The Down East Circle Route rewards cruisers with spectacular scenery, fine food and friendly locals
Cruising amid majestic scenery, foreign cultures, friendly locals and abundant wildlife: That’s how Chuck and Andrea Wistar sum up the Down East Circle Route. The Annapolis, Md., couple spent 90 summer days cruising the 2,400-mile circuit around New England and the Canadian Maritimes aboard their Selene 53, Celebrate.
The Down East Circle Route heads up the Hudson River from New York City, through the Erie and Oswego canals to Lake Ontario, then down the St. Lawrence River through the Thousand Islands to Montreal and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cruisers coast-hop around the Gaspé Peninsula and thread the Northumberland Strait between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island to Nova Scotia. The final leg follows Nova Scotia’s southeastern shore and the Maine coast to southern New England and back to the Big Apple.
Dozens of cruisers, many in trawlers, spend one or more seasons following the circle and its variations, including the Champlain and Rideau canals, Bras d’Or Lakes, Magdalen, Miquelon and St. Pierre islands and Newfoundland waters. “If you leave New York in early June you’ll cruise north as summer progresses, go with the [considerable] St. Lawrence River current and cruise Nova Scotia and Maine in August and September with the most favorable winds and least fog,” says Capt. Cheryl Barr, 47, a Nova Scotia native, longtime cruiser, marine biologist and holder of a Yachtmaster certificate from England’s Royal Yacht Academy.
After extensively cruising the area, she published guides that most cruisers consider bibles: “A Complete Cruising Guide to the Down East Circle Route” (second edition) and “Cruising Guide to the Canadian Maritimes” (Yacht Pilot Publishing, www.yachtpilot.ca). Barr recommends transiting the Erie Canal rather than the somewhat shorter route via the Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River. “It’s fun,” she says. “Many towns offer free dockage, water depths and bridge clearances are higher, and you cruise the Thousand Islands and Montreal.”
The Wistars found that preparation, care, humor and a sense of adventure solved their pre-trip jitters and eased their 2004 voyage. They cleared into Canada at Kingston, at the St. Lawrence River’s headwaters. “Immediately we found ourselves in a foreign culture, which was very exciting and fun,” says Chuck Wistar, president of Selene Annapolis Yachts, who was 61 during the voyage. “We were delighted with the extremely warm welcome we received everywhere, even in small villages when we couldn’t speak or understand a word of French.”
Bill and Judy Rohde of Bayfield, Wis., aboard their Tayana 42, Jubilee, sailed the St. Lawrence River while “reading Phil Jenkins’ fascinating historical account, ‘River Song,’ ” Rohde writes in his blog (www.jubilee.typepad.com). “In the Thousand Islands, seemingly every rock had one or more homes, from tiny cottages to immense mansions.” The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, N.Y., “brought alive the tales of intrigue and rum-running that permeate these 1,800 islands.”
Cruisers and commercial vessels share the St. Lawrence Seaway’s seven gravity-fed locks, which drop boats 420 feet from Troy, N.Y., to Montreal. “We rely on Capt. Cheryl Barr’s outstanding book, ‘Down East Circle Route,’ which provides details like how to rig lines in the locks and don’t depend on the locks’ credit card machines,” Rohde writes.
Montreal, the historic and charming “Paris of North America,” captivated the Wistars with “numerous parks, bike paths, too many good restaurants and all the world’s finest shops.” Adds Wistar: “It’s good to get off the boat and immerse in the local color, to say nothing of the benefits to your heart and waistline.”
The Rohdes recall their first view of Quebec City — La Citadelle and Le Chateau Frontenac hotel high above the narrow, winding streets.
Douglas Klassen and Capt. Linda Bialecki, of New York City, tarried nine days at Vieux Port de Quebec Marina (downtown, behind its own lock) in this “absolutely fabulously preserved 400-year-old walled city,” Klassen says. “Part of the joy was making friends with locals. And the two Relais & Châteaux restaurants are equivalent to any in Paris or New York, though not for the fainthearted of pocketbook.”
They recall the lower St. Lawrence River’s spectacular scenery, superb whale- and wildlife-watching, and tiny French villages, each with its white church and downtown marina. Cruising aboard their Krogen Express 53, Aries Too, they joined cruisers from all over the world anchored in the Saguenay River’s Baie Eternite, where the fjord’s majestic cliffs rise 1,000 feet.
The Down East Circle Route’s northernmost point lies near a series of spectacular cliffs dropping almost straight down to the water, punctuated by cascading waterfalls. Klassen considers 290-foot Perce Rock and Bonaventure Island — home to 250,000 nesting seabirds — “absolute musts for physical beauty and bird-watching.” Barr likens hiking to Bonaventure Island’s cliff-side rookery to “walking through the pages of National Geographic.” To the Wistars, “it was noisy and a bit whiffy, but fascinating.”
Beyond the Gaspé Peninsula, Northumberland Strait’s unexpectedly warm waters access Prince Edward Island, the setting for “Anne of Green Gables.” The extraordinary nightly public suppers at St. Anne’s Church feature “seafood chowder, mussels, salad, a whole lobster with vegetables, choice of dessert and coffee,” Rohde writes.
After transiting the Canso Canal, cruisers navigate Nova Scotia’s craggy, remote northeastern coast, then head south to bustling Halifax, charming island-dotted Mahone Bay and picture-postcard Lunenburg. Some cruisers, including Klassen and the Rohdes, first cruise the Bras d’Or Lakes, Cape Breton Island’s idyllic inland waters.
From Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, cruisers can head directly to Bar Harbor or Portland, Maine, or cross the Bay of Fundy and then coast-hop south. The circle’s final leg traverses New England waters to New York City.
“Our actual experiences trumped our early apprehensions,” Wistar says. “The Down East Circle Route was an achievement, a test of, but not necessarily a challenge to, our spirit of adventure and discovery as well as our self-sufficiency and independence. Without hesitation we recommend this adventure to any serious cruisers who yearn to get off the beaten path.”
The Wistars posted some of their experiences on the Selene owners website (www.seleneowners.org). Click on “news,” then look in “Archived Articles.”
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This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.