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Victory at sea

My partner and I are big fans of Montreal. “So what are we doing here?” he asked. “Here” was the deck of Holland America’s Veendam, as we prepared to set sail on the line’s St. Lawrence Seaway cruise.

I remember staring at the many layers of Habitat 67, the iconic waterfront apartment building, thinking they were a metaphor for my partner’s feelings on the eve of his first-ever cruise. He wanted to visit the sites awaiting us over the next seven days, including the old Quebec City and Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia.

 

But he wasn’t sure how he’d do on a “floating hotel,” confined with strangers on the sometimes open waters of the Atlantic.

It was precisely with his misgivings in mind that I suggested Phil’s introduction to cruising be mostly on placid inland waters and then those hugging the coast once we reached the ocean.

His remaining concern—one we both shared as gay travellers on an overwhelmingly straight passenger list—was how we might fit in. We’d heard reassuring words from both the line’s publicity department and from friends and acquaintances who favoured mainstream voyages to the strictly gay variety. But as we looked about, we were hard pressed to see other same-sex pairs. (Had leaving dry land rendered our gaydar inoperable?) As the mighty horn of the majestic ship sounded, signalling our imminent departure, I wondered about the uncharted waters into which my guy and I were sailing.

Happily, I didn’t let my anxiousness cloud the views of Montreal at dusk passing by at eye level. As the vessel picked up steam, the city faded into a distant twinkle. The blackness outdoors forced us to look inside. The happy, anticipatory sounds of a thousand conversations, with live background music provided by an unseen jazz pianist, lightened our hearts. We walked idly about this floating city, just two more revellers in a sea of them.

As we docked early the next morning in Quebec City, we quickly finished our hearty breakfast on the Lido deck so we could get in as much time ashore as possible. We ambled along the narrow pedestrian-friendly streets of the old city just as the shopkeepers were unlocking doors and flipping light switches for the day.

After an hour or so, we happened upon the charming Le Lapin Sauté and slipped inside for an early lunch of rabbit-and-mushroom pie with fruit chutney. We felt like part of the extended family that seemed to people the country-style setting of this 32-seat gem.

By now, the Museum of Civilization, just steps from the docks, had opened, and we took in its well-edited collection of artifacts from around the world. Its displays on fishing and hunting made a good primer for the

St. Lawrence trip we’d begun.

Back on the ship, we dressed for dinner. Although we just about live in jeans, it was a nice throwback to dine where jackets were expected, if not necessarily required. The Veendam’s dining options are more than generous, led by the sprawling main dining room, where the buzz created by scores of diners becomes its own background music. Though hundreds of meals are prepared and served simultaneously, you wouldn’t know it by the flavourful entrées and personalized service. Phil preferred the ship’s smaller restaurants; I liked the endless people-watching this arena-sized venue provided.

As seasoned cruisers know, there are usually more activities per hour than anyone could hope to take in.

That night, I sifted through the possibilities in the ship’s newsletter and settled on a game of Name That Tune. (Phil chose the solitude of the handsome library.) I struck up a conversation with the woman seated beside me, Jaye, whose companion, Cat, had also opted out of socializing for the day. Within minutes, we were discussing the similarities between our partners—and sharing laughs about how the newsletter had billed the next evening’s LGBT gathering: Friends of Dorothy. (Given the long-standing affection for Judy Garland among many gays, the term refers to the singer’s character in The Wizard of Oz. In the bad old days, it was code for homosexuality; its use today feels like a nod to gays of a certain age.)

There were no ports of call the next 24 hours or so, and, looking back, that full day on the water was one of my favourites. We could peruse the ship’s many attractions at our leisure. The shopping was like a mini-version of Toronto’s Yorkville, with art galleries and the wares of fine jewellers shimmering in display windows. The abundance of onboard activity helped me make good on my promise to first-timer Phil that he’d never be bored. The offerings included everything from lectures about the history of the region through which we were sailing to cooking demonstrations. We found comfortable seats for the latter, as my chef-partner never tires of things having to do with the kitchen.

As the journey’s sole day of non-stop sailing wrapped up, we were looking forward to seeing what the turnout might be at the LGBT-specific gathering, one of two during the cruise. Alas, just a handful of gay passengers appeared at the designated section of one of the bars. Fortunately, Jaye and girlfriend Cat showed, as promised. Phil and I became fast friends with the couple, and it was the first of several “dates” we had the rest of the week.

Our next stop, on Day Three, was Charlottetown, P.E.I. It was good to walk on land again, and our morning excursion allowed for plenty of exercise. We strolled the rolling grounds outside the Green Gables House. Yes, that’s the home at the heart of the novel about a country girl wise beyond her years. The community of Cavendish inspired author L.M. Montgomery to write Anne of Green Gables, and readers will recognize familiar things amid the simply furnished rooms of the old farmhouse.

There are several seafood restaurants nearby, including the homey Sutherland’s and Rachael’s. Most tend to be pretty touristic, but there’s something endearing about the lively crowds chattering about their fresh fish and the joy in seeing this treasured patch of Canada.

The lunch crowd was a distant memory when, that night, we dined in the ship’s luxurious Pinnacle Grill.

The menu had been created with the chef of New York’s famed Le Cirque. The grill’s intimate space makes it a winner for romantic dinners, and foodies will be pleasantly surprised by such delectable offerings as a trio of caviar, smoked salmon and pâté de foie gras, as well as a tangy three-cheese ravioli. (Be sure to make reservations.)

On our next stop, Sydney, N.S., we were greeted at the docks by a giant sculpted fiddle. It’s a nod to the area’s Celtic culture, proudly celebrated by the musicians who played that afternoon as the ship sailed away. Earlier, we’d enjoyed being our own tour guides, aimlessly wandering Sydney’s quiet streets. For the more ambitious, there are tours of Fortress Louisbourg, a reconstructed 18th-century fortified French town, or drives along the famously scenic Cabot Trail.

Quaint Sydney made the next day’s stop, Halifax, seem like even more of a city than it is. We took to its parks and youthful energy, and felt at home when we saw the large LGBT selection at a downtown bookstore. At this port of call, visitors catch the tour bus to Peggy’s Cove. As its rock formations and red-domed lighthouse came into view, I could see why people speak of it in almost reverential tones.

Nature rules: the fickle sea might unleash a surprise spray as you make your way toward the nearly century-old lighthouse, the focal point of this lost-in-time fishing village.

That evening, the Veendam hosted a second “Friends of Dorothy” gathering. Our new besties, Jaye and Cat, were there, as well as a handful of male couples. We noticed a few fellows sitting on the fringes, as if reluctant to be identified with an LGBT group. The sight left the four of us with a twinge of sadness to be reminded that such anxieties still, in fact, exist.

In the town of Bar Harbor, the next day’s stop, we took in the pristine streets of its commercial core. While in town, make time for the waterfront path that gives you up-close views of the mansions in this old-money community. Acadian National Park is also not to be missed: you can book a trip on your ship or buy tickets yourself for a tour that originates in downtown Bar Harbor. The day our open-air bus reached the park’s higher elevations—Cadillac Mountain soars to 1,530 feet—we encountered fog that left us feeling we’d reached the clouds.

At a dance that last night aboard ship, we watched couple after couple take to the dance floor, many displaying the agility that comes with decades of kicking up their heels together. While Phil and I like to dance—well, I do—we were unsure about being the only same-sex couple on the floor. That didn’t stop Jaye and Cat, who raised nary an eyebrow among the mostly straight revellers when they slow-danced as the Veendam sailed to its final destination.

As we gathered our bags the next morning in Boston, we reflected on the journey we’d just taken. We would miss our morning walks on the ship’s teak deck; the civility of afternoon tea following a day of touring; the unfailing friendliness and helpfulness of the crew; the luxury of visiting several destinations without ever having to pack or unpack a single bag.

But had I converted my partner? Would we be booking passage on another ship anytime soon? Well, these days when I suggest a cruise for our next vacation, Phil no longer changes the subject. I’ll take that as progress.

For information: www.hollandamerica.com.

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