HALIFAX - Taking a cruise along Canada's East Coast is more bagpipes than bongos, more rust-coloured leaves than green palm trees, more icy blue ocean than warm aqua sea.
It's more pale ale than pina colada.
But those working in the region's burgeoning cruise ship industry say setting sail in the North Atlantic offers a first-rate experience that will captivate even the most seasoned tropical cruiser.
"The unique appeal for our region is that every port on those itineraries is so distinct from one another," says Corryn Morrissey, chairwoman of the Atlantic Canada Cruise Association, which works to promote the industry.
"In a sense, it's nicer than going to the Caribbean where maybe at every port they're going to offer swimming with dolphins or snorkelling. Here you come and you get to experience such a different and unique culture at every port."
From May until the end of October, dozens of gleaming liners drop their anchors in Atlantic Canadian ports after picking up passengers, often in New York City or Boston. Depending on the length of the cruise, the round trip can also include a stop in Montreal or another Quebec port.
Morrissey says one of the most popular destinations is Halifax — Atlantic Canada's largest city. This year alone, some 240,000 passengers on more than 100 ships arrived in the Nova Scotia capital.
Passengers first step foot in Halifax not far from Pier 21, a National Historic Site that served as the gateway for one million immigrants to Canada between 1928 and 1971.
The city's bustling boardwalk, which stretches more than four kilometres long, is packed with restaurants and pubs. Opportunities abound to set sail on a tall ship, watch for whales, snap a photo of the iconic lighthouse at Peggy's Cove, or sample lobster in Lunenburg — home of the Bluenose II.
Then there is Halifax's connection to arguably the world's most famous ship: Titanic. The city is the final resting place for 150 of the ship's victims.
From the biggest city on the East Coast to Canada's smallest province, history greets passengers who dock in Charlottetown. The pretty P.E.I. city is the birthplace of Confederation, where politicians met in September 1864 to discuss the union of Britain's North American colonies.
The downtown core offers no shortage of boutiques, ice cream shops and restaurants serving up famous Island mussels. Offshore excursions give passengers the chance to go oyster fishing, see the unique red sandstone cliffs of the north shore, or visit the Anne of Green Gables homestead made famous in Lucy Maud Montgomery's beloved tale.
In Corner Brook, N.L., passengers are in for a down-to-earth welcome that includes homestyle church dinners cooked by locals. Biking, hiking and sea kayaking are offered in nearby Gros Morne National Park, where towering cliffs meet the crashing ocean.
The highest tides in the world await passengers in Saint John, N.B., located at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. Morrissey says the city — a charming mix of old and new — is another favourite among passengers, who often flock to the Saint John City Market, which touts itself as the oldest continuing farmer's market in Canada.
The city has enjoyed so much success that the provincial government plans to launch a study next year to examine whether Saint John could become a home port for cruise ships, which would put more revenue in the pockets of local hotels, restaurants, tour operators and other businesses.
"Certainly attracting people to come here and get on a cruise ship is what we really have to focus on," says Tourism Minister Trevor Holder. "I believe it's an untapped opportunity and we need to be able to position ourselves here in Saint John and New Brunswick to do just that."
The Atlantic Canada Cruise Association is still waiting on final numbers but all indications are that 2012 was a record-breaking year with an estimated 648,000 cruise ship passengers and a projected $91.9-million direct economic impact for the region, says Morrissey.
By comparison, the region welcomed some 593,000 passengers last year. The economic impact was about $82.4 million. Morrissey says the numbers are significant, considering passengers are only in any given port for about eight hours.
The association is in the middle of a new study looking at the economic impact from cruise visits, but Morrissey says figures from 2009 show the average passenger spends about $75 a day off the ship on food, drink and souvenirs. Offshore excursions are extra, costing anywhere between $30 per person to over $100.
The cost of the cruise itself depends on the line, the length of the voyage and onboard upgrades. A seven-day trip from New York City with stops in New England, Halifax and Saint John, N.B., is listed on Princess Cruises' website as starting at about $1,568.40 per passenger, for example.
There are already more than two dozen cruise lines that have included the East Coast on their itineraries. This past summer, Halifax and Saint John saw the arrival of the Disney Cruise Line for the very first time in the region.
"Having a brand like Disney sail their ships into your harbour speaks volumes of the efforts that have gone into building the cruise market," says Morrissey.
And individual ports say they expect growth of the industry to continue.
St. John's, N.L., isn't included on most New England-Canada cruises because its location means the addition of several days on the average itinerary. This year, 15 ships and about 20,000 passengers arrived in the vibrant city.
Now officials are working to build on the number of trans-Atlantic cruise ships that visit the port.
Mayor Dennis O'Keefe, who serves as chairman of Cruise St. John's and Cruise Newfoundland and Labrador, says success lies in the branding.
"For us to increase our traffic, it's going to be a combination of itinerary development and positioning ourselves as the gateway to the Arctic, much like Seattle and Vancouver are gateways to Alaska," says O'Keefe. "We feel strongly that that's going to be a future destination."
Morrissey says the cruise ship industry has been steadily growing in the region, and there's no doubt the East Coast can continue to build on its achievements by upgrading ports and offering new experiences.
She says Atlantic Canada has already successfully promoted itself as an ideal fall destination, but now is the time to tap into the spring and summer market.
Any growth in the region's cruise ship industry is good for the entire tourism sector, she notes.
"It's like sampling the destinations, taste-testing," says Morrissey. "We hear from passengers all the time, 'We love it here, we'll come back when we have more time to spend.'"
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