Where charm is always in style

Colin Nicholson takes a stately meander along the great St Lawrence River on a rebuilt steamer.

European river cruises sometimes appear to have a monopoly on castles and history but beautiful, 400-year-old Quebec City is the only fortified city in North America. Its name comes from the Native American Algonquin word for "where the river narrows" and we decided to take a river cruise up the St Lawrence to visit the major cities of Canada's French-speaking province: Quebec - home to a charming mix of North American frontier spirit and European sensibilities - and Montreal.

The ship, run by St Lawrence Cruise Lines, is a 1981 reconstruction of a 1908 steamer, only it moves rather faster. Before dinner, the captain whisked us downstream to see the 83-metre-high Montmorency waterfall, then quickly doubled back to see Quebec City by night.

If we had gone further downstream, we would have reached the Saguenay Fiord, where you can go whale watching. Here and at the mouth of the estuary, the quaint fishing communities of this wildlife haven were preparing for a huge increase in seagoing cruise traffic this year, after a multimillion-dollar expansion of the ports.

The Empress was headed inland, though, and after breakfast we passed Cap-Charles, where a retired mariner spies the ensigns of passing ships and plays the appropriate national anthem over his huge speaker system. For the Empress, he also played The Star-Spangled Banner and some of the mostly US passengers on board took off their hats instantly and clutched them to their chests.

We were charmed by the old-fashioned courteousness of life on board that, like the food, had a home-baked, easy feel. After lunch came our first organised tour - of the city of Trois-Rivieres, founded in 1634. Boarding a yellow school bus, which seemed slightly incongruous given our group's average age, we headed to the beautiful Basilica of Notre Dame at Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Having spotted church spires all along the river, we had realised that Quebec was once a devoutly Catholic region.

Back on board, there were many activities on offer the next day. We drew the line at bingo but did the obligatory shuffleboard oversized draughts and even kite-flying, or kite-fishing, as the purser called it, given the hit-and-miss nature of this activity.

The purser's wonderfully dry humour was a highlight of the trip. He alerted us to the early morning wake-up call of the vibrations of the engine - the Empress does not sail at night - and explained on our arrival: "You may think your cabin looks small but don't worry, it'll grow throughout the trip."

And it did, not only because the staff fold up one of the beds for the day, but because we got used to the space. There is a more luxurious craft on the way. The newly launched, 108-cabin Pearl Mist starts cruising here next month, complete with spa, lifts and balconies for each cabin.

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On the Empress, we generally relaxed, reading our books under the canopy on the rear deck. We watched the bird life as we sailed through Lac Saint-Pierre and saw the start of the autumn colours, which are best in late September and early October.

Our first glimpse of the island city of Montreal was the leaning tower of the Olympic centre, which hosted the 1976 Olympic Games.

Here, the landscape turned industrial. Towering over us were giant grain elevators which feed the impressive tankers we had passed as they were on their outbound journey (inbound, they carry mainly iron ore from Newfoundland).

This gave way to the more picturesque sights of the geodesic dome from the 1967 Expo and the Montreal skyline, which frames the beautiful old town where we disembarked.

We bid goodbye to our friends of the past three days. Mostly retired, they would continue through the scenic Thousand Islands, on to the Empress's home port of Kingston and the Great Lakes. But, as if reminded by the bustle of this glittering city, it was back to work for us.

TRIP NOTES

GET ON BOARD

The writer travelled with St Lawrence Cruise Lines on the six-night Canadian Connection Cruise, with departures from May to October this year. From $C2093 ($2263). Phone +1 613 549 8091, see stlawrencecruiselines.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For all cruises available in Quebec, see bonjourquebec.co.uk.

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