Canadian Canal Boat Vacation

Navigate Ontario’s Rideau on a self-drive river cruiser

BY T.J. OLWIG — Summer 2019

he heavy splash of water from the canal lock’s upper gate spills alongside the boat, slowly lifting us higher. To steady our position, I give a firm yank of the deck rope that’s looped to a drop cable hanging from the chamber wall. Despite my satisfaction with myself, my stern duties are a cinch compared with the labor being done on dry land. There, on opposite sides of the canal, a trio of green-clad lockkeepers in Parks Canada gear twirl their arms in a speedy rotation, manually opening each gate, ultimately setting us free.

It’s October, and nippy air and autumn-tinged trees welcome me on my first morning of a three-day boat trip through the lakes and rivers of Ontario’s Rideau Canal — a 126-mile waterway connecting Kingston to Ottawa, and North America’s oldest continuously operated canal system. With three other passengers, I’m aboard a new Horizon 4 river cruiser from Le Boat, the self-drive boat-vacation company that sailed into Canadian waters a year ago, its first destination outside of Europe, where it operates in eight countries. We just climbed the 59-foot rise at Jones Falls, the highest of the 45 locks on the Rideau Canal. From here, we’ll head north through the open waters and serene shoreline, eating, drinking, and soaking up a smorgasbord of small-town Canadian charm along the way.

Aye Aye, Captain

“So it’s a boat with cabins, not a floating house?” an inquisitive dock-side onlooker asks at Chaffey’s Lock, where a caravan of kayaking children ascends the stone lock beside us.

Indeed, with a fully equipped kitchen, four en-suite cabins, and sleeping space for nine, the sleek Horizon 4 wasn’t designed to just get you on the water, but to keep you on the water. From our first mooring to our last, curious passersby gawk at our cushy digs, stopping to natter about amenities and electricity, drivability, and availability, with a few folks even jumping aboard for a tour.

Long has the Rideau been a place of recreation for Ontarians and their families, but the canal’s original purpose was strategic. After the War of 1812, with Canada under British rule, fear spread that the United States would cut off the supply chain at Lake Ontario. So, by way of a canal, plans were designed to connect Ottawa and Kingston, deterring any such invasion. In 2007, UNESCO praised the canal as “a masterpiece of creative genius,” giving Ontario its first official World Heritage Site.

Today, using the same 19th-century engineering on all but three lockstations, the lock system operates from May to October under the wings of Parks Canada. Le Boat adheres to the same schedule, and wannabe skippers 18 and older don’t even need a boating license to head out on the canal in one of its boats. Even a boat-inept guy like me, with the help of thrusters and a detailed nautical chart, can play skipper for an afternoon — and I do, redlining it through Upper Rideau Lake at a top-end speed of 6 mph. Lucky for us, and the migrating loons just off the bow, designers built the Horizon 4 for leisure, not to crack the record books.

Oh, the Places to Go

With Le Boat, a jaunt on the Rideau tailors to do-it-yourself travelers. When you pick up your boat in Smiths Falls — a 45-minute transfer from the Ottawa airport — you have the freedom to craft a hard-nosed itinerary, hopscotch from shore to shore, or opt for a hybrid of the two, as we do. Boaters can also rent bicycles for exploring when on land.

At Chaffey’s Lock, we spend a couple of hours on the rolling lawns of the Opinicon, an idyllic vacation resort known as the “Grand Old Dame of the Rideau.” With its quaint cottages and red Adirondack chairs, I liken the resort’s Old World ambience to Dirty Dancing, the hit 1980s romantic drama. As it turns out, owner Fiona McKean agrees, describing the historic property as “the Group of Seven meets Dirty Dancing.” 

Inspired by childhood summers in its ice cream shop, McKean purchased the decrepit Opinicon on a nostalgic whim in 2015 through an online auction. After a hefty renovation, the resort is attracting droves of boaters once more. Our outing there consists of cold beer and nachos in the pub and a visit to the retro tiki bar. It culminates with double scoops of ice cream all around, mine topped with a double espresso.

Farther up the way, we dock in a quiet canal outside the Village of Newboro, where the main attraction is Kilborn’s on the Rideau, an expansive department store in the center of town. We arrive by boat and take a five-minute saunter through the woods to get there. Anchored for the night, we snack beside a campfire, sipping wine and swapping stories beneath a starlit Canadian sky.

Scheuermann Winery

Stopovers are diverse and aplenty along the banks of the Rideau. In the artist community of Merrickville, funky shops and Victorian-era houses fill its postcard-worthy streets. There’s a glassblowing studio, a candle-making company, and my personal highlight, Canada’s best gelato — literally — at the award-winning Stella Luna Gelato Café. In the Village of Westport, after a brisk hike alongside Foley Mountain, we wander the vineyard and eat wood-fired pizza at the family-owned Scheuermann Winery.

In many ways, it’s the hospitable and kindhearted citizens of the Rideau — waving and welcoming us everywhere we go — who take our experience to memorable heights. I suppose Curtis, the smiling deputy harbor master in Westport, exemplifies it best: “You’re Le Boat number 222 this season. I’ve been counting all summer.” With the larger Horizon 5 just added in May, his tally will grow that much more. 800-734-5491; leboat.com

What’s New in Ottawa

Whether a boat trip is on your docket or not, you have plenty of reasons to visit Canada’s capital, with a modern revival luring travelers from near and far.

Where to stay: The Le Germain Hotel Ottawa offers a stylish boutique experience in the city’s heart. Dressed in black-and-white artwork by Canadian photographer Julie Couture, all 115 guest rooms come with Chromecast devices and Nespresso coffee machines. From $259. 833-503-0030; legermainhotels.com/ottawa

Just outside Chelsea, overlooking Gatineau Park, check into the newly renovated, 11-room O’Brien House, the former mansion of a 1930s millionaire. From $339. 819-510-1930; theobrienhouse.ca

What to see: From Le Germain’s lobby, walk next door to the Ottawa Art Gallery, the recently expanded home to the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art and one of the largest collections of Group of Seven work. Stop for a bite in its café or farm-forward restaurant. 613-233-8699; oaggao.ca

The Canadian Museum of Nature’s Canada Goose Arctic Gallery, an interactive exploration of the people, plants, and animals of the Arctic, puts emphasis on the growing effects of climate change on that region. 800-263-4433; nature.ca

Where to eat: At Stofa, in the trendy Wellington West neighborhood, chef-owner Jason Sawision, a former understudy of celebrated Canadian chef Marc Lepine, serves an eclectic menu of meat and seafood, such as vindaloo beef tartare, with the occasional touch of molecular gastronomy. 613-722-6555; stofarestaurant.com

On Le Germain’s second floor, chef David Bozic plates seasonal and Canadian-only ingredients at Norca Restaurant & Bar. 613-691-3218; norcarestaurant.ca

Where to drink: Sip a craft cocktail or tiki drink at Charlotte, a cozy-chic lounge with retro decor and a living room vibe on downtown’s Elgin Street. 613-421-0669; charlotteottawa.com

Head to Copper Spirits & Sights, the rooftop bar of downtown’s Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market hotel, for sweeping views of the Ottawa skyline, with Parliament Hill serving as the highlight. 613-321-1234; andazottawa.com

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