Are you curious about exploring Canada in the summer months? From May through September, the inland waterways of Ontario (my home province) are a paradise for slow travel by small ships to discover quaint villages, enjoy the natural beauty, and immerse yourself in Canada’s living history.
Below are 3 small-ship cruises to get off-the-beaten-path on the Rideau Canal and the St. Lawrence River. All three are a short drive from Toronto or Ottawa and can also be reached by train with VIA Rail.
While this may not be what comes to mind when you think about “cruising” (no casinos, gala shows, haute cuisine, or fancy dining rooms), those seeking slow travel, comfort food, and a relaxing cottage-like atmosphere will find these trips a much-needed escape!
1. Le Boat Vacations Along The Rideau Canal
If you are feeling adventurous, you can captain your own luxury houseboat. Le Boat Vacations in Smiths Falls on the Rideau Canal is just an hour’s drive from Ottawa. The Rideau Canal is an inland waterway between Kingston on Lake Ontario and Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. It was completed in 1832 and remains one of the oldest continuously operated canal systems in North America, spanning 125 miles, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With the flexibility to cruise for 2 to 7 nights on houseboats ranging in size from one cabin and one bathroom to five cabins and five bathrooms, Le Boat Vacations is ideal for adventurous couples, families, and friends looking for a private cruising experience.
For a family of boat novices like ours, we paid close attention during the 2-hour training session when we picked up our Horizon 2 houseboat. Training included how to read maps and navigational charts, how to operate the boat, and information on entering and exiting the canal locks. The trainer stayed with us until we navigated our first lock and then he jumped off and he threw the ropes back to us before wishing us a safe journey.
Our two-cabin houseboat was perfect for my husband, daughter, and me. Le Boat is pet-friendly, so we brought along our Samoyed puppy who enjoyed riding on the top deck, swimming, and going for hikes with us. The reservations team at Le Boat was very helpful in planning our itinerary and offering to purchase groceries, cleaning products, and anything else we needed.
Captaining our own houseboat was not overly difficult, however, you’ll be doing a lot of climbing up, down, and around the boat to help your captain tie ropes at the many locks and docks. The Parks Canada staff at each lock were very welcoming and helpful, particularly for boating rookies! In fact, all but two locks continue to be manually operated by Parks Canada staff.
We enjoyed preparing our meals in the fully equipped kitchen or on the upper deck barbecue and discovering restaurants, bars, and wineries along the way, where we were able to dock overnight or just to visit for a few hours.
With all the comforts of home including Wi-Fi, loads of power outlets, comfortable loungers, and tables in the kitchen and on the top deck, these houseboats are a perfect remote floating office in case you need to work and vacation at the same time. In just 4 days we visited several towns including Westport and Smiths Falls and docked overnight on picturesque Colonel By Island, where we enjoyed a bonfire and swam on a sandy beachfront. Cruising along the Rideau on our own houseboat was a memorable hands-on history lesson with all the comforts of home.
Pro Tips: Book well ahead of your desired date of travel to secure the size of boat you need and to plan your itinerary and meals on the Rideau Canal. Bring along rubber-soled shoes as the decks can be slippery when wet.
2. Ontario Waterway Cruises Along The Entire Rideau Canal
You can leave the captaining and cooking to the pros and simply sit back and enjoy the hospitality and scenery on the 44-passenger Kawartha Voyageur with Ontario Waterway Cruises. On a 6-night itinerary, we cruised the entire 202 kilometers of the Rideau Canal from Kingston on Lake Ontario to the city of Ottawa. Our captain was also the owner of this family-run, one-ship company. From the moment we stepped on board we were welcomed like family and the ship felt like a floating cottage with friends. The majority of the passengers had cruised multiple times on this ship, returning year after year.
The cabins were quite small, with a toilet and sink separated from the sleeping area only by a curtain, and the public showers were at the end of the hall. Bring your own bathrobe and flip-flops.
All three meals were served in the bright salon with panoramic windows. Everything was prepared fresh in the galley including the bread, cakes, and pastries. While you should not expect haute cuisine, the home-spun menu includes dishes like hot turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes and tasty lasagna with salad. Servings were plentiful, and second helpings were always offered, so you will never go hungry.
The captain shared in-depth details about the canal and the locks as well as personal stories about the small towns along the way. Guests were welcome to stand at the bow and speak to the captain and crew as the Kawartha Voyageur navigated the canal’s 49 locks. It was heartwarming to see the captain greet all of the Parks Canada lockmasters and staff with smiles, hot and cold beverages, and pastries along the way. While it was very comfortable to relax on the top deck, the small towns along the canal, just a short walk from the locks, are full of interesting antiques and local products.
Our cruise ended in Ottawa and most passengers were transferred by bus back to Kingston where our cars were parked. Others continued their travels from Ottawa by rail or air.
Pro Tips: Pack very light with layers. There is very limited storage in the cabins. Don’t forget your bathrobe.
3. St. Lawrence Cruise Lines Along The Mighty St. Lawrence River
A third option is to explore the mighty St. Lawrence River on the 66-passenger Canadian Empress with St. Lawrence Cruise Lines. You will be immersed in the history and beauty of the river and its waterfront towns.
Apart from the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, the daily routine – with options for morning and afternoon tours – was ideal. I cruised for 5 days from Kingston to Upper Canada Village with a stop in Gananoque before meandering through the picturesque Thousand Islands (actually 1,870 islands stretching 50 miles between Kingston and Brockville), with stately cottages and castles from bygone days on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. A knowledgeable onboard cruise director and the destination tour guides provided in-depth information about the history of the forts, cities, and villages visited, including Brockville, Prescott, and Ivy Lea.
My favorite stop was the Upper Canada Village, which felt like traveling back in time to the 1860s, strolling through a rural Canadian village replete with working horses, carriages, bakeries, mills, and a printing shop.
The cabins, all with ensuite bathrooms, were quite small but very comfortable and quiet. I’m afraid that if you are accustomed to big cruises with large cabins and balconies, this may not be for you. However, if you are up for a new adventure-focused largely off the ship learning about people, culture, and never-ending natural beauty this is a great choice. The lovely newly renovated Grand Saloon is bright and airy and the service is personal and genuine. Entertainment included music and magic shows held in the dining room after dinner. The top deck was always open to relax or play friendly shuffleboard. Without an elevator to move between decks and lots of walking on tours, you’ll want to be physically fit and active to enjoy this cruise.
There are a number of itinerary options on the Ottawa River and St. Lawrence Seaway between historic Kingston, quaint Quebec City, and Montreal along the St. Lawrence River, all easily accessed by air, rail, and car.
Pro Tips: Be certain to turn off data roaming on your cellular phone to avoid unexpected charges along the U.S.-Canada border. Nothing fancy is required on this cruise, so bring casual clothes and comfortable walking shoes.
If you are planning international travel, you should consider these options for slow travel and exploring cities, towns, and villages in Ontario by small ship.
For more ideas and inspiration for Ontario, check out these articles: