The Rideau Canal

By Bruce Kemp

The warmer weather has finally arrived, bringing with it the excitement of enjoying the great outdoors. It’s hard to imagine a better way to do so than cruising the picturesque waters of southern Ontario while relishing the finer things in life.

I recently enjoyed such a boating holiday on the Rideau Canal alongside my wife Laurie and our seven-year-old granddaughter, Sophie, aboard one of Le Boat’s luxurious 42-foot rentals. I’ve driven plenty of boats, but this one isn’t like any I’ve ever driven before. It’s luxurious and armour-plated, which is good as it’s designed to let those who are new to driving a boat develop experience in a safe environment while having fun cruising the waters of eastern Ontario’s canal system.

The Rideau isn’t just one river, it’s a 202-kilometre system of lakes and rivers strung together, punctuated by rapids and waterfalls, then bookended by Kingston and Ottawa. Along the way are more than a dozen historic limestone towns and villages that can take their place with any of the great cottage countrysides, such as the Cotswolds, UK or Dordogne, France. 

Our boat is extremely well-designed — spacious with lots of room to relax, as well as cook and steer from inside when the weather turns nasty, or outside on the fly bridge when the weather is good. Staterooms are equipped with double berths and each has its own ensuite bathroom including a commode, shower and deep sink with mirrors and lighting. The beds have luxury towels, linens and pillows and there’s plenty of storage for cruising and shore clothes. The boat is so nice that you may not want to go ashore.

A lot of boats typically have small windows and portholes, making the cabin a dreary place to work and relax. But in our Le Boat there are spacious windows to let the light in, and screens to keep flying pests out. The interior is air-cooled for sticky summer nights.

The boat comes with a refrigerator, a four-burner propane stove and oven along with a microwave and plenty of counter space for food prep. Le Boat doesn’t offer a food and drinks package, but they do provide boaters with contacts for local outlets that provide online grocery and liquor shopping with delivery.

Meals can be served around a big table with family-style banquette seating in the main cabin or moved outside onto the fly bridge. All of Le Boat’s cruisers have a fly bridge; it’s a great place to relax on the boat. High above the water, enjoy a great view as you pass historic villages, wildlife areas and gently rolling farm country. This upper deck is shaded with a permanent sunscreen and includes a grill, large table and seating for the crew. It’s a perfect place for a late lunch or early glass of wine (once you’ve tied the boat up for the night). There are two padded lounges forward of the sunscreen with pop-up backrests so sunbathers can sit up to read or watch the world.    

Design-wise, the European heritage is obvious throughout. Le Boat began in Europe and is now the continent’s biggest self-drive boating company. A four-decade staple on the continent’s rivers, Le Boat looked long and hard before launching its first North American operation in Smiths Falls on the Rideau. In Europe, the company operates more than 900 boats on waterways ranging from Ireland’s Shannon River to the Venice lagoons.

“As you start to explore different parts of it (the Rideau) and the different villages it really starts coming to life,” said Cheryl Brown, general manager of Le Boat worldwide in explaining why the company chose the Rideau. “You start to see all the best of our European cruising grounds all in one place.”

The Rideau is one of the two first regions to enjoy the explosion of cottage country tourism (the other being Muskoka). People flock from Montreal, Kingston, Toronto and the northeastern US to enjoy the fishing and summer activities.

There are a number of historic luxury resorts, like the Opinicon, if boating really isn’t your thing. This doyen of the canal re-opened after major renovations, and offers all the charm and warmth of the early days of Ontario’s cottage country.

Kingston is, without a doubt, the most historic city in Ontario. A wonderful walking town, Kingston has lots to entertain historians as well as foodies. Along with dozens of good restaurants and brewpubs, the town boasts a fortress (Fort Henry), Martello Towers, the Royal Military College, Queen’s University, the Kingston Penitentiary and its wonderful museum, as well as Bellevue House — the home of Sir John A. Macdonald.

The other end of the canal empties into the Ottawa River directly below the Parliament buildings. Bordering the canal in Ottawa is the Rideau Canal Museum, telling the story of the building and evolving history of the waterway. The venerable Chateau Laurier hovers just above the canal’s Ottawa flight locks as they descend to the Ottawa River. Within walking distance of the last tie-up above the flight locks are: the National Art Gallery, the exquisite Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, and the ByWard Market — an exciting hub of food shops, pubs and street stalls in the historic heart of the city.

Further afield (not within walking distance, but worth visiting anyway), are the Canadian Museum of History across the river in Gatineau, Canadian Museum of Nature (downtown) and the Canadian War Museum (LeBreton Flats).   

While summer is peak season for visiting the Rideau, it’s safe to say the picturesque area makes a great place to visit all year long.