There are, of course, many more compelling stories of Europeans landing on North American shores, from Christopher Columbus to pilgrims seeking religious freedom. Many explorers, having little sense of the continent’s enormous size, arrived here in search of passage to Asia, where opportunities in trade were flourishing. As primitive lands were settled and colonized, civilizations emerged that looked and sounded very much like their European counterparts. New England was settled by the British, New Amsterdam (today’s Manhattan) by the Dutch. Spaniards developed settlements on a long, sun-drenched peninsula and called it Florida, or “flowery land.” Meanwhile, long after the Vikings abandoned the harsh winters of Newfoundland, the French king claimed eastern Canada and called it New France. This sea of settlers, their many battles to seize land for their kings back home notwithstanding, laid the foundation for what would famously become the melting pot of the Western Hemisphere.

Today, echoes of the Old World still whisper in the streets of the New. Over countless generations and hundreds of years, English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Italian and countless other nations have shaped distinctly vibrant and varied Canadian and American cultures. Cruising the eastern seaboard of North America provides a fascinating glimpse of legacies and traditions that date all the way back to Leif Eriksson.


The world’s fourth largest country by land area, Canada boasts the world’s longest land border with its southerly neighbor, the United States. The nation is a vast reserve of natural resources and untouched land, much of it in the northern reaches. In Quebec, for instance, the French-flavored province tucked in the northeast corner, an untouched swathe of forest, mountains and lakes extends due north from the former fur-trading city of Saguenay on the St. Lawrence River all the way to the Arctic Circle.

Quebec province holds fast to its French origins. So proud are the Quebecois of their heritage that many prefer full secession to maintaining a link to the British Crown. One visit to Montreal, the world’s second largest French-speaking city after Paris, and Quebec City, with the neat and orderly stone buildings of its Lower Old Town and its inviting cobbled lanes, and it’s easy to believe you’ve stepped off your ship and onto French soil.

The maritime provinces of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia are among the most beautiful seaside destinations in the world. On PEI, as the former is known, tranquil farmlands and serene countryside lead to historic colonial-style towns and cities. Here, locals celebrate the fruits of a hard day’s work at a ceilidh, or kitchen party, in which families and neighbors gather to share food and to dance to traditional Acadian and Scottish musical instruments. Nova Scotia, too, is rich in history. A tour of its capital, Halifax, reveals the British-influenced Fort George and a picturesque waterfront with ties to pirates and privateers. Nearby, Canada’s most famous and scenic lighthouse shines its beacon from a rocky perch in the coastal village of Peggy’s Cove.

The United States

All along the eastern seaboard of the United States, historic cities kissed by natural harbors and sweeping bays tell the story of one of the world’s most significant revolutions. The nation famously took its first breaths in Boston, where a notorious massacre and tea party lit the flames of revolt. Today, amidst the city’s lively and cosmopolitan air, fascinating glimpses of history appear around every corner, from the Old North Church to the Old South Meeting House. Farther south in Maryland, Baltimore shared the difficult work of independence when it acted as the fledgling nation’s capital over the winter of 1776-1777. The city further stood up against the British during the War of 1812 when its Fort McHenry repelled the Crown’s troops.

The exhilarating streets of New York City are a culture lover’s dream. Along the warrens and avenues of what many call “the greatest city in the world,” museums house world-class collections, intimate neighborhoods like Greenwich Village invite you to stroll along cozy streets and duck into antique shops, the lights of Broadway lure you to some of the world’s most celebrated stage shows and the green pathways of Central Park lead you to arbor-lined ponds and one of the world’s most popular zoos.

Some of the history of New York actually lives in Newport, Rhode Island. Here, the powerful families who shaped 20th-century America built “summer cottages” on Narragansett Bay. The gilded mansions served as extravagant retreats from the city and soon an entire community of wealth and privilege made their second homes here. A sojourn along ten-mile Ocean Drive reveals much of Newport’s architectural and seaside splendor.

Norfolk, Virginia, also enjoys a splendid setting. Along four miles of its wide natural harbor, the US Navy has built seven miles of wharves and piers for what has grown into the largest naval base in the world. The Hampton Roads Naval Museum in the city puts the nation’s sea-going military into historic context for visitors, while the MacArthur Memorial chronicles the life of the celebrated General Douglas MacArthur.

Florida’s beachside city of Miami and its more laid-back neighbor of Fort Lauderdale dance to a beat of their own. In Miami, a thriving Cuban culture infuses Old Havana and gleaming high rises overlook Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach, spread over a series of coastal barrier islands, offers an intoxicating blend of seaside glamour, fitness obsession, and Art Deco pastel brilliance. Farther north, the seven-mile-long Fort Lauderdale Beach provides a more leisurely air. With its location straddling the Intracoastal Waterway, you can also hop a boat for a tour among charming neighborhoods and secluded marshlands.

About the Caribbean Sea

The Caribbean Sea is encircled by Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic to the north, South America to the south, Central America to the west and the Leeward and Windward Islands to the east. Legends of pirates seeking gold have long washed up on these tropical shores. Many of them are true, as privateers, employed by their nations’ crowns to attack enemy ships overseas, came to covet the cargoes of vessels that plied the shipping lanes to and from Europe.

During the early days of European settlement in the Caribbean, several nations colonized the islands: Dutch, French, Spanish, Danish and others. Even the English Loyalists went into self-exile here after the Patriots claimed victory in the new United States. The losers in the colonization of the Caribbean were the indigenous Caribs and other native populations, conscripted into slavery at the sugar plantations that made the new inhabitants their fortunes.

Puerto Rico & the US Virgin Islands

Unincorporated territories of the United States, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix) are often viewed as little more than tropical playgrounds where US citizens do not require passports. But beyond the sandy beaches, lush rainforests and emerald-green mountain slopes, a rich history has shaped their shores.

Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1493. For 400 years, the island’s traditions took on a rich Spanish character and vibrant customs. The United States was awarded the island under the 1898 Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish American War. Today, Puerto Ricans embrace their Spanish heritage, not least in their preservation of the 16th-century Fort San Felipe del Morro, set imposingly at the entrance of San Juan Bay. The capital’s Old Town, too, drips with history, from its multi-colored houses to the blue adoquín stones that pave the streets, once used to ballast Old World ships.

Variously held by many European nations after Columbus’s arrival in 1493, the US Virgin Islands finally became royal Danish colonies. Out of concern that World War I Germany would land submarines in the area, the US purchased the islands in 1917 for $25 million. Today, the islands’ stunning green vistas, azure waters and sheltered bays that harbor colorful coral reefs blend with a fascinating Afro-Caribbean culture and an easy, laid-back atmosphere.

British Virgin Islands

Of all the British Virgin Islands, Tortola is the largest and home to the archipelago’s capital, Road Town. In total, more than 50 islands and small cays comprise this territory of the Crown. The first European inhabitants of Tortola were pirates intent on intercepting passing ships. After many European nations fought to wrest control of the islands from each other, British colonists and defeated Loyalists from the US colonies arrived to stay and built sugar empires. Today, Road Town is a tranquil haven for yachts and fishing boats, overseen by rainforest-clad hills. A drive along Tortola’s steep roads leads to secluded beaches, hidden coves and breathtaking shades of green and blue at every turn. Offshore, the island of Virgin Gorda transports you to a seaside fairytale haven of gigantic boulders, deep blue coves and shallow pools and grottoes.

Leeward Islands

Located in the northeastern Caribbean, the Leeward Islands were named centuries ago for their position in relation to ships arriving from Europe, “leeward” meaning “downwind” as the trade winds that delivered ships blew in a southwest direction. Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin Islands are the northernmost part of the chain; other islands extend in a southward arc. Though today the islands and island groups are independent, the British founded them as a colony in 1671. This type of governance lasted 200 years. Today, the chain of more than 25 islands and its countless other isles and cays is a blend of sovereign commonwealths, such as Antigua and St. Kitts, and overseas territories, such as St. Martin, shared by France and The Netherlands, and French Guadeloupe.

Windward Islands

The bottom half of the Caribbean chain, the Windward Islands stretch down to the coast of Venezuela. They form the easternmost boundary of the Caribbean Sea. The island of Dominica is considered the northernmost of the Windwards. Larger than the Leeward Islands, they were named centuries ago by explorers for the direction the wind blew as ships approached from Europe. The chain comprises only five major islands along with many smaller islets and cays. The French once ruled most of the region, though they fought England 14 times over St. Lucia and lost to the redcoats half of them. All the Windward Islands are sovereign states today, except for Martinique, which remains an overseas territory of France.