Canada’s historic Rideau Canal might be a new player on the canal boating scene, but it is right up there with the best that Europe has to offer. Le Boat has a range of houseboats on the canal with everything you could need on board.
Thrusters are my friend. I learn this as I steer the three-cabin canal boat gingerly into the lock. Me. Driving. Without so much as a certificate or a boat licence. At the flick of a switch I can give power to push the bow (front), or the stern (back), left or right, making it easy, or at least easier, to manoeuvre into the small space. Once close enough, my friends on board can pass the bow and stern ropes to the affable Parks Canada crew, so we are safely held in place before the lock empties, I can motor out into the next section of the canal.
We board our jaunty steed at Le Boat’s base in Smiths Falls, enthusiastic, and a little daunted, for the three-night journey ahead up the Rideau Canal. We are taken out for a fairly comprehensive briefing, each taking turns to helm (drive) and practise going in and out of a lock. After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast that we prepare in the well set up galley, we move to the lock, tying up at the ‘blue line’, which means we want to go through the lock. Fortunately, the Horizon Premier Class boats have tough-as-nails bumpers all around, like an aquatic dodgem car, so even if one of us scrapes the lock, or a tree (no names mentioned), it matters not a toss.
Unlocking the Rideau
The Rideau is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America and is UNESCO World Heritage listed. In the mid-18th century, when tensions were high after the War of 1812 in Canada, there were fears that access to Kingston, on Lake Ontario, could be cut off, so, a Royal Engineer by the name of John By was given the task of building it. And build it he did. His ingenuity constructing the 202 km-long canal, with its 45 locks in 23 lock stations, is to be admired. Only 10 per cent of it is man made, with the rest being canals, rivers and lakes. The locks are operated today much as they were back in 1832, and the elegant stone buildings are also much the same.
Life on the boat is easy and relaxing. We stay at a lock station each night, always tranquil and pretty, and go exploring when we arrive at our new destination. We see so much along the way. At Old Sly’s Rapids I am beside myself when I see an otter swim past the boat. An otter! At Long Island, I am up early to take photos of the sunrise and I am surprised by a mink, coming down the dock to check me out. We become familiar with the cries of the loons that we see everywhere, and then there are the ospreys that we see all along the route.
Go to town
As for the towns, we fall in love with gorgeous Merrickville, a quaint village with houses dating back to the Victorian era and artisans on every corner. We arrange a tour through the lovely ladies at Merrickville Historic Walking Tours, and meet several local artists in their studios. Mustard fans should make a bee line for Mrs. McGarrigle’s Fine Foods, which has 14 kinds of mustard, and I find delicious gelato and a decent flat white at Stellar Luna Gelato Café.
Further up the canal, in Manotick, we head straight to the Gingerbread Man, in high demand for his delicious gingerbread and for his works of art made out of the sweet stuff. Then we tour Watson’s Mill, a historic mill that has been producing grist and flour since the 1860s. One of the founders, Joseph Currier, lost his wife, Ann Crosby Currier, to a terrible accident at the mill. He moved to Ottawa, building a house for his new bride. Today, that house, at 32 Sussex Drive, is the official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada. Apparently, Ann can still be seen at the mill, but lucky for us, she wasn’t in the mood for company when we were there.
We also move on to Ottawa, admiring all the grand houses on the riverbanks as we putter past, and go through the double Hogs Back and Hartwell Locks, taking a short pit stop to check out the quite beautiful Hogs Back Falls. As we near the end of our trip, we are distracted from our sadness by the sheer elegance of this grand city – the capital of Canada. The turrets of the Fairmont Château Laurier stand tall, as do the spires of Canada’s Parliament.
Later, after we leave the boat, we venture up onto the bridge above the canal. Down below, is the grandest view of all, the magnificent eight tiers of locks where the Rideau Canal falls and splashes, drops and dives into the waters of the Ottawa River.
NB This story first appeared in Signature Luxury Travel and Style magazine