When it comes to river cruising combined with garden visiting, most keen gardeners think of Europe. But in September 2016 I will be hosting my second trip for Botanica up the rivers, lakes and canals that connect the US and Canada.
I was fortunate to first make this trip in 2014. The scenery is spectacular – we don’t always appreciate the sheer natural beauty of North America, especially in the ‘fall’ – the gardens are stunning, the mansions are elaborate and the history is significant. Even the most committed Europhile would have to admit that over the last two centuries the US has had a profound influence on our society and western culture. As the trip progresses much of this history unfolds for us, though not necessarily in chronological order.
Before boarding our river cruise ship we spend a few days exploring some of America’s most important sights, including the White House and George Washington’s Mt Vernon estate, where you can see trees planted by Washington himself. We then travel to the green and lush Brandywine Valley, site of a bloody battle during the American War of Independence.
This is Du Pont country, where the members of this incredibly wealthy family tried to outdo each other in the opulence of their estates. Longwood Gardens, created from farmland in the early 1900s by Pierre S. du Pont, seems to attempt to have everything: lakes, fountains, formal gardens, vegetable patches, experimental beds and the most amazing conservatory that covers almost two hectares. This glass-covered area is on show all the time and none of the display plants are ever seen in their juvenile stages. They appear fully formed and ready to achieve maximum wow factor.
Nearby is another Du Pont masterpiece, Winterthur, which has a much more relaxed landscape around a four-storeyed mansion filled with prime examples of American decorative arts.
But challenging both of these established and much visited estates is the upstart Chanticleer, which, although 100 years old, has only been open to the public for the past 20 years. It’s said that Chanticleer garden’s cutting edge use of colour and design has put Longwood, especially, on its mettle and forced Longwood to update its displays.
After this initial and optional part of the tour we board our boat, the MV Grande Mariner, which is conveniently moored in New York Harbour very near to the High Line, James Corner and Piet Oudolf’s raised walkway garden built on a disused freight line that has inspired copies all over the world. There is time to visit before a welcome dinner on board.
Unlike the plushness of some of the European river ships, the cabins on the Grande Mariner could best be described as comfortable but snug. Their size is governed by the narrow girth of the ship which is in turn controlled by the width of the canals we will travel through (‘cruise where other ships can’t’ is the catchcry). The lounge is spacious, nonetheless, and allows good viewing of the scenery and the changing colours of autumn leaves as we travel north. Of course the most oft-cited advantage of cruising is the fact that you can unpack just once and settle into your waterborne home for the next fourteen nights, and we happily do so.
While still in New York Harbour we visit the famed New York Botanical Gardens where it’s possible to also appreciate the natural terrain that pre-dated the city’s establishment. Next is Kykuit (meaning ‘lookout’) a Rockefeller estate that features a grand house, terraced landscape studded with world famous sculptures (think Henry Moore, Picasso and many others) and an underground art gallery. In the late afternoon we sail out of New York and stand sipping champagne while we watch the sun set against the skyscrapers and glide past the Statue of Liberty. A memory to last a lifetime!
The next day we sail up the Hudson River Valley, an area that became the summer holiday playground of New York’s wealthy families. Here the advantages of travelling with Botanica become apparent when we are offered choices of off-ship excursions to suit every taste. For military enthusiasts there’s the opportunity to explore West Point Military Academy campus, while keen plants-people can opt for Stonecrop, the collector’s garden of the late Francis Cabot who established the Garden Conservancy to preserve the best private North American gardens. A third choice is beautiful Boscobel, a relocated and restored mansion well sited in a stunningly designed landscape.
Further up the river we can visit either the Vanderbilt Mansion, set in more than 200 acres of parkland, or Springwood, the museum established in the Hudson River home of President Franklin D Roosevelt who, during the Great Depression, did so much to reduce inequality and the influence of the exploitative robber barons who had amassed great wealth at the expense of the general populace. We come to understand how much Roosevelt has influenced our current way of life.
Leaving the Hudson, we begin to take advantage of the Grande Mariner’s svelte design as we enter the Erie Canal. Not only does the boat have a slender girth that fits narrowly through the old canal, its wheelhouse can be dropped to glide under low bridges. First opened in 1825, the Erie Canal joins the Hudson River to Lake Erie and was a masterpiece of engineering in its day. The canal was dug by men and mules and was at first only four feet deep. It has been enlarged over time but its importance as a transport route has been largely superseded by rail and road. But the canal’s long history, changing scenery and numerous locks make this a fascinating tourist trip.
Off the boat we have the opportunity to tour Edith Wharton’s masterpiece, The Mount. The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, Edith revolted against the over-the-top architecture and decoration of the Gilded Age to design a gracious house and garden that were perfectly in sympathy with each other and the surrounding natural area. The modern day custodians are particularly proud of the fact that beavers have returned to a pond on the property.
Nearby Naumkeag is another superb combination of house and garden. Its garden is particularly famed for its curving flight of blue-backed steps, first conceived by the landscape designer Fletcher Steele in 1938, and for its contemporaneously-built Chinese Garden.
As we sail further along the canal we come to Cooperstown, best known as the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I’m no sporting fan but, as so often happens when expectations are low, this town turns out to be a highlight.
The Farmers Museum is extensive and totally charming with recreated buildings, stores, chapel, schoolhouse, blacksmith’s forge, hand-painted carousel and a variety of heritage farm animals. Another option is a visit to the Fenimore Art Museum with its fine collections of American folk and Indian art. Cooperstown itself sits on Lake Otsego and the local residents have done a fine job of creating a lakeside park filled with native plants.
Here I am privileged to see an American bottle gentian seemingly ‘swallowing’ a bumblebee that will eventually make its escape but obligingly pollinate the flower as it does so. And, yes, Cooperstown was the home town of James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans.
We cruise along the Oswego Canal into Lake Ontario and then begin to travel through the Thousand Islands (they do exist – they aren’t just salad dressing!). In reality there are more than 1800 islands, with an island defined as having at least one square foot that remains above water year round and supports two living trees. Some islands are tiny but others are large enough to house another batch of mansions. We visit Boldt Castle, which was built for love on the aptly named Heart Island, and then Singer Castle in the St Lawrence Seaway. At last we’re in the St Lawrence which means we’re about to sail into Canada.
The St Lawrence Seaway provides a great contrast to the simplicity and heritage of the Erie Canal. The river is wide, the ships are larger and the locks are bigger and steeper too. But there is plenty of nature and wildlife to be seen and, as we move inexorably north, the hillsides continue clothing themselves in luscious autumn shades.
We sail past Montreal and onto Quebec City. Here the city’s Gallic charm contrasts with the very North American Halloween decorations in the parks and houses.
A short trip takes us to the farm-studded L’ile d’Orleans, a river island that is home to La Seigneurie gardens. This young garden is the creation of the energetic Nancy Corriveau who has designed six extensive themed sections (perhaps one for each of her six children?) and established a lavender plantation with more than 75,000 plants. Rocks have been used with great effect in the garden, especially for the entrance driveway. Nancy’s interpreter explains that the rock paved entrance was inspired by a visit Nancy made to France. She arrived home filled with transformative zeal and wouldn’t rest until she had built a new driveway, bridge and arched stone entrance to her home.
After touring Quebec we sail north again and begin to note salt mountains being heaped in the riverside towns, ready for de-icing the winter roads. Winter is getting closer and the colours in the trees are becoming brighter and deeper.
We cruise right up to Rimouski where we are privileged to visit the wonderful Les Jardins de Metis, also known as Reford Gardens. In 1926 Elsie Reford, then in her mid-50s, took up gardening on her doctor’s orders and found it became an overwhelming passion. Elsie spent the next thirty years supervising the transformation of her former fishing camp into a remarkable living work of art. The making of the garden was recorded by Elsie’s photographer husband over the first fifty years and this ensures that her legacy can be carried on. The garden is home to an astonishing botanical collection and many rare plant species that have been cajoled into thriving in the harsh Quebec climate.
Our trip approaches the end with a return down the river to Montreal. Here we have the opportunity to explore the city and enjoy a guided tour of the Jardin Botanique de Montreal, one of the world’s most renowned botanic gardens.
Sadly, we disembark and farewell the MV Grande Mariner in Montreal. Like tortoises that have lost their shells, we leave behind our comfortable floating home and head to the airport to pick up our lives. Despite our sorrow, we take away wonderful memories of a unique journey that has shared gardens, mansions, history, lectures, on board entertainment, beautiful natural scenery, stunning autumn colours, riverside wildlife and more orange pumpkins than we’ll see for the rest of our lifetimes!
Botanica’s next cruise (with me as host!) on the Hudson River, Erie Canal and St Lawrence Seaway will be in September 2016. For more detailed information about this unique trip visit Botanica Word Discoveries.
[This post is brought to you by Botanica, the garden cruising specialist]