An expedition cruise around Canada’s Atlantic coast on board Ocean Endeavour takes Becky Wiggins out of her comfort zone

We’re bobbing out in the deep water just off the Gaspé Peninsula, the landmass that juts out between the mouth of Saint Lawrence River and Chaleur Bay, which separates the Canadian provinces of Québec and New Brunswick.

The sheer cliffs of Bonaventure Island loom above us, every ledge smothered with so many northern gannets that it looks as though the cliffs are dusted with snow.

The sun is glittering on the water but the wind is bracing and I’m soaked through (note to self: water resistant is definitely not the same as waterproof) and freezing cold, plus the stench of guano is almost unbearable.

Gannets wheel above our zodiac craft, their six foot wingspans casting huge shadows, before suddenly folding into themselves and knifing into the water, emerging with wiggling silver mouthfuls.

Fat, speckled grey seals sun themselves at the base of the cliffs, and minke whales roll in the surf. Even though my teeth are chattering, I can’t stop my silly grin. It’s magical.

Feeling adventurous

I joined Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavour, a former Russian ferry turned explorer ship, in Québec. I love to cruise, but a packing list containing items such as waterproofs, hiking boots and binoculars has made me worry that I’m about to be immersed in an adventure with similarities to an episode of Deadliest Catch.

Our expedition takes us from Québec, up the mighty Saint Lawrence River and out into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, visiting the communities and islands along the way before finishing in St John’s, Newfoundland, some 11 days later. I’m hoping I’ve packed enough socks.

On board, life is laid-back and friendly. The ship’s décor is functional and my cabin is comfy, with two single beds, a desk and a small bathroom with a shower. There’s no dressing for dinner, but the food is seriously good and elegantly served at one sitting in the Polaris Restaurant, with breakfast and lunch served buffet-style. There are a couple of different lounges and bars, plus a small pool and hot tub, both understandably empty.

The first afternoon is taken up with orientation, welcome meetings, and safety briefings. An expedition cruise isn’t like a normal cruise, and serious attention is paid to safety around wildlife and the use of the zodiac craft that are piled up on the top deck.

The ship’s unusually shallow draft means that it can access small communities and areas normally off-limits to cruise ships, but the zodiac craft are often used to get to even more remote spots.

As well as the 169 passengers on board (a mix of retired couples and some solo travellers), there are more than 100 crew and 30 expert staff.

Expert help

Adventure Canada is privately owned by the Swan family, and the second generation of Swans now run the business, many with their young families accompanying them.

As you would expect, they’re a pretty adventurous bunch and, often when we’re out on the zodiacs, all the kids are out too, including CEO Cedar Swan’s six-month-old baby, swaddled in her tiny, state-of-the-art life preserver.

The staff – botanists, geologists, experts in marine mammals and birds, historians, ecologists, anthropologists, photographers, artists, musicians and more – are specifically there to enrich the guest experience.

As well as providing talks and workshops specific to our location, they accompany expedition trips and mingle at dinner. I’m sharing a hike with botanist and plant ecologist Dawn Bazely when we spot beautiful, rare lichen, wrapping a tree trunk in delicate frills.

Nature’s beauty

I start day two with a dawn session of yoga out on deck, then linger in the watery sunshine as we sail the jaw-dropping Saguenay Fjord, the deepest river in the world (deeper than the Empire State Building is high).

It’s eerily quiet apart from the low throb of the engine. Sheer cliffs topped with pines shrouded in the mist rise either side of us, and we’re accompanied for a while by beluga and minke whales (the mix of fresh water meeting sea water is whale heaven, apparently) before we return to the salty mouth of the river and drop anchor in the harbour off Tadoussac, France’s first trading post, whipping through the waves on zodiacs to visit the tiny community of just over 800 people.

They are touchingly delighted to see us and we’re welcomed in the church with traditional music, local delicacies and even a speech from the mayor.

By day four we’ve reached the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Cap Gaspé. We sail as close to the cliffs as possible and spot nesting kittiwakes, their homes hanging precariously under ledges in the rocks as they zip around, shouting out their names.

Best foot forward

The peninsula is home to the Forillon National Park and we’re roughly grouped into ability (I think they’re a bit optimistic with me) for a tough 2.5km hike up to Mount Saint Alban. It’s fairly steep at points, but I’m captivated as Dawn explains the plant ecology of the area and even identifies some black bear poo (luckily the culprit was nowhere to be seen).

It turns out my hiking boots aren’t waterproof either and we return to the ship soaked, red-faced, muddy and exhausted. My calves are on fire. Soon we’re at the very eastern tip of Gaspé Peninsula, exploring Percé Rock (literally ‘pierced’ by the erosion of the tides) and Bonaventure Island with its colony of more than 50,000 northern gannets, as well as kittiwakes, razor bills and puffins.

As we reach Chéticamp on Cape Breton Island at the very northern tip of Nova Scotia, the sun blazes and we hike the Skyline Trail through Cape Breton Highlands National Park in T-shirts, following the dramatic headland, and getting so close to a mother moose and her baby that we can hear them huffing out steamy breaths in the pine-scented air.

We hike the 5.5km trail to the coast, where a boardwalk leads to the breathtaking views over the rugged coastline, the ship visible just outside the harbour.

Island life

Sailing into the centre of the Gulf to the tiny cluster of islands that make up Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, the winds increase and the swell makes it impossible to dock.

It’s disappointing to miss the colourful Acadian architecture and pretty lobster fishing port of Cap-aux-Meules, but Ocean Endeavour is being tossed around in huge waves, so we power on towards the coast of Newfoundland to find some protection from the storm.

After 24 stomach-churning hours at sea, the waves begin to calm and we spot dolphins and fin whales, plus a sei whale so close that we can see its water spout sending a huge fountain into the air.

It’s a relief when we reach the archipelago of Saint Pierre and Miquelon located 11 nautical miles off the southern coast of Newfoundland – a tiny chunk of France nestled in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

Unforgettable moments

Happy to step off the ship, we explore the pretty fishing town of Saint Pierre before heading out to the remote Île aux Marins. Now uninhabited apart from a couple of holiday cottages, it’s breathtakingly pretty, even in the sea mist.

As we sail into the harbour in St John’s, Newfoundland, Mother Nature bestows parting gifts: a humpback whale slaps the water with an enormous, knobbly white fin and there’s a beautiful, glowing blue iceberg just off the ship’s bow.

The trip has been so far out of my comfort zone, but it turns out that sailing without bikinis and sunbeds can be fabulous, too. Next time, though, I’ll pack more socks.

GETTING THERE Adventure Canada’s next Mighty Saint Lawrence expedition takes place from 25 June to 4 July 2017. Prices from $2,795pp for an interior cabin, excluding flights (adventurecanada.com).

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