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Sailing North

May 2024
5min read

Thirty years into the era of jet travel it’s still possible to sail a great ocean liner out of New York, once “the greatest and gaudiest of the Atlantic ports,” as John Maxtone-Graham, the chronicler of transatlantic travel, observed.

Most of Europe’s ports were fairly remote from the cities they served, but New York’s gateway was and remains part of the city itself, stretching along the western edge of midtown Manhattan. In the 1920s and 1930s festive midnight sailings gave departing travelers the definitively romantic backdrop of the city’s lit skyscrapers. There were bands and banners and confetti and well-wishers on the pier. A 1920s timetable I own tells me that in the summer months as many as eighteen liners a week left New York for Europe.

The piers aren’t hung with flags any more, and only a few ships visit them —mostly during warmer weather, en route to Canada and Bermuda, with the occasional Atlantic crossing. Still, New York remains an exciting point of departure. Last fall, when I arrived at Pier 55, a five-minute cab ride from my apartment, I was joining 680 passengers on a cruise to New England and Canada aboard the brand-new Royal Viking Sun .

Each cruise line, I was to discover, has its followers, who would no more think of trying another company’s wares than they would of changing their religion. Many on board were veterans of five, eight, or a dozen Royal Viking cruises; “It’s like family,” a Hawaiian man told me. Some passengers had even traveled this exact route before but wanted a chance to sail on the line’s newest baby. The ship shone with brass and crystal, its Scandinavian origins apparent in the design of both its fabrics and furnishings. There were comfortable public rooms with splendid views of the sea, and the kind of cheerful, efficient service that in deed makes one want to come back.

A serene floating hotel is a strong draw for many travelers. For others, being at sea is the lure. Often the best part of an ocean voyage means turning your back to the light and music of the ship to lean on the rail and stare out to sea as the sky unfolds in tints of deepening pink, like the petals of a blooming rose, until the departed sun calls all color back to itself.

It was dark when we sailed past the spires of lower Manhattan; fireworks exploded over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary. The early explorers Giovanni da Verrazano, Jacques Cartier, and especially Samuel de Champlain came readily to mind on this trip, which tended to follow their route. And the ease and luxury of our voyage made theirs appear all the more risky.

By the time Champlain stopped at Cape Cod in 1605, he had been preceded by other adventurers, including the Englishman Bartholomew Gosnold, who named the spit of land in 1602. Champlain charted the safe harbors and the dangerous ones, met with the Indians, and sailed away to the north. English settlement began in earnest only a few years later, and the colonists’ first thoughts of a canal to cut the dangerous seventy-five-mile route around the Cape followed, inspired by an old Indian canoe portage route. In a 1676 diary entry the Sandwich merchant Samuel Sewell wrote, “Mr. Smith … showed me the place where some had thought to cut, for to make a passage from the south sea to the north.”

Despite the good sense of the idea, the canal wasn’t accomplished until 1914, when the eight-mile cut was opened to traffic. Widened and deepened in 1941, just in time to allow wartime supply ships through to Halifax, the waterway we were transiting on a clear Sunday afternoon follows roughly the route Sewell promoted more than three hundred years ago. It is a pleasantly slow progress; the shores are as close as they’ll ever be on this trip, and families gather in backyards to wave the ship on. At the grand finale, best watched from the highest deck, the canal and the sea line up in two silvery strokes and the sandy cliffs near Plymouth rise in the distance.

The next morning, the Sun wove past Maine’s outer islands and anchored in Bar Harbor’s Frenchman Bay, so called in honor of Samuel de Champlain. He came through in 1604 and named Mount Desert Island, not because it appeared parched but because “the summit … is destitute of trees.” Champlain’s first view of this dramatic coast was much like ours: “It is very high, and notched in places, so that there is the appearance to one at sea, as of seven or eight mountains extending along near each other.”

On a bus tour of Acadia National Park, which flows over two-fifths of the island and commands its pink granite heights, we were truly fortunate in our guide, John Spear. A retired submarine commander whose canny humor suggested a Down East Will Rogers, he made entertaining sense of the geology and botany of the island, as all around us the aspen, birch, and maple flamed into color. He gave us a picture of what it was like to grow up in Bar Harbor, the island’s main town, and told the story of the creation of the national park, which is the fourth most visited in the nation.

From Bar Harbor the Sun headed northeast past the Bay of Fundy and along the Nova Scotia coast, with a short visit to Halifax, the provincial capital. Another day at sea brought us into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up the St. Lawrence River until it joined the brooding, fjordlike Saguenay River, where we cruised for a few hours.

In Quebec the ship’s schedule allowed a full twenty-four hours in port. The dock is just a minute’s walk from the heart of Lower Town and is close to the funicular, where a slightly terrifying twenty-eight-second elevator ride brings one to the city that commands a stony cliff 333 feet above.

Cartier stopped here in the winter of 1535–36, but it was left to Champlain to establish the first permanent French colony in North America in Quebec in 1608. “I could find none more convenient or better situated than the point of Quebec, so called by the savages, which was covered with nut-trees. I at once employed a portion of our workmen in cutting them down,” he wrote, with a directness that leaps the years. ”… one I set to sawing boards, another to making a cellar and digging ditches, another I sent to Tadoussac with the barque to get supplies.”

In time Champlain ceased his explorations entirely to govern the struggling Quebec settlement. He died there on Christmas Day 1634, mourned by the entire colony, writes a biographer, “for he had no enemies.”

For today’s visitor Quebec’s layered history of nearly four centuries presents a richness and texture unique to this continent. Imperial schemes and nationalistic furies have seethed along the protecting stone walls and narrow streets and on the batteries and battlefields. Everywhere, monuments and plaques kindle memory.

Louis Joliet is celebrated as the first Quebec-born Canadian to make history. In 1684 the explorer of the Mississippi River built a house that now shelters the lower entrance to the funicular. A typed text pasted up near the turnstile reads: ”… he expressed the wish to settle in Illinois. However, this request was denied by the King, who said, ‘It is imperative that Canada acquire a sizable population before its people are allowed to settle in other regions.’”

The ship anchors in Bar Harbor’s Frenchman Bay, which refers to the explorer Samuel de Champlain, who stopped there in 1604.

Elsewhere, at the crossing of St. Paul and St. Thomas streets, I came upon a plaque dedicated to Benedict Arnold, who helped launch the nearly successful American attack on Quebec in 1775. Not far from here, I read, Arnold was wounded in the leg after having taken the first barricade. Had he managed the second, Quebec and all of Canada might well be American today. And Arnold might have remained an American hero.

The Royal Viking Sun ’s Canadian cruise is a two-week affair that loops back to New York. My hitch ended, after a week, in Montreal, where about a third of the passengers debarked. The poignance of finally crossing the gangplank to land was somewhat eased by a discovery in Eaton’s department store in the heart of the city. There, on the ninth floor and soaring some thirty-five feet high, is a restaurant that opened in 1931 in imitation of the grand dining room on the then supreme liner Ile de France . That vessel is gone, but this loving re-creation has remained virtually unchanged for almost sixty years. As I settled down and opened the menu, I could almost feel the sway of a ship on a gentle sea.

—Carla Davidson

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