For many of us, an hour and a half along New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway fully captures that postcard-perfect fall color experience. But what if you’re willing to invest a week and a half instead? And want to effortlessly glide from stop to stop without ever taking the wheel or worrying about where to eat or stay?
Then the route less traveled (though picking up a lot of steam) might be for you: a fall foliage cruise. New England to Canada itineraries have become one of the hottest tickets in the North American market, selling out premium cabins a year or more in advance.
My wife, Mica, and I took the plunge last October, setting sail from Boston with more than 2,150 other guests aboard Celebrity Summit. Our 11-day itinerary traced Maine’s coast north through the Eastern Canadian provinces known as the Maritimes and along the St. Lawrence River to Quebec. Then back again.
The journey surprised us, and other guests as well. Notably, the hottest September on record delayed fall’s arrival. It wasn’t until the last push toward Quebec on the trip’s northern stretch that the maples revealed themselves in bright golds and reds.
Still, we discovered splashes of color in other places: Green, red, and blue wood houses in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Yellow, orange, and white dahlias in bloom in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A startling red in Rose Hips, an Andrew Wyeth watercolor on loan to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.
Most vivid in our memories remains glorious Quebec, the sights of French architecture and cobblestone streets mingling with colors, scents, and even tastes: a creamy green pea soup, yellow slices of apple layered on a buttery pastry.
Truly a feast for the senses.
The many colors of Quebec
Several of the guests I visited with aboard the ship described this cruise as one of those bucket list journeys they had delayed for years.
“We’ve been wanting to see the turning of the leaves with some dear friends,” said Sandra Chapman of Dallas, traveling with her husband, Charles. “He retired, I retired – we just decided we had to do this. Our timeline is short.”
The Chapman group numbered eight including their friends, and driving sounded unwieldy compared with the cruise option. Such sentiments are lifting Boston’s stature as a fall cruise port.
A Celebrity spokeswoman said demand for the Boston round-trip fall cruise in 2023 aboard Celebrity Summit was so strong that in 2024 the line is deploying a larger vessel, Celebrity Eclipse, with room for nearly 33 percent more passengers.
These fall foliage cruises have become a tourism lifeblood for ports along the route. For example, in 2024, cruise ships are planning 118 stops in Portland, Maine — roughly four times as many as in 2009, with more than triple the passenger counts.
Our itinerary called for two Maine stops, starting with picturesque Rockland and its lovely red-brick downtown. I’m partial to bookstores, and within the space of a few blocks it holds two stellar ones: Hello Hello Books and Arctic Tern Books. The Farnsworth Museum is also home to the Wyeth Center, with artworks by Andrew Wyeth, his father, N.C. Wyeth, and son Jamie.
After a day at sea we arrived at our first Canadian port, Saint John, New Brunswick. There, the funnel-shaped Bay of Fundy conspires with the moon to create the world’s highest tides — as much as 53 feet at the bay’s head.
Saint John is an industrial powerhouse — home to oil refineries and breweries, smokestacks belching nonstop. We escaped a half-hour drive away on a small group photo tour, where guide Lance Timmons coached us on perspective, light, and composition before exposing us to the pretty contours of Mispec Bay.
In Halifax, we strolled the scenic waterfront boardwalk and turned inland to tour the historic Citadel, a preserved fort.
For the approach to Quebec, the cruise’s midpoint, we sat on the veranda and soaked in the views we had awaited — maples in yellows and reds, offset by the oft-white houses. We traced our passage along the St. Lawrence River with an occasional glance at our phone maps, where the village names (St.-Joseph-de-la-Rive, Les Eboulements) reminded us of the essentially French character of the Quebec province. It adopted French as its official language in 1974.
Quebec’s walled historic district, which dates to the 1600s, is simply captivating. With an overnight stop in port, we had nearly 24 hours to explore, starting with an evening stroll past shops and galleries to La Buche for a divine dinner, from a rich onion soup to a tender rack of ribs to a delicate raspberry sponge cake.
The following morning we braved the drizzle for an e-bike cycling tour with guide Yves Trudeau of Tuque & Bicycle Experiences. Trudeau led us along scenic bike paths past parks and neighborhoods, with occasional pauses to share the city’s history.
Best of all was a final stop at the year-round farmers’ market, Le Grand Marche de Quebec. We sampled real maple syrup and fresh cheddar cheese curds, leaving with a trove of sweet treats and sweeter memories.
The draws of lobster and lighthouses
With three full sea days on this voyage, Celebrity Summit served as a destination in itself. The ship debuted in 2001 and was renovated in 2019. At 11 decks and with more than 1,000 crew members, it’s plenty big, but well smaller than some of the behemoths out there.
We liked the intimate lounge and café spaces, and warm service from the international crew, like Amor from Tunisia and Charity from Zimbabwe. To attempt to counterbalance the calorie load from on-board dining options like the Tuscan Grille, while in port we walked and walked.
Perfect for such a purpose is Charlottetown, the capital city of Prince Edward Island. From the elegant brick storefronts of Victoria Row to lovely churches such as Saint Dunstan’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Anglican Church, the downtown is packed with sights and history.
It is also home to an outpost of COWS Creamery, whose outrageously rich ice cream tempted us, as did a lobster roll from one of the local restaurants. So much for shedding calories.
Our last stop before Boston, like our first one, was in Maine. Portland is only a two-hour drive from Boston, so its waterfront and downtown of red brick hardly seem unfamiliar. To gain a different perspective, we saddled up with Lighthouse Bikes for a cycling tour with stops at three lighthouses.
Guide Ross Sneyd explained to us their one inviolable rule — “you’ve gotta have fun” — before squiring us past Portland Breakwater Light (so tiny at 26 feet high that it’s affectionately known as “Bug Light”), the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, and finally the much-photographed Portland Head Light.
The latter lighthouse, Maine’s oldest, dating to 1791, is the highlight of 90-acre Fort Williams Park. On our visit, the park’s birches had just begun to show gold and its maples a few tinges of red.
Yet as the waves crashed and sun slunk toward the horizon, all eyes were drawn to the lighthouse of plain white. Constructed to warn travelers away, it now beckons us, like a welcoming fire on a dark night.