Picturesque Westport combines quiet beauty of Rideau Lakes with eclectic village lifestyle to create idyllic rural escape
THE VILLAGE OF WESTPORT is named for the town of Westport in County Mayo, Ireland.
WESTPORT, KNOWN AS ‘The Heart of the Rideau Lakes,’ had a population of about 700 when it was established in 1904. That remains little changed today.
A RAILWAY WAS built to Westport from Brockville in the late 1800s. So many cheese factories were located along the route that it soon became known as the “cheese run.” The line also brought tourists to the village and marked the start of its fame as a resort area. The Brockville & Westport Railway line continued until 1952.
First-timers who drive southwest from Ottawa are in for a big surprise when they reach the height of land known as Foley Mountain that reigns grandly over the Village of Westport. You’ll often see them pull over and stop the car, to better take in the panoramic view that unfolds before them.
The landscape is quite different here, from the previous few miles that take you through Eastern Ontario farm country. When the view opens up to reveal the broad expanse of the Rideau Lakes country spread out below, it can be a breathtaking moment.
The view is spectacular at any time of year, from spring’s soft green dawn, through the verdant summer with liberal splashes of sparkling blue water, to autumn’s brilliant colours and then into winter, when a soft snowfall beckons you to enjoy a round of skiing or snowshoeing. At any time of year, you’ll want to take a breather in downtown Westport and sample the shops, boutiques, cafés and restaurants.
The Rideau Lakes are among the most precious gems of eastern Ontario. They are strung out like precious pearls on a string and, for decades, have attracted seasonal visitors wanting a friendly place to escape the summer heat of the big cities.
Sitting at the western tip of Upper Rideau Lake about an hour’s drive from Ottawa to the northeast and Kingston to the south, Westport is right in the middle of the Rideau Canal system, a 202-kilometre-long link between Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River that was opened for navigation in 1832. Today, there are 47 locks along its length.
World heritage canal
The canal, which was built for strategic military purposes, later evolved into an important commercial link and, more recently, has evolved into a significant recreational draw. With the designation of the canal as a UNESCO world heritage site, the prospects for tourism — and related permanent growth — have increased.
Situated in the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville, Westport is one of the smallest municipalities in Ontario, but is the largest village on the Rideau Lakes, with unique shops and quaint restaurants. Its compact downtown borders the Westport Mill Pond and Upper Rideau Lake.
Perhaps surprisingly, Westport has maintained its separate status from the surrounding Township of Rideau Lakes, which has a population of 10,600. Despite its small population, Westport boasts its own municipal water system, fed by two publicly owned wells, and sanitary and storm sewer system. It has a library, fire department, which it shares with the township, and is 40 minutes from Perth Hospital. It has its own medical clinic and dental practice.
There is a public wharf on an artificial island with dock space for up to 30 vessels, including visitors. The harbour, which is marked by a big Welcome Westport sign that’s quickly visible to arriving boaters, has a picnic area, barbecues, sewage pumpout facilities and washrooms with showers. The municipal dock is open from May until mid-October.
The downtown is easily reached over a footbridge from the dock. Shop for supplies and boating equipment in the downtown. Within minutes of the village are dozens of other lakes suitable for flat-water canoeing, boating and fishing.
Beware: while it might look inviting, fishing is not permitted in the mill pond. But Westport and the surrounding Rideau Lakes region are a fisherman’s paradise. The province of Ontario established a series of fish-rearing ponds here in 1957, which are still used to stock the area waters. Yellow perch, smallmouth bass, pickerel and northern pike are plentiful.
Westport is at the highest point on the Rideau Canal system, with water flowing north into Big Rideau Lake and on to the Ottawa River, and south into Newboro Lake and continuing to Lake Ontario.
Westport is also in the northern reaches of the UNESCO-recognized Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve, which, like other such reserves around the globe, promotes sustainable usage. Biosphere reserves are often seen as “living laboratories” where integrated management of land, water and biodiversity are tested.
Foley Mountain is Westport’s most prominent feature and it is here, at the highest elevation in the region, where you will find the picturesque lookout at the Foley Mountain Conservation Area. The conservation area houses a variety of wildlife in its 308 hectares of woods, ponds and fields.
Panoramic views from on high
Hikers can walk up to the peak at Spy Rock, a granite ridge that looks out onto Upper Rideau Lake, the village and far beyond. The conservation area offers several scenic lookouts, beaver ponds and picnic spots, and is traversed by the 300-kilometre-long Rideau Trail, which runs from Kingston to Ottawa. A new boardwalk trail allows access to facilities at Foley Mountain by people with all physical abilities.
The area is a fine place for camping and there’s a sandy beach nearby with good swimming. In winter, the area is great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Westport has long been a spot where tourists come to enjoy the out-of-doors, and there are several B&Bs, cottage rentals, a motel and a country inn, as well as tent and trailer parks and camping spots. Besides Westport’s own sandy beach, there is one nearby at Sand Lake.
Other parks and conservation areas can be reached within easy driving distance. Of particular note is Murphy’s Point Provincial Park. The park, toward Perth, is on the historic Rideau Waterway, and you can tour a restored mica mine and trails. The trails are winter-groomed for skiing. You’ll also find the ruins of a sawmill and pioneer homesteads.
The whole area is great for bicycling, both on back-country roads and a cycle trail. The Rideau Heritage Route is also a great place for canoeing and boating. You can pick up an itinerary for trips between Kingston and Ottawa, complete with paddling tips, portages, accommodation and features not to be missed along the route.
The National Geographic Society’s Centre for Sustainable Destinations rated the Rideau Canal second best on its 2008 Places Rated Destination Stewardship Survey.
Take in the scenery from the clouds
Another way to see Westport is by air. The Township of Rideau Lakes operates an aerodrome at the west end of Upper Rideau Lake just outside of Westport. It’s managed by the Rideau Lakes Flying Club. The last Saturday of May sees the big event of the season, a Breakfast Fly-In, which normally attracts 40 or more aircraft. If golf is your thing, the Westport area has two nine-hole courses.
Westport began its existence as a milling centre. Area lakes offered plenty of power as they made their way through the valley to Rideau Lake.
The first mill was built on Sand Lake in 1828, followed a year later by a sawmill. In 1830, the first retail store was opened at the village, which became known as Manhards Mills, after an early settler and entrepreneur. Then, the Rideau Canal opened in 1832. More mills, a tannery, brickyard and furniture manufacturing followed.
A good way to get to know the village is by visiting during one of the many annual festivals held here. Among them are the Dandelion Gardens Studio Tour over the May 24 weekend, Blues on the Rideau in June, and the MUSICwestport Festival in August. The studio tour features 29 artists who range from painters, sculptors, stained glass makers and weavers to other craftspeople.
The village might be small, but community spirit is strong. An offshoot of the 2004 centennial committee is now responsible for beautification activities, including the planting of trees and flowers around the community, and the erecting of colourful banners welcoming visitors.
Westport also has a farmers’ market showcasing growers, artisans, crafters and bakers each Saturday from May to October.
Housing prices more affordable here
While the population has remained static and there have not been significant growth pressures on the village itself, there are communities within the surrounding township that are experiencing some of those pressures. It remains to be seen whether such a small municipality as Westport can continue to deliver all the modern services its residents expect, if significantly larger numbers of people are drawn to this beautiful little rural village.
With that stable permanent population, though, housing prices have remained lower than in other larger area communities.
If you’re searching for waterfront property around Westport, here are some recent examples: You could buy a two-bedroom, open concept cottage/home south of the village for $189,900. Also recently listed was a three-bedroom, three-bath, fully serviced home near downtown for $309,900.
At the upper end of the price scale, across the lake from the village, was a property ready-made for a family compound — a main all-season home with fireplace and finished lower level, 300 feet of clean, rocky shoreline and five cottages at the water’s edge — was on offer for $849,000.