The Kawartha Voyageur, left, slips along the Trent-Severn Waterway in Central Ontario. Many passengers are veteran cruisers who not only enjoy the food, the entertainment and the fabulous scenery, but the familiar faces who return time and time again. There are also several day-cruising options, from departures in Midland to Orillia to Sarnia and Windsor, to Kingston and Tobermory. (Photo courtesy Ontario Waterway Cruises)

Excitement, luxury of bygone era relived as operators return
to Ontario's waterways with new overnight cruise adventures

News Archive BY GARY MAY
Wealthy tourists have been enjoying the charms of a Great Lakes cruise since the mid-19th century. Charles Dickens crossed Lake Erie in 1842 and wrote in his diary: “She was a fine steamship, four hundred tons burden, named The Constitution, with very few passengers aboard, and had bountiful and handsome accommodation.”  

While inland cruises fell on hard times in the 1960s as travellers opted for sleek, speedy liners that crossed the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, Ontario’s waterways are enjoying a comeback. From a replica steamboat to a luxury, scaled-down cruise liner that is perhaps better described as a yacht, pleasure cruises of two to eight nights are once again on offer along Ontario’s waterfront.  

Chris Conlin, owner of Great Lakes Cruise Company, attributes the rebound in interest to the arrival in the 1990s of a German company that introduced European tourists to the Great Lakes. Today, you can sail down the St. Lawrence between Kingston and Montreal, along the Rideau Canal between Ottawa and Kingston, through the Trent-Severn Waterway and take a grand five-lake tour between Toronto and Thunder Bay.  

Sheila Gribble and her husband, Bill, are familiar with many of the routes. They’re veteran cruisers, having sailed the seven seas, up rivers through Europe, Russia and northern India, and even taken a Yugoslavian-registered freighter across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean Sea.  

These days, because “security hassles are taking some of the fun out of international travel,” Sheila tells, the couple limits their cruises to Canada. They’ve sailed the Trent-Severn Waterway, the Rideau and the St. Lawrence River, as well as up Quebec’s Saguenay River.  

In total, estimates Sheila, they’ve probably logged 100 cruises worldwide. And while they’ve done some of Ontario’s same routes many times, the couple agrees they see and experience new things on each trip.  

“It’s the familiarity, the food, the people, the entertainment we enjoy,” Sheila says. “A cruise for us is sort of the official start of spring.”  

Bill Gribble is 90 this year and Sheila is 84. They are firm believers in the theory that staying active keeps you young. And for them, there’s nothing like a boat cruise with a stop at some new museum or attraction along the way, then a game of shuffleboard back on the ship.  

Sheila is partial to the St. Lawrence River around Lac-des-deux-Montagnes, near Montreal. Bill loves the Rideau Canal for its scenery and its history. Both agree sailing along the shoreline is preferable to cruises that take them beyond the sight of land. Sheila recalls sailing so close to shore one time she could smell the blooming lilacs.  

The Gribbles are true lovers of Ontario’s waterfront communities. They used to own their own boat, have lived on or near the water much of their lives and even today, in their Picton condo, they’re not far from the harbour. They’ll use cruises they’ve already booked for this fall and next spring to get even closer to the water they love.  

Two Canadian companies offer cruises through the Trent-Severn Waterway, the St. Lawrence River and the Rideau Canal: St. Lawrence Cruise Lines of Kingston and Ontario Waterway Cruises in Orillia.  

For two nights starting at $788 or six nights for $2,083, plus tax, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines offers what it describes as “calm-water cruising” through the Thousand Islands between Kingston and Montreal, through the Rideau between Ottawa and Kingston, and as far as Quebec City. The scenery is breathtaking and ever-changing and nightly entertainment is offered. Onboard, there are sports and games, while shore excursions are provided, too.  

Ontario Waterway offers five-day trips through the Trent-Severn and up the Rideau Canal, starting at $1,461 plus tax.  

'You see parts of Ontario you just don't see from the highway'

Jim Robinson and his wife, Eunice, of Chatham, are veteran cruisers. They’ve just completed their ninth, having gone four times each between Peterborough and Kingston and Kingston and Ottawa, and once taken the Trent-Severn trip between Peterborough and Big Chute, near Georgian Bay.  

They keep going back because it’s fun and familiar, says Robinson. “It’s a nice, quiet trip, we’ve made great friends and the food is excellent and just keeps coming.  

“The scenery is terrific. You see parts of Ontario you just don’t see from the highway. It’s a different perspective.”  

Most of the passengers are 65-plus, says Robinson. He appreciates the compact, 100-foot vessel and its cozy feel with just 45 passengers on board. Cruising along the Rideau and the Trent-Severn, “there’s no movement of water. I appreciate that.”  

On-board, passengers have time to chat, play cards and dominoes, catch up on their reading, stay in touch with friends through the Internet and enjoy scrumptious meals and snacks. There are stops along the way to enjoy local shopping, history and other attractions.  

For those in search of a grander tour of Great Lakes Country, Great Lakes Cruise, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is the only tour operator that offers the deluxe, five-lake experience.  

About 100 passengers can come aboard in Toronto and end up eight days later in Duluth and Thunder Bay on Lake Superior’s western shores. The emphasis is on luxurious, all-inclusive travel with a strong educational component. Voyage themes include music, technology, health and wellness, families and photography.  

Most passengers are 60-plus, says Conlin, and few are first-time cruisers. Having been on cruises to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and up the west coast to Alaska, many people, especially from California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, are turning to the Great Lakes for their next adventure. While a lot of passengers hail from Europe, Conlin says so far, few Canadians have been among their numbers.  

That could change with the stronger Canadian dollar, but these opulent Great Lakes cruises are pricey, starting at $5,995 US per person and going up to $12,995. For that, however, you get an eight-day cruise, plus all meals, wine and open bar, parties, one night hotel accommodation at the beginning or end of the trip, shore excursions and transfers to and from the airport, plus taxes and most tips.  

The day-cruising option  

For those who want a taste of cruising at a lower price and without an overnight stay onboard, Ontario has plenty of options on its many lakes and rivers. Here are a few:  

Grand River Dinner Cruises has been serving its famous roast beef meals onboard its dinner cruise boats since 1978. The Luncheon Cruise package is a full-day trip featuring a full-course roast beef lunch, live music show and shopping in an on-board craft shop and bakery. There’s also a Sunset Dinner Cruise and a Private Sunset Dinner Cruise. Grand River cruises is located near Caledonia.  

Lady Muskoka Boat Cruises is located in Bracebridge and operates the 300-passenger Lake Muskoka, offering sightseeing cruises and Captain’s Feast cruises.  

In Toronto, you’ll find the Great Lakes Schooner Company, which operates several boats, including the only authentic 1910 paddle wheel steamship currently sailing the Great Lakes, The Trillium. Dinner, harbour, wedding and corporate getaway cruises are offered.  

Orillia Boat Cruises offers its Island Princess dinner and luncheon cruises of Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe, lasting from an hour to 2¼ hours.  

In Sarnia, the Duc d’Orleans II offers luncheon cruises, as well as charters of the St. Clair River and nearby Lake Huron area, for about 150 people.   

In Windsor, Windsor River Cruises offers dining and sightseeing cruises of the Detroit River, starting in July.  

In Tobermory, the Blue Heron Company offers glass-bottom boat cruises of Flowerpot Island and the Fathom Five National Marine Park.  

Hamilton Harbour Queen Cruises offers sightseeing, dining and theme cruises of Hamilton Harbour.  

Midland Tours offers cruises aboard the Miss Midland from that town’s harbour and through the nearby Thirty Thousand Islands in Georgian Bay.  

Rice Lake Boat Cruises
offers sightseeing and dinner tours of that lake, departing from the Victoria Inn at Gore’s Landing.  

As well, several companies provide cruises of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River, departing from Brockville, Kingston, Rockport and Gananoque.  

And if a charter is your thing, there are several companies that sell overnight luxury accommodation on yachts that will take you to your favourite locales around the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay region. – July 2010