Canadian Staycation: Cruising in Ontario Without the Crowds

Cruising in Ontario

Canadian Empress docked in Gananoque. Photo: Judi Cohen

Ready for an adventure, but not comfortable with crossing the border? A small-ship experience right here in Canada might be just what you’re looking for.

This summer, I had an opportunity to do something I should have done a long, long time ago … and experienced three very different types of small-ship cruises right here in Ontario on the Rideau Canal and along the St. Lawrence River. Both offered abundant natural beauty, rich Canadian history and calm waters.

These aren’t your typical cruises! If you are accustomed to a big ship with suites, gala shows, haute cuisine and oodles of on-board programs, these won’t necessarily be your cup of tea … however, if you are craving slow travel, comfort food and total relaxation on what feels like a floating cottage, you should definitely consider small-ship cruising.

For example, you can captain a boat all to yourself — and prepare your meals on-board. (Believe me, if I could do it, so can you!) Or, you can let someone else do the navigation and food prep, and choose a more traditional small cruise. It’s really up to you and how adventurous you’re feeling!

LeBoat offers luxury houseboat holidays on the Rideau Canal; St. Lawrence Cruise Lines offers variable length cruises on its 66-passenger Canadian Empress along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers; and Ontario Waterway Cruises offers six-day itineraries aboard the 45-passenger Kawartha Voyageur on the Rideau Canal, Kawartha Lakes and the Trent-Severn Waterway.


5  Things You Need to Know About Small-Ship Cruising in Ontario 


1. You CAN Self-Captain Your Own Boat


Cruising in Ontario
Our LeBoat houseboat docked overnight on Colonel By Island in Big Rideau Lake. Photo: Judi Cohen


If you’re the adventurous type, try a private houseboat along the historic Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ideal for couples, families, groups of friends — and two dogs — LeBoat houseboats have up to 5 cabins/5 bathrooms and can accommodate 12 passengers. We had a two-bedroom/two-bath boat and prepared most of our meals on-board. There’s a great barbecue on the rooftop and the kitchen is fully outfitted for cooking. Bring your own cleaning products, shampoo, soap, tin foil, plastic wrap and containers to store leftovers in the small fridge. LeBoat will purchase your groceries and deliver them to your boat at an additional cost. We brought a cooler for our drinks and ice was available along the way. Self-captaining requires a team effort while navigating, docking and tying the ropes in the locks. One advantage of this is that you can spend your time without a mask, except for the 90-minute training session, and when you venture into stores in small towns along the way. Book directly with LeBoat or with your travel agent. For 2021 the closing day is Oct. 10. 


2. Small-Ship Cruising Feels Safe!


On my small-ship cruise with St. Lawrence Cruise Lines’ 66-passenger Canadian Empress, all 24 Canadian passengers were fully vaccinated, and were required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of embarkation. For convenience, the cruise line had rapid tests available at the Crawford Wharf in Kingston at the time of check-in. Masks were required in all indoor public areas on the ship, with the exception of meal times when masks could be removed while seated.

Cruising in Ontario
Judi setting sail from Kingston on the Canadian Empress with St. Lawrence Cruise Lines. Photo: Lawrence Cohen


Relaxing on the sun deck, we had a panoramic view as we cruised through the Thousand Islands, under international bridges and docking in cities and small towns on our route from Kingston to Upper Canada Village, returning to Kingston. Book directly with St. Lawrence Cruise Lines or with your travel agent. Last sailing in 2021 is Oct. 20.


3. Embrace a Casual Ship Atmosphere While Immersing in Your Destination


For a more in-depth and immersive small-ship experience, Ontario Waterway Cruises’ Kawartha Voyageur, travels the entire 202-kilometre Rideau Canal from Kingston to Ottawa, offering the opportunity to experience and learn about the rich history and operation of its 49 locks.

Cruising in Ontario
Kawartha Voyageur docked at Poonamalie Lock. Photo: Judi Cohen


All 34 passengers as well as the crew were fully vaccinated. No testing prior to embarkation was required. Note: A passenger elevator connects the two passenger decks. To access the top deck, you had to climb one flight of fairly steep stairs.  Cabins were quite small with a toilet and sink separated from the sleeping area only by a curtain. Bring your own bathrobe to use when showering in one of four public shower rooms. Book directly with Ontario Waterway Cruises. Last sailing in 2021 is Oct. 11.


4. Be Flexible


Monitor the local COVID guidelines to help plan your cruise and stops along the way. Be flexible and understanding with the cruise operators and businesses in the communities, as some shops, restaurants and attractions are not yet back to their pre-COVID strides. Make reservations for restaurants and wineries in advance to avoid disappointment as a result of the lower number of guests permitted indoors and on patios.


Crusing in Ontario
Playing Bocci Ball at the dock in Merrickville. Photo: Judi Cohen


5. Explore the Towns


All three cruise options allow you to stay on-board for the duration of the cruises. However, if you are comfortable with walking in the quaint and welcoming small towns along the route, you will find eclectic antique stores, glass making studios, tempting bakeries, ice cream and fudge shops, and food emporiums selling a variety of local products, just to name a few. Showing your support for the hard-hit businesses is a great way to shop local and will be greatly appreciated.

You might just love these small-ship cruises so much that you will want to do one again next season.  I can only imagine what it would be like to cruise the Rideau Canal, St. Lawrence River, Ottawa River and the Trent-Severn Waterway in the fall as the leaves begin to change colour. There’s never been a better time to make the most of our breathtaking Canadian backyard!

Cruising in Ontario
Sunset from the Kawartha Voyageur at Merrickville. Photo: Judi Cohen



Canadian Staycation: Sailing the Rideau Canal