Completed in 1916, Healy Falls Dam is the largest on the Trent River. © Photos by Pharos 2014
Today the sun sparkles. I’m on the Kawartha Voyageur (KV) taking the Quinte Cruise, one of Ontario Waterway Cruises (OWC) three, five-day cruises in the region. It is a great start to experience my first day amongst the fabled Thousand Islands sprinkled across the upper part of the St. Lawrence River. When an historian joins the ship for the day at Gananoque, I secure a spot on the upper deck, camera in hand, and record his commentary. Later I spend two hours in Gananoque, gateway to the Thousand Islands. The town was settled in the late 1700s and it does feel old by Canadian standards as I browse the boutiques, peek into the Socialist Pig coffee shop, and admire the red-brick, river-front homes.
The Quinte Cruise route navigates a 370-kilometer/231-mile section of the Trent-Severn Waterway, Bay of Quinte and the Thousand Islands. From mid-May to mid-October, it cruises with different ports of call and overnight stops depending on the direction. Courtesy of Ontario Waterways Cruise
I enjoy my first dinner aboard as we steam towards Kingston for the night. We dine long-table style getting to know the 44 fellow passengers. My eyes widen as one says, “It’s my twenty-fifth cruise. I’ve given up long haul flights and enjoy the relaxation on KV.” The family-run ship has been cruising since 1982 to much acclaim. Another passenger tells me, “I so like the ship stopping each night.” I relish the prospect and won’t miss seasickness either.
All but four aboard are Ontarians and, as the single British Columbian, I’m the youngest at nearly seventy. The other two are Floridians. Captain and part-owner, Marc Ackert, explains, “OWC books a few Brits and Germans, but we used to have many more American passengers before the recession of 2008.” The food tonight is not the haute cuisine of ocean cruising or European river cruising, but rather country farmhouse fare: fresh, wholesome, and plentiful. There are no menu choices but I get two desserts a day and seconds for everything. So far I’ve resisted the homemade snacks that materialize three times a day.
Our cabins are on the lower deck of the KV; the lounge and dining saloon are in the middle, with a sundeck on top. The folding bow, which allows KV to fit the locks, has a deck for those who enjoy a waterline perspective.
During each meal, dining room guests enjoy country farmhouse fare from a set menu. Bob Brown CGS Imaging
The fabled Thousand Islands of southern Ontario, www.1000islandstourism.com, are scattered like emeralds on an azure background. Although flying above all 1,864 islands is spectacular, the only way to truly appreciate their history and scenery is by water. The Canadian islands are in the province of Ontario; the U.S. islands in the state of New York.
Aerial view of the Thousand Islands. © TheGreatwaterway.com
The fifty-mile long archipelago, formed from a granite tongue of the Canadian Shield at the end of the last Ice Age, lies at the beginning of the St. Lawrence River where it meets Lake Ontario at Kingston. The boundary agreement of 1793 between Canada and the United States determined that no island should be split by the border, which left two-thirds of the islands Canadian, but the actual acreage was equally divided between the two countries.
Visitors here sail past modern mansions, myriad pleasure boats, a sole cottage perched on a tiny island, and huge castles on the American side. Once a playground of the rich, two castles stagger the imagination. George Boldt built his on Heart Island for the love of his wife. After her premature death, he abandoned it and for decades it deteriorated. In 1977 the Thousand Islands’ Bridge Authority began restoring it and has since opened Boldt Castle and its Yacht House to the public.
Everyone please sit down while the boat goes under a bridge! Bob Brown CGS Imaging
We sail before breakfast on a long steam down wide channels to Trenton. Similar to sea days on bigger ships, it’s time for reading and relaxation in the sun or playing a board game with new friends. We pass Glenora Ferry in Prince Edward County to port along the Bay of Quinte. After sliding under the Belleville bridge, we moor in downtown Trenton and I anticipate the private tour of the Royal Canadian Air Force museum at Trenton’s air base later. Usually evening entertainment is more homespun: a naturalist’s talk, a bocce tournament, a walk ashore, or the skits of crew night.
The ex-military local cruisers eagerly tell me about the “bricks” at the National Air Force Museum of Canada. Outside the building is an airpark filled with Canada’s military aircraft on display. On the ground, winding around the planes, are thousands of white bricks, each with the name of an air force member. These have been donated by their families.
White bricks commemorate Canadian air force members at the National Air Force Museum, Trenton. © Photos by Pharos 2014
Trenton is the entrance to the Trent-Severn Waterway, a National Historic Site that opened in 1920 after 87 years of construction. It connects Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. The sky is heavy with rain as we enter the first of 19 locks on our way to Peterborough. I realize why KV is box-shaped — she has to fit the straight walls and narrow dimensions of the locks, as well as negotiate under low bridges. Sometimes, there are only inches to spare all round. Our skillful skipper says, “It’s much trickier in high summer with hundreds of pleasure boats swarming around us.”
It is pleasant to get some exercise while walking river- and canal-side pathways. Ontario Waterway Cruises
Over the next three days we glide past wetlands, along wide rivers and narrow tree-lined cuts, and through the long Rice Lake with its many drumlins which are rounded islands formed by glacial action. We marvel at the canals and dams built manually a hundred years ago to control water flow and generate electricity, and photograph the rustic cottages and modern homes on the banks. We explore small-town Ontario, places like Campbellford and Hastings, and learn the history of the Trent River.
We saw many Painted Turtles dozing on logs in the sunshine during our 32 km/20 mile cruise up the Otonabee River to Peterborough. © Parks Canada with permission
I’m constantly peering through the powerful binoculars provided for us. I see ospreys that have recently made a comeback here, loon and geese families, and solo herons. On the last stretch from Rice Lake to Peterborough on the Otonabee River, turtles abound. As we sail past, I hear them plop off logs into the water, often before I see them.
The Kawartha Voyageur cannot be compared with the physical luxury or spaciousness of Europe’s river boats. However, our passengers are well-traveled and interesting. I soon know them all by name, and the knowledgeable captain is accessible to all. KV’s showers are at the stern, but are uber-good. However, it is KV’s customer service that is the WOW! factor on board and it’s completely genuine due to a policy of no gratuities. The hand-picked crew takes pleasure in making the cruise outstanding. Admittedly, I’d like to have a cabin that allows two to dress at the same time — they are minuscule — but they do have air-conditioning. I’d also prefer more selection in beer and wine, but when docked at a town for a few hours, my husband and I headed for the local pubs to sample other locally-produced ale or wine.
Before Canada was Canada, the lakes and rivers were the fur trade highways that opened up the nation, so it seems strange that there are so few overnight river cruises. I know of only four in southern Ontario. I’ve now done two with OWC and have booked my third in June 2015 to complete the northern half of the Trent-Severn Waterway. I’m a convert to small ships and the Canadian style of river cruising.
The cabins are small but equipped with toilet, sink, twin lower berths and a screened window. Bob Brown CGS Imaging
Ontario Waterway Cruises, www.ontariowaterwaycruises.com, operates three cruises on the Kawartha Voyageur from mid-May to mid-October. There is no TV aboard, but there are good Wi-Fi and cell reception throughout the cruise. There is an elevator only between the lower and middle deck, making neither the vessel nor the cabins wheel-chair friendly. However, there is one cabin to accommodate a person with a walker. Consideration is given for dietary needs like diabetes and allergies, but the ability to modify the set menu for anyone with other restricted diets is quite limited. It is best to discuss with the OWC office any dietary restriction prior to booking. Children under 13 are not permitted.
Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/on/trentsevern/index.aspx
Peterborough and the Kawarthas Tourism: http://thekawarthas.ca/
The Great Waterway of South Eastern Ontario: www.thegreatwaterway.com
Tourism Kingston: www.tourism.kingstoncanada.com
Tourism Ontario: www.ontariotravel.net
Caption: The Kawartha Voyageur is made of steel with an overall length of 120 feet, designed specifically for the locks and bridges on the waterways of Southern Ontario. Bob Brown CGS Imaging
Julie H. Ferguson is an addicted travel writer and photographer, and the author of twenty-four books, four of which are about Canadian history and nine are photo portfolios. Julie never leaves home without her cameras and voice recorder, always looking for the color and sounds that captivate readers everywhere. Julie’s websites are www.beaconlit.com and www.stampsinmypassport.blogspot.com.
Enjoy other articles by Julie Ferguson in our Travel Article Library collection: An Eagle-Watching Festival in British Columbia, and A Self-Driving Tour of Southern France to Discover the Provence of Cezanne and Picasso.