SAINT JOHN, N.B. - When you think of cruise ship destinations, Atlantic Canada might not immediately come to mind, but a growing number of Americans and Europeans are eyeing Atlantic Canada as a choice destination for a summer or fall cruise getaway.
"We expect 2012 to be a great year," said Betty MacMillan, chairwoman of the Atlantic Canada Cruise Association. "We're expecting more than 800,000 passengers and crew."
The region is visited by the big names in the cruise industry, including Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line.
For the very first time, Disney Cruise Line has scheduled stops in Atlantic Canada this year. They're offering nine five-day cruises — departing from New York — that are calling on Halifax and Saint John, N.B.
MacMillan — who is also manager of cruise development in Saint John — said there's plenty for the passengers to do once they arrive and each of the ports tries to offer something unique.
The busiest cruise port in the region is Halifax, where 122 vessels visited in 2011.
"They can do anything from a scheduled tour to a walk along the harbour front," said Cathy McGrail, manager of cruise development for the Port of Halifax. "They do everything from Peggy's Cove, Lunenburg, winery tours in the Annapolis Valley, the citadel, a city tour on a bus or various water tours."
The water tours include everything from a sail around the harbour, to a chance to catch a lobster for lunch.
Other choices for excursions include the Titanic exhibit at the Maritime Museum, or perhaps an opportunity to explore some family history at the national immigration museum at Pier 21.
Halifax also offers a wide variety of restaurants where cruise visitors can sample fresh, local seafood.
"Of course we've always been known for our lobster, but more and more there are gourmet lunches and wine tastings ... because we all love our food," said MacMillan.
In Nova Scotia, there is also the port of Sydney. From there, cruise passengers have an opportunity to explore the Cabot Trail, visit the Alexander Graham Bell Museum or visit a coal miners museum.
In neighbouring New Brunswick, cruise ships dock at the modern terminal in Saint John.
MacMillan said the biggest draw is the Bay of Fundy, which boasts the world's highest tides.
Buses fan out from the city to provide passengers with a number of ways to experience the tides.
"In St. Martins they can explore the sea caves and walk on the ocean floor. At Hopewell Rocks they can walk on the ocean floor, and here in Saint John they can experience Reversing Fall where the bay meets the St. John River."
Also from Saint John, passengers can choose to be a bit more adventurous with kayaking, zip lines and a wet and wild jet boat ride through Reversing Falls.
For those looking for a more relaxing day at their own pace, there's The Big Pink Bus. Six buses make continuous trips around the city on cruise days, allowing passengers to hop on or hop off at various stops as they wish. A portion of the fee is donated to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.
For those interested in some of the smaller ports in the region, Saga Cruise Line is calling on places like Pictou and Digby, N.S., and St. Andrews, N.B., this year.
There, visitors will find many smaller shops and local artisans, and seafood served just hours after it was landed.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, Corner Brook is the port of call for cruise ships. Located on the island's west coast, Corner Brook provides easy access to a variety of excursions and stunning scenery.
"Everywhere you look you see mountains, forests and trees," said Nora Fever, with the Port of Corner Brook.
She said one of the great ways to experience the area is a trek along Captain Cook's Trail.
"It's a really beautiful drive with lots of mountains and waterfalls and small communities nestled in the various coves. When they get to the end of the road, they go into a local church and the ladies at the church will serve home-cooked treats for them," she said.
"They'll sing some traditional music and have some crafts to look at. It's a real down-home experience for them."
For the more adventurous, there is kayaking and river rafting, and a new zip line that takes patrons over the top of a waterfall at Marble Mountain Resort.
Another destination is Gros Morne National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Corner Brook also offers an opportunity to try some foods that aren't available in many locations, such as moose or cod cheeks.
And finally, there's Prince Edward Island. Cruise ships dock on the Charlottetown waterfront, but the relatively small size of the island gives visitors a chance to experience much of the province in just one day.
"The biggest shore excursion that we might have would be Anne of Green Gables. It's always a big draw," said Corryn Morrissey, manager of marketing and communications with the Charlottetown Port Authority.
Many people who have read Lucy Maud Montgomery's tale of the little red-haired girl venture to the Cavendish area to experience Montgomery's inspiration for the story and to enjoy world-class beaches and warm waters.
Morrissey said food is a common theme among the many excursions offered on P.E.I., including a visit to Holland College's Culinary Institute.
"People can go in and work with the chefs and learn how to cook seafood, how to prepare it and where it comes from. Then they get to have a meal there."
There are also opportunities to harvest and sample oysters, or catch your lunch on a lobster boat.
MacMillan said one of the greatest compliments they hear in each of the ports is that people say they felt welcomed.
"So often we are told we have great cities, great destinations, but it's the people they really comment about the most often — the friendliness and the hospitality," she said.
If You Go...
Each of the cruise lines has more information on excursions on websites or from their travel planners.