Autumnal riches stud the New England coastal route and, for Pamela Wade, come courtesy of small-ship luxury.

You can tell the regulars: they're the ones on last-name terms.

"It's my second time this year on Whisper," says the woman from Jersey at lifeboat drill.

"I've done Cloud and Shadow," says the surgeon from Seattle over dinner.

"Wind is great," says Jerry from Georgia, slightly alarmingly, during Trivial Pursuit.

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Sailing on Silversea's Silver Whisper for only my second time, I don't like to be so presumptuous; but I do feel right at home.

I have no hesitation in informing my butler Janice of my alcohol and pillow preferences, I know to get in early with my booking for the intimate dining room Le Champagne and, when I turn from the breakfast buffet with my loaded plate, I'm ready to have it taken from me by a white-coated waiter who follows me to my table. I've been so looking forward to all this small-ship luxury again.

The unexpected joy is the route. I chose this October cruise along the New England coast because I wanted to enjoy the autumn foliage, but I had no expectation it would be quite this glorious. There is nothing - nothing! - like entire hillsides swathed solely in orange, red and yellow, spotlit in the sunshine or glowing from within on a cloudy day.

It's such a transient delight that Silversea is doing this 10-day cruise just three times this season, and even then there's no guarantee that the leaf-peeping will satisfy. Wind and temperature are the governing factors, but happily they're co-operating for me and the colours just get better and better as we sail north from Boston.

The route takes us past Maine and into Canadian waters as we approach Nova Scotia; then we turn into the St Lawrence Seaway where the shores gradually converge as we sail inland and, well before journey's end at Montreal, I can watch our bow-wave breaking beneath an unbroken curtain of red and gold.

There's plenty of opportunity to get up close to the delights of the North American autumn before then: each day brings a port with excursion options, and my choices deliver riches of scenery, Thanksgiving decorations and history.

Also lobster: it's obligatory. Captain John takes me out in his lobster boat at Bar Harbor and explains its prime importance to the local economy, so I hesitate to mention that, for flavour, a Kaikoura crayfish beats it hands down. I keep eating it, naturally - it's only polite - though, sadly, I don't get to try a McLobster from McDonald's.

Finally, in a cafe in the little French-Canadian town of Perce, I have a toasted roll with lobster in home-made mayonnaise that is genuinely delicieux.

It's quite dislocating to be in what is patently Canada, yet to hear French spoken everywhere, see baguettes taken home tucked under elbows and pass road signs instructing "Arret". Even the KFC is French, the red-striped bucket on the roof labelled PFK, for Poulet Frit Kentucky.

The prettiness is pure East Coast, however: brightly painted houses with shingled roofs cling to the bare rock in the little fishing villages where boats bob in the harbour and the lighthouse stands alone. There are red barns and silos in the country, and in the town parks squirrels dart beneath the trees, cheeks bulging with acorns. Each place has its claim to fame.

Halifax is where the dead from the Titanic sinking were brought, many of them buried in its cemeteries and all remembered in its excellent museum. Near Sydney (not that one), Baddeck claims ownership of Alexander Graham Bell and his work with the deaf.

Gaspe has an impressive Hole in the Rock and Sept-Iles boasts a Trading Post hung with beaver pelts and fox furs. Quebec is super-French and outrageously picturesque, and Montreal has a real buzz, a beautiful cathedral and a huge underground network of shops.

The most unexpected delight, though, has to be Saguenay, a little town up a tributary that puts on a show appropriately titled La Fabuleuse. It's astonishing - a cast of 200 locals, playing Indians, French aristocrats and colonists, is joined onstage by a tank, two cars and a jeep, cantering horses, a pig, a flock of geese, a cow and a goat, cannon fire, bombs, abseiling soldiers, a boat, flames and a man on fire. Oh, and a flood. No wonder it's been playing to packed houses for 27 years.

Back on board, Janice has noticed I'm not eating the peanuts and stops including them in the evening dish of mixed nuts. Well played.

CHECKLIST

To avoid disappointment, book early at silversea.com.

Book-end the cruise with comparable luxury at Boston's Fairmont Copley Plaza and afterwards at Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth in Montreal.