Quirky Cruise
May 19, 2018

Chasing Autumn: Fall Foliage Small Ship Cruises

By Ted Scull.

In the northern U.S. and the Canadian-American St. Lawrence River Valley, deciduous trees turn from the mostly green of summer to a dazzling display of yellow, orange, burgundy, scarlet and purple. And fall foliage small ship cruises are an ideal way to get a front row seat for the show.

Fall Foliage Small Ship Cruises

Hudson River Valley at Bear Mountain Bridge

For someone who has lived in the Northeast most of his life, I always look forward to following the daily New York Times reports as October approaches to see how the changing colors are progressing south in my direction. While the mostly “gray” Times uses shades between black and white to show the march, there are websites (see below) using color coding that are prettier, but don’t tell shifting color any more accurately.

If the third week of October 2017 was any indication, the St. Lawrence Valley was near to or at the peak height of color, while downriver (northeast on the map) and the higher altitudes in New York State’s Adirondacks and Catskill are past their peak. The Hudson Valley is still in the first and second stages while New York City, 150 miles south of Albany, is still unaware of what’s happening to the north, a typically provincial attitude. This last year our peak was and usually is the first week of November.

Different trees exhibit different colors: red maples turn greenish-yellow, vibrant scarlet or burgundy; sugar maples yellow, orange and red; white ash to yellow, burgundy and purple; and American sycamore yellow and orange.

The cruise lines position their ships where they think the best shows will take place, and it is hit and miss sometimes, especially if the itineraries are east-west rather than north-south where some portion of the voyage will meet the colors at their best.


Blount Small Ship Cruises

Blount Small Ship Cruises operates the most north-south voyages of our lines with three fall embarkations in New York for Montreal or just the reverse if embarking first in the Canadian port aboard either the 84-passenger Grande Caribe or Grande Mariner. This complex route uses the St. Lawrence River and Seaway, Lake Ontario, Oswego and Erie canals and the Hudson River. Viewing is from the spacious top deck, and the pilot house is lowered to slide under low bridges along the Erie Canal.


Fall Foliage Small Ship Cruises

A Blount ship passing the Montreal skyline.

Why choose this line? For Blount’s complex routes and innovative ship design that allows them to navigate waterways other ships can’t.

Read more about Blount here.


Victory Cruises Lines

Victory Cruises Lines sends two 202-passenger ships, Victory I and the brand-new Victory II, west to east and north-south with three cruises in October. The October 3rd departure operates from Boston to Halifax and on the 10th heads back to Boston (both 7 nights). A third 10-night cruise leaves Toronto on October 16 for Portland, Maine. Acadia National Park, during a call at Bar Harbor, ME is one of the top locations to see the colors from the water and from atop Cadillac Mountain.

Fall Foliage Small Ship Cruises

Victory Cruise Lines – Victory I

Why choose this line?  For the comfort and amenities of a larger small ship.

Read more about Victory Cruise Lines here. 


St. Lawrence Cruise Lines

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines’ 66-passenger Canadian Empress cruises more or less northeast and southwest on a 7-night October 15-22 trip embarking in Kingston for the scenic and wooded 1000 Islands, St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal and return. Passengers have almost the entire top deck to view the spectacle.

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines

Canadian Empress * Photo Credit: Ted Scull

Why choose this line? For the open and spacious top deck.

Read more about St. Lawrence Cruise Lines here. 


Croisieres Jacques Cartier

Croisieres Jacques Cartier, a new Quebecois line, operates mostly the same St. Lawrence route from Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City with continuous 7-night cruises into October aboard the 68-passenger Jacques Cartier. The last departure of the season cruises the Saguenay Fjord for its wonderful fall colors and majestic scenery.

Fall Foliage Small Ship Cruises

A Canadian view in the Province of Quebec

Why choose this line? For a French-flavored onboard vibe.

Read more about Croisieres Jacques Cartier here.


American Cruise Lines

American Cruise Lines provides by far the most fall foliage cruises with no less than three ships based in New York for Hudson River autumn runs along the stunning, and in some sections, deeply wooded valley anchored by stately mansions and lovely scenes celebrated in the Hudson River School of American painting.  The American Star (100 passengers), American Constitution (175 pax) and Independence (100 pax) all operate three cruises each on October 6, 13 and 20th.

Fall Foliage Small Ship Cruises

Thomas Cole, Hudson River School of Painting. Brooklyn Museum

ACL also bases two of its Mississippi riverboats — America (185 pax) and Queen of the Mississippi (149 pax) — on Upper Mississippi cruises in the fall. One operates from St. Paul and sails down river and the other upriver from St. Louis. The best stretch in the autumn is Wabasha, MN to Winona, WI.

Fall Foliage Small Ship Cruises

The woods bordering the Upper Mississippi.

In the Pacific Northwest, ACL sends the American Spirit (100 pax) on 7-nights round trips from Seattle into the island-studded Puget Sound on October 5, 12, 19 and 26.

While the colorful landscapes may be the initial draw, there is so much else to enjoy on these cruises — historic towns; stately mansions, some with notable gardens; and winding foot paths to lookouts above the rivers — all shared by a small continent of fellow passengers.

Why choose this line? They offer the most variety of itineraries.

Read more about ACL here.


More resources

Published by New York State, this fall foliage report lists the best places to see the colors, and has a useful tree leaf color guide.

For the Province of Quebec and the St. Lawrence River Valley, the Official tourist site of the Government of Québec is full of useful info.

Scenic Pathways is packed with tips about the Upper Mississippi, for the stretch between Wabasha and Winona, Minnesota.

The official tourism site for the state of Washington offers great info for visitors to Puget Sound and the Columbia River — technically geared to drivers, the info also applies to small-ship cruises in the same regions. The lines that cruise the Columbia River do not specifically call attention to the fall colors, but in case you are interested they are American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures.


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American and Canadian Waterways, Coastal America, Feature Articles, How to Choose articles, North America

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