Princess' foliage tours peak in New England

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s I waited at Manhattan's Pier 90 to board the Golden Princess for a mid-October foliage cruise of New England and Canada, I detected that one of the two women standing next to me was a little nervous.

The pair had come all the way from San Diego to see a fall spectacle they'd only glimpsed in magazines and movies, they said.

Was their timing right? Or was it too late? Too early?

The fall foliage window is quite wide for cruises operating between New York and Montreal, explained this veteran of autumns in New York.

Canada, along the St. Lawrence River, peaks about two to three weeks earlier than coastal New England, and the New York region is another week behind. I assured them that good color should appear at one end of the cruise or the other.

So it was with great anticipation that we began our journey northward into New England and Maritime Canada, 2,600 passengers, leaf-peepers all, lured by the glorious palette of fall.

Princess Cruises' fall foliage offerings are something of a seasonal specialty. The line offers about a dozen cruises this year, in September and October. This year, the Grand Princess will substitute for the identical Golden Princess on its seven-day cruises, and the smaller Regal Princess on 10-day itineraries. The line also offers three cruise-tours in conjunction with the cruises.

Our cruise on the Golden Princess offered two relaxing days at sea and five ports calls in five days.

We arrived in Halifax on the second morning. The ship's pier is within walking distance of the city center, the active waterfront and the lovely Public Gardens.

On our cruise, a severe wind storm two weeks earlier had done considerable damage to the trees, but less so up and down the coast at Peggys Cove or historic and hilly Lunenburg.

Both outings are highly scenic, although the woods are not of New England standards in terms of color-rich oaks, maples, elms and birch.

On previous occasions, rather than having to kowtow to a motorcoach schedule, I rented a car, which allows for spontaneous photography stops.

At Saint John, New Brunswick, the best tours fan out into the countryside. I chose the 90-minute trip to St. Andrews.

The drive revealed few fall colors until we reached town. First planned as a French-speaking settlement, St. Andrews has developed into a residential and hotel resort anchored by the venerable turn-of-the-last-century Algonquin Hotel, built by the mighty Canadian Pacific Railway and now part of the Fairmont chain.

Unfortunately, the advertised tea and scones took place in an entertainment hall rather than the historic main building.

But the residential streets, with a variety of trees introduced over the last 100 years, were awash with displays of reds, yellows, oranges and lingering greens, making for a most pleasant hourlong stroll.

Docking at Halifax and Saint John provided easy disembarkation. Tour participants gathered in designated public rooms, received bus number assignments and an escort off the ship.

Tendering at Bar Harbor, Maine, took longer, and while well organized, about 45 minutes elapsed between the time we entered the assembly room and the start of the tour.

Bar Harbor provided the best autumn foliage on our cruise, as nearby Mount Desert Island is almost completely forested and the towns have specifically planted deciduous trees exhibiting excellent color.

Some passengers went cycling and came back both exercised and happy with the leaf attractions.

I took a tour that included the towns of Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor and Somesville and a drive up Cadillac Mountain, which rises out of Acadia National Park. The 360-degree views included swatches of vibrant color among the otherwise evergreen forest.

The tour's lobster lunch at the Asticou Inn produced roughly 150 perfectly prepared specimens, and I, who steam Maine lobster at home, could reassure my Midwestern tablemates that they were getting the best of the real thing, plus tasty clam chowder, potato salad, corn on the cob and fresh blueberry pie.

During the call at Boston, the Beacon Hill neighborhood, foliage in Boston Common and the Public Garden had not yet peaked, but some passengers reported good colors outside the city in the historic towns of Concord, Lexington, Marblehead and Salem.

Farther south, Newport, R.I., had yet to reach its peak, but the resort city's diversions are plentiful whether on tour or on foot.

Active walkers will find the historic district just in from the tender's landing point, and Bellevue Avenue's open-to-view mansions and the seaside Cliff Walk make for a great day's outing.

Near the end of the week's cruise, the two women I had met on the pier in New York told me the delights of the countryside and colors had exceeded their expectations.

And two weeks later, the trees along New York's Hudson River reached their full display, a spectacle ready and waiting for those who purchased a post-cruise package.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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