Service stole the show on French Canadian leaf-peeping sailing
Plus: Canyon Ranch goes clubbing | United pokes fun at Southwest boarding process | Where did the Taj Mahal go?
Sailing through fairytale-like Thousand Islands, N.Y. -- Barb DeLollis
Good day, readers!
This week's events have been stressing us out, between the once-again topsy turvy midterm elections in the U.S., accelerating pace of layoffs and the United Nation's annual climate summit (COP27) that never seems to make a big dent in global carbon emissions. So at Travel Essential, we of course find solace in thinking about travel. This week, we bring you Barb's account of sailing the St. Lawrence Seaway aboard an American Queen Voyage small ship during leaf-peeping season and why she thinks the onboard experience stole the show over the magnificent scenery and destinations like Niagara Falls.
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And now, the travel headlines that we've been watching since last week’s edition:
– Iconic Canyon Ranch eyes urban locations; puts Texas first. We’re big fans of Canyon Ranch’s original location in Tucson, so we were intrigued to read about its ambitious expansion plan (source: Travel Weekly). The brand plans to open “Canyon Ranch Clubs'' in cities starting with Fort Worth and Houston, believing they’ll ultimately generate demand for Canyon Ranch’s big resorts in Tucson, Lenox, Mass., and elsewhere. Travel Essential Takeaway: At this point, we'll remain loyal to the Tucson location when we need a health and wellness reset. We love the desert setting, weather and unbeatable hiking, and don't see value in getting an elevated gym-spa experience near our homes. It's not the same thing.
– NO!, anything but group C: We’ve never been fans of Southwest Airlines’ cattle call-like boarding process. So we definitely got a chuckle out of United Airlines’ new website, notgroupc, offering Southwest flyers a chance to schedule a “Courte-C” call reminder when their check in is about to open so they can – hopefully – snag a slot in an earlier boarding group without paying extra. Anyone who’s ever flown Southwest knows that forgetting to check-in 24 hours in advance means you’ll likely end up in the final round of C group boarding, which pretty much guarantees you’ll be stuck in a middle seat. The calls, the site says, are courtesy of “the airline that lets you choose your seat in advance. *cough cough* United.” And, “Oh! P.S.!,” United says, “We also have no change fees. And lie-flat seats. And… airport lounges, anyone?
– Pollution ‘erases’ the Taj Mahal Travel Essential friend Gary Seidman is experiencing what it’s like to be in India when the air quality index plummets to dangerous levels. Below is his photo of the Taj Mahal, cloaked in a pollution-riddled haze, in Agra, about a 2.5-hour drive from Delhi. Al Jazeera reports that the air quality was so bad that the government curbed construction activities amid outbreaks of respiratory illnesses.
Extreme pollution at the Taj Mahal in November 2022 -- Gary Seidman
– Uncovered story of the quarter: Tesla’s play for hotels As we’ve discussed in the past, too few hotels have EV chargers despite the growing popularity of EVs – a situation that can make us have charge anxiety. So we were surprised that Tesla quietly announced a universal, wall-mounted charger that will let the drivers of any EV juice up their vehicle. Tesla’s marketing the groundbreaking product to hotels. Let’s see if they catch on!
A beautiful salad with edible flowers on the Ocean Navigator -- Barb DeLollis
The best way to experience French Canada: A small ship cruise along the St. Lawrence Seaway with luxury service and great food
By Barbara DeLollis
MONTREAL – When I had the chance last month to sail Canada’s scenic St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes region aboard American Queen Voyages' 202-passenger Ocean Voyager, I assumed that the itinerary would be the star of the show.
I was wrong.
As captivating as the scenery was as we sailed through places like Thousand Islands, N.Y., with its island castles and vibrant fall leaves, and docked in destinations including Quebec City and Toronto, this aspect of our journey actually came in second to the luxurious small ship guest experience. My companion and I experienced a personal touch from the moment we arrived at Montreal’s port.
Due to a schedule conflict, we weren’t able to arrive in Montreal the day before departure to sightsee and enjoy the included hotel night. Instead, we took an Uber from the airport to the port, where we met Alex, our amiable cruise director. He immediately made us feel at home and ready for our adventure with his warm inviting smile, lilt of a Ukrainian accent and starched ship uniform. As we went through the security checkpoint and then walked the gangplank to board the Ocean Navigator, we left our worries behind.
Our luggage was automatically brought to our stateroom, No. 402 on the top deck, while the ship’s nurse gave us and our fellow passengers a Covid antigen test. Our negative results put our minds at ease, and the thoughtful process set the tone for the rest of our trip.
The Ocean Navigator's crew gives us a hearty welcome, with Alex on the right -- Barb DeLollis
We were welcomed by the crew as we gathered in the Compass Room, the ship’s spacious entertainment venue containing a stage and mix of tables, chairs, couches and windows for a group greeting. And underscoring the Ocean Navigator crew’s thoughtful approach, we found a presentation of finger sandwiches and hot soup – appropriate for the 50-degree weather.
Our journey across French Canada had begun.
The Toronto skyline, as seen from the Ocean Navigator -- Barb DeLollis
Stateroom design: Better than a hotel room
We were excited to see our stateroom, leaving the moment to surprise instead of rigorous online research. We were delighted to enter our fourth-deck room directly from the outdoor deck, instead of through an indoor hallway. Being on a small 202-passenger ship, I was a little worried about feeling cramped – but the room’s careful design made it feel larger than its approximately 185 square feet. Our room had large windows so we could see the ever-changing views from anywhere, except the bathroom. I even had a desk where I could work on my laptop, with easy access to power outlets.
Surprisingly, we each felt more organized than we do in larger-sized hotel rooms, where closets – in some brand-name chains – have been falling out of favor. Our stateroom had two floor-to-ceiling closets that we used as “his” and “hers.”
Best of all, though, was our butler Saddiq, who kept our stateroom meticulously clean, organized, fully stocked with filtered water in reusable glass bottles, and equipped with each day’s edition of the Daily Voyage newspaper. We didn’t take advantage of the laundry service (free for the first batch), but appreciated the offer. The entire time, I felt like I was nestled in a floating luxury hotel with live views.
Proactive, luxury level guest service
Early during our journey, we asked if the ship carried San Pellegrino sparkling water. Our waiter, Tristan, brought it to us and he never forgot our request. For the rest of our cruise, he asked if we’d like some at every meal. That was just one small example of the consistent luxury level service that we’d normally expect at a Ritz-Carlton, Rosewood or Four Seasons hotel.
Best of all, none of our interactions with the crew felt forced. It was the kind of service that’s hard to teach someone – genuine.
The dining room staff were sharp, polite and consistently remembered everyone’s name even if you hopped tables during the voyage. The service was also fast, with food appearing steaming hot from the kitchen.
And while you don’t normally think of a ship’s captain providing service, I gave ours extra credit. He kept us informed during the journey, including which portions of the river and locks we were navigating and if there were any schedule changes.
Chef Regina Charboneau's cocktail demo with ship bar chief, Avi-- Barb DeLollis
You can’t get bored on the Ocean Navigator
Whenever or wherever I travel around the world, I appreciate flexibility. So for this cruise, I was a little worried about being too busy since The Daily Voyage listed onboard activities ranging from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., in addition to stops, excursions and meal times. But if there’s anything I learned on this trip – only my second cruise – is that you never need to worry! I even had an easy time navigating a potentially pressure-cooker situation – an all-important Zoom business call that required a combination of quiet, privacy, good lighting and excellent Internet quality (which wasn’t in my stateroom). I took the meeting in the bar behind the Compass Room, where the Wi-Fi worked best and was quiet each morning.
The flexibility extended to spa services. I was surprised to learn that the ship offered hair and massage services, so I booked a blowout with Marina, also from Ukraine. Not only is Marina a pro, but she’s also a terrific conversationalist. We shared personal stories, including how her family is coping with the tragic Russian invasion.
The one thing I didn’t do onboard was use the ship’s gym. It was way too tiny for me. But I didn’t care, since we got our exercise in other ways, such as exploring the historic charming streets of Quebec City, the tiny town of Clayton, N.Y., and iconic Niagara Falls.
Seeing live music is one of my favorite things to do in life, and I can be picky. So I felt like we were in great hands the moment we heard the ship’s band – directed by Claudette, the ship’s entertainment director, who’d joined AQV from one of the large international luxury cruise lines. A real pro, she did a great job leading a three-piece band with world-class professional musicians who also shared their experience and played everything from rock to standards.
Prior to cruise life, Claudette shared with us that she’d spent a decade performing as lead singer and violinist in demanding Las Vegas when she decided to make a career change. Amazingly, she taught herself piano to expand her repertoire.
Barolo-braised lamb shanks on the Ocean Navigator -- Barb DeLollis
The food, oh the food!
A decade ago, American Queen Voyages started focusing on elevating its food offerings, bringing in Chef Regina to oversee culinary innovations in collaboration with staff and create interesting on-board guest experiences. This isn’t easy to do with a ship line of any size, and it's especially challenging in an era of global supply chain challenges, evolving consumer tastes and growing interest in local food culture and high-quality ingredients. Based on our experience, though, they’re really pulling it off without sacrificing variety or quality.
A few of our highlights included the impressive and varied breakfast buffet, served both in the main dining room and the casual Panorama Lounge on the 4th deck. Depending on the day, we had omelets made to order; oatmeal; brioche french toast and vast assortments of danish, yogurt, smoked fish as well as fresh fruit and berries.
The ship's casual dining area has floor-to-ceiling windows -- Barb DeLollis
For lunch, a simple burger was upgraded thanks to the superior cut of meat to the choice of sides and of course freshly made hand-cut fries.
Dinner was akin to a five-star restaurant, with seemingly a server for every guest – and choices that ranged from behemoth sized cuts of lamb and beef cooked to order to vegetarian dishes. Fresh fish and shrimp were broiled to elegance and presented in artistic arrangements often with edible flowers adorning the chef’s interesting and healthy suggestions.
Dessert was always a treat, with everything from Baked Alaska to pies to intricate cakes, all made fresh onboard.
Part of the joy of a small luxury cruise is meeting the people aboard. With only 88 passengers on this sailing, we were bound to meet folks and get to know them more than once. This added to the intimacy of this cruise and made the iconic St. Lawrence Seaway a journey to some lasting friendships.
A favorite excursion was taking a tourist boat close to Niagara Falls -- Barb DeLollis
Some of our favorite destinations and experiences from 2022:
GREECE -- Who needs an island? Southern Greece is a nice surprise
ALASKA -- The small expedition ship that gets you close to icebergs
NORWAY -- Our backyard was a fjord
CARIBBEAN -- Our new favorite island
EUROPEAN RIVER CRUISE -- Jeri sails the Rhine River
BIKER CHICK CHIC -- Barb learns how to ride a Harley-Davidson in LA