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Orca off Vancouver Island

Cruises in Canada

Orca off Vancouver Island

Canada boasts the world’s longest coastline, so it’s no surprise that a cruise can be one of the most rewarding and enlightening ways to experience the country. Our Canada team have shared the routes, ships, and experiences they think work best as part of a wider trip.

You could soak in the maritime history and European-influenced cultures of the eastern provinces, explore the coastal rainforests, unparalleled wildlife, and First Nations culture of British Columbia, or venture on an epic expedition through the Northwest Passage as you follow in the footsteps of some of the world’s best-known early explorers.

Cruising Canada’s Northwest Passage

By Canada specialist Tom

Baffin Island as seen on route through the Northwest Passage
Baffin Island as seen on route through the Northwest Passage

I‘d waited years to venture to the Northwest Passage, and my cruise aboard the Ocean Endeavour didn’t disappoint. I found myself waking in anticipation of what each day would bring. Glaciers? Narwhals? The northern lights? All of the above?

This is a cruise of a lifetime, in my eyes. Following in the footsteps of early explorers like Sir John Franklin, you sail along Greenland’s barely inhabited coast, navigating narrow stretches of water few others ever reach and pausing at tiny towns where brightly painted houses cluster together around glassy fjords.

There are a few ways of cruising the Northwest Passage, but I recommend this 16-night journey between Kangerlussuaq, Greenland and Kugluktuk, Nunavut, which gives you a good mix of experiences. Your journey begins by flying from Toronto (it’s worth exploring the city a little first) to Kangerlussuaq, where you’ll board your ship.

Smaller than many cruise ships, the Ocean Endeavour is built for expeditions, with cabins for up to 199 passengers and 124 crew. Its ice-strengthened hull means it can crunch through icy stretches, and it carries 20 Zodiac boats that let you explore the shoreline more closely. There’s also a gym, sauna, saltwater pool, cafe, and restaurant on board, so you’ll travel in comfort, while experts often give lectures about the region’s history, geology, and wildlife in the evenings.

You stop regularly to hike through remote landscapes and visit remote towns and villages. This gives you a chance to explore Inuit culture and learn what life is like in such far-flung outposts. Locals demonstrated their throat singing skills and I watched a dance that involved men competing against each other to see who could kick the highest. I also visited a market, where people sold everything from fur-lined mittens to local artwork.

Ocean Endeavour , Adventure Canada
Ocean Endeavour
The Compass Club on the Ocean Endeavour
The Compass Club on the Ocean Endeavour

One of the towns I most enjoyed visiting was Ilulissat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits on a fjord that’s home to one of the most active iceberg-forming glaciers in the world — you can see the icebergs on foot with a guide or by Zodiac to appreciate their size.

Another highlight of the trip was our stop at Beechey Island, a windswept, barren scrap of land where three members of the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition are buried, along with one of the men who went looking for them. You can visit their modest graves, marked with wood and bronze placards.

You can also see the camp where they spent the winter of 1845-1846, and Northumberland House, which was used as a supply depot in case the crew returned to the island. It’s a good idea to read up on the expedition before you visit so you can fully appreciate what you’re seeing.

While this isn’t a wildlife-focused cruise per se, throughout the voyage you have a chance of spotting whales, narwhals, seals, walruses, and many sea birds. And, if you get lucky like I did, you might encounter a polar bear — we saw a pregnant female while out hiking, way in the distance (though we didn’t hang around).

At night, your gaze turns skyward as you wait to see if the northern lights show. It’s by no means guaranteed, but I was treated to the natural light show most evenings — seeing the wavering ribbons of neon-green and streaks of pinky-purple hovering above the still, white-specked water is something I hope never fades in my memory.

Best time to cruise the Northwest Passage

Expedition cruises operate between June and September, though July and August give you the best, least-icy conditions. I also like September, when autumn turns the tundra shades of purple, orange, and yellow.

A cruise around eastern Canada & New England

By Canada specialist Matt

Québec City
Québec City

There’s arguably no better way to explore Canada’s maritime provinces than by taking to the seas yourself, hopping between fishing villages, historic ports, and natural beauty spots studded with lighthouses. Many settlements here have changed little over the years, so you’ll get a taste for what rural coastal life was like centuries ago, and the chance to learn more about the region’s European and Indigenous heritage.

The cruise I recommend actually takes you along the eastern coasts of both Canada and the US, voyaging between Boston and Montréal. I suggest spending a couple of days exploring some of Boston’s key sights ahead of your cruise. The best way to do this is on a guided walk along the Freedom Trail, which passes 16 locations that help tell the story of the United States’ history.

You’ll sail aboard the MS Zaandam, an elegant 1,432-passenger ship with music-inspired decor (complete with guitars signed by the likes of Queen and the Rolling Stones). When you’re not off exploring, you can enjoy cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, and spa treatments, as well as live concerts and film screenings in the evenings.

Your other US stop is at Bar Harbor, a sleepy, quintessential New England town on Maine’s coast, surrounded by the forests and mountains of Acadia National Park (as you can imagine, the scenery’s particularly beguiling during autumn). You could go whale watching from here, take a horse-drawn carriage ride to soak in the natural views, or indulge in a lobster bake.

You then pass into Canadian waters, docking in at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Steeped in history, this is where many people immigrating to Canada would’ve first arrived into the country during the early-to-mid-20th century. Find out more with a visit to the Canadian Museum of Immigration, or see memorabilia from the Titanic at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. There’s also military history to explore with a visit to Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, a star-shaped fort that’s watched over the city since the 19th century.

Verandah suite, MS Zaandam
The Verandah Suite on the MS Zaandam
Lighthouse, Prince Edward Island
Lighthouse, Prince Edward Island

Over on Nova Scotia’s east coast, you’ll pause at Cape Breton Island, visiting the town of Sydney and its mining museum and learning about the culture and traditions of the Indigenous Mi’kmaq people at Membertou Heritage Park.

You then sail across to Prince Edward Island, where you’ll have the chance to wander around Charlottetown. This leafy, compact city is the unlikely location where, in 1864, colony leaders come together to form the unified nation we know today. You can see Province House, where the meeting took place, as well as sights like the neo-Gothic Saint-Dunstan’s Basilica and Beaconsfield Historic House.

After sailing through the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, looking out for huge right whales and all manner of seabirds, you’ll arrive in Québec City. Guides can lead you through the cobbled streets while telling you about the history of the only walled city in North America. You can also hop between art galleries and follow the boardwalk above the glittering Saint Lawrence River.

The next day, you’ll disembark in Montréal — but don’t go straight home. Instead, I recommend spending time browsing the shops and galleries, trying out some of the city’s many fine restaurants, and taking a guided walking tour for local insights into Montréal’s past and present. You could also cruise along the Saint Lawrence River or stroll through the botanical gardens.

Best time to cruise eastern Canada

You’re able to do this voyage between May and September. I particularly like September, when you can appreciate the early autumn foliage begin to turn deep orange, crimson, and yellow.

Intimate cruises along British Columbia’s coast

By James, from our Canada team

Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island

For me, the joy of cruising is all about the adventure — the chance to explore remote, tucked-away corners and really get to know a place. If you’re the same, I recommend sailing aboard a smaller vessel, like a yacht, sailboat, or catamaran, on an intimate expedition along the island-dotted coast of British Columbia.

Depending on the cruise you choose, you could spend between 5 and 11 days focusing in on a specific area of this wild coastline. You might opt to explore the Great Bear Rainforest, navigating narrow inlets where black, grizzly, and spirit (Kermode) bears forage along the shoreline and otters twirl on the water’s surface. Or, venture to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago where the First Nation Haida culture is still strong and you can walk among abandoned villages and weathered totem poles.

There’s also the option to ply the waters around northern Vancouver Island, searching for wildlife like orcas, humpbacks, and bald eagles around the Johnstone Strait. You’ll call in at old Kwakwaka’wakw villages to learn about the First Nation’s history and traditions, and take strolls on near-empty beaches — I even saw some wolf tracks in the sand.

Maple Leaf, Bella Bella
The schooner Maple Leaf
Totem poles on Haida Gwaii
Totem poles on Haida Gwaii

And you don’t just stay on deck — guides can lead you out in kayaks or Zodiacs and take you on hikes in pockets of wilderness few others reach. They’ll share information about everything from the flora and fauna you’re seeing to the geology, history, and the mix of cultures rooted in the region.

There are several vessels to choose from, ranging from the MV Swell, a characterful converted tugboat with six en-suite cabins, to the Maple Leaf, a classic schooner with five dazzling-white sails and more traditional bunk-bed lodgings. None have more than 24 passengers on board, so your journey feels personal. I sailed aboard the Cascadia, a luxurious 12-cabin catamaran complete with a top-deck hot tub.

Whichever vessel you choose, you’ll be accompanied by a small number of crew, including a captain, a skipper, and a chef. I liked how everyone came together to share meals around the table each night. You might also have occasional lectures in the evening that help to shine a light on the region.

Best time for a cruise in British Columbia

You can cruise here between May and early October. September is the best time to see bears gathering along the rivers during the salmon run.

Start planning your Canada cruise

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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