to Quebec islands.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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“Dancez avec moi?” inquired a jolly gentlemen as I step off the gangplank in Tadoussac, a little port at the confluence of the St. Lawrence estuary and the Saguenay Fjord in Quebec. He took my hands with a big grin and pulled me into his small circle of companions, a group of actors hired to greet cruise visitors.

Why not? With fiddlers nearby sawing away at their strings, smiling women dressed in old-fashioned period garb clapping their hands in time to the music and giggling children leaning over an ice-laden, makeshift table twirling sticks of maple syrup into hardened candy, I figure a refusal would be downright unfriendly.

I was sailing along Canada’s eastern coastline aboard La Compagnie du Ponant’s Le Boreal, a 264-passenger luxury ship sailing from Quebec City, around the Gaspé Peninsula and down to Boston. On this route the ship’s size matters. Le Boreal, 466 feet long, can dip in and out of picturesque fishing villages and shallow ports otherwise inaccessible to larger ships.

Touted as a fall-foliage tour, our cruise could also have been called “In Search of the Northwest Passage” or “Eastern Canada’s Remarkable Wildlife.” In truth, it was all of these things.

Onboard historians painted a picture of early explorer Jacques Cartier’s search for the elusive Northwest Passage. And this vast region abounds with both land and marine wildlife.

Some of my fellow passengers were dapper French tourists, bound together in search of a common history and some of the most stunning vistas in North America. This is because La Compagnie du Ponant ( is well known in Europe for its appealing routes and subdued elegance.

Along the river

Le Boreal cruised along the mighty St. Lawrence River toward the Saguenay fjord, dropping anchor in the village of Tadoussac where I found my hearty welcome. The town, once France’s first trading post on the mainland of “New France,” is still the fjord’s doorkeeper and as such is a hub of tourism for the estuary area.

Where the fjord and St. Lawrence meet is a nutrient-rich environment for several whale species — fin, mink, belugas and blue whales — as well as harbor porpoises. Visitors go on whale-watching boat excursions or take quiet walks in the forest edging the fjord.

A stroll around town accompanied by an afternoon snack of tasty poutine — a quintessential Quebecois dish of French fries smothered in gravy — rounded out the day nicely.

Evenings are quiet aboard the ship with most guests in their staterooms by 9 p.m. I headed to the panoramic Observatory Lounge with its svelte white bar chairs and panoramic views and tucked into a Drink of the Day for kicks.

Ports come and go, but the Illes de Madeleine (called the Madeline or Magdalen islands in English), a string of six islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, were among the most memorable.

By the time we dropped anchor at Madeline island, even in the bright sunshine of a September morning, there was a chill in the air. And the scanty population — only 13,000 Acadians — tells a story of winters that are too long and too cold on the windswept, rolling landscape.

The Acadians, though, are survivors. By 1875, when the islands’ timber was all logged and exported, fishing became the islanders’ primary livelihood. Today, lobster fishing and, increasingly, tourism (bird-watchers come to spot nearly 200 bird species) that sustain islanders.

Not all ports on our itinerary pulled out the stops like Tadoussac, but each had its allure. Lunenburg, Nova Scotia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose rows of centuries-old red, blue and yellow buildings stand like soldiers guarding the historic British colonial settlement.

Fishing, shipbuilding and social life revolved around some of the richest stocks of both fish and fur — including the now fished-out walrus — in the heyday of these towns in the 18th and 19th centuries.

With fellow passengers I wandered the orderly, parallel streets and visited the historic Knaut-Rhuland Museum with its authentic period garb and reproduction rooms. A knitter, I headed to little shops selling handmade, heavy woolens for the long, cold winters of this picturesque corner of Canada.

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